© Essam al-Sudani/AFPThe walls of Uruk, east of Samawa, were first built 4,700 years ago by the Sumerian King Gilgamesh. More than 40,000 archaeological sites are still untapped.
The Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities on Monday (February 18th) announced it has authorised six foreign teams to start archaeological excavations at a number of ancient sites.

"As part of its work programme for the current year, the ministry has reached agreements with six archaeological teams from Italy, the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic," Hakim al-Shammary, director of the tourism minister's media office, told Mawtani.

The teams will begin excavations at a number of sites, particularly in the south, he said.

"Among the sites to be excavated are ancient hills such as Tal Abu Tuwaira in the city of al-Nasiriya, Tal al-Baqarat in al-Kut and Tal Abu Shathar in Maysan province, as well as other sites in al-Dalmaj marshes," he said.

Iraqi archaeologists and excavators will work alongside these teams to acquire additional skills, using advanced equipment to salvage relics and identify historical periods, and learning how to preserve the pieces, al-Shammary said.

"The return of foreign archaeology teams to the country, as a result of the stable security situation, will give great momentum to ministry efforts and plans for the excavation of archaeological treasures," he said.

Geographic surveys indicate that more than 40,000 archaeological sites throughout Iraq have yet to be excavated and studied, al-Shammary said.

The ministry hopes to increase the number of foreign excavation teams, not only so they can support officials through excavation, "but also to help us undertake the special projects of maintaining and rehabilitating archaeological and heritage sites, with their expertise and advanced technologies", he said.

Working together

New agreements with these teams "come as part of the ministry's opening up to all the countries that in the past worked alongside Iraq to return stolen pieces" and helped safeguard the country's archaeological treasures and maintain and develop its museums, said Abbas al-Quraishi, director of the ministry's artefact recovery department.

"Italy, the United States and the United Kingdom were among the first countries to send archaeological teams to Iraq, and helped enrol many Iraqi excavators and archaeologists in training courses to develop their skills," he told Mawtani.

"We look forward to increasing their presence on our various archaeological projects," he said.

Al-Quraishi said local excavation teams today "have considerable skills in the search and extraction of archaeological pieces, and were able in the past to uncover numerous relics at various sites."

One of their most important discoveries involve finding the oldest church in Iraq, whose construction dates to about 120 years before the appearance of Islam, at al-Uqaiser archaeological site in Karbala province, he said.

Meanwhile, Hussein al-Sharifi, a member of parliament's tourism and archaeology committee, told Mawtani it is important to give Iraqi archaeologists the opportunity to take part in exploration and maintenance courses outside the country.

"Local archaeological capacities, particularly those in the field of excavation, are considered good," but offering Iraqis the opportunity to train on world-class equipment and devices would be advantageous, he said.