The world’s oldest bridge to be preserved by the British Museum’s Iraq Scheme
The world’s oldest bridge is to be saved for future generations thanks to a pioneering project as part of the British Museum’s Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme. The bridge at Tello, in the south of Iraq, was built in the third millennium BC and will be preserved by British Museum archaeologists and Iraqi heritage professionals who are being trained to protect ancient sites that have suffered damage at the hands of Daesh (or the so-called Islamic State). Working with the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, it is hoped that restoring the 4,000-year-old bridge will be a potent symbol of a nation emerging from decades of war and could one day lead to the site welcoming tourists from around the globe to learn about Iraq’s rich heritage.
Sebastien Rey, Lead Archaeologist, Iraq Scheme says: “This is a hugely important project to ensure the longterm sustainability of the world’s oldest bridge, which is an incredibly clever piece of ancient engineering on a grand scale. The full conservation programme will not only provide access to the site for the local community and tourists, but it is hoped that it could yield unprecedented finds that may lead to a new cultural centre of interest in the region – one of the poorest provinces of Iraq. It is also an important emblem of Iraq’s heritage, and restoring the bridge is a symbol of a brighter future for the Iraqi people.”
Built for the ancient Sumerian city of Girsu, the bridge was only rediscovered in 1929. Described at the time as an ‘enigmatic construction’, it has been variously interpreted as a temple, dam, and water regulator. Recent studies using 1930s photographs as well as recently declassified satellite imagery from the 1960s, alongside new research at the site, have led to the confirmation that it was a bridge over an ancient waterway and it is, to date, the earliest-known bridge in the world.
The next group of Iraq Scheme participants that will carry out this vital work are eight female heritage professionals from the Mosul region. They have been trained at the British Museum in all aspects of archaeological fieldwork and emergency archaeology.
Aerial view of the bridge and the city of Girsu in the background Excavators at the site in Kurdistan