A new Law of Antiquities was approved in Iraq in 1924, as the country was under a British Mandate. Drawn up by Gertrude Bell, it was very generous towards foreign archaeologists, allowing them to receive and export a substantial share of the artefacts uncovered.
It all started to change in 1933, a year after the Kingdom of Iraq was granted independence. The ‘Arpachiyah Scandal’, involving Agatha Christie’s husband Max Mallowan, was the first step on a long and winding road towards an attempt to decolonise archaeology.
Max Mallowan spent the 1932-1933 season excavating for the British Museum at Arpachiyah, a prehistoric site in northern Iraq. At the end of the season the Director of Antiquities, German archaeologist Julius Jordan, divided up the objects found by various expeditions, as usual. He had carried out nearly all the divisions when the Minister of Education suddenly informed him excavators should only receive duplicates – objects the museum already possessed.
These new instructions meant that the excavators couldn’t actually get anything, ‘for the objects discovered by excavation in ‘Iraq were not produced in an age of mass production by machinery and cannot be duplicated’ (FO 624/1).
Jordan thought it was a mistake, and ignored the instructions. As Mallowan was about to leave, he was told the export permit needed to bring the artefacts back to the UK had been denied (FO 371/16923). The Minister asked Jordan a very direct question: ‘did you or did you not make the division in accordance with the Minister’s instructions?’ If not, it had to be done again.
Humphrys, the ambassador in Baghdad, reported to the Foreign Office:
‘faced with this categorical demand, Dr Jordan decided to adopt Fabian tactics, trusting that time would come to his aid and that the Minister would disappear or change his mind’ (FO 624/1).