BISI was founded as the British School of Archaeology in Iraq (BSAI) in 1932, in memory of the renowned explorer and diplomat, Gertrude Lowthian Bell. The School’s excavations at sites such as Nimrud, Abu Salabikh and Samarra gave unprecedented insights into diverse periods of Iraq’s past.
The BSAI came into existence thanks to a legacy left by Gertrude Bell upon her death in 1926. In her will she made provision of £6,000 to the Trustees of the British Museum for the creation of a British School of Archaeology in Iraq. Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was an explorer and archaeologist of the Near East, and a powerful official in the British administration in Baghdad after World War I. As Honorary Director of Antiquities in Iraq, she founded the Iraq Museum in 1923.
Sir Max Mallowan was the first Director of the BSAI. In the 1940s and 50s, Sir Max, and his wife, the crime writer Dame Agatha Christie, led excavations at the Assyrian capital of Nimrud. Mallowan’s team brought to light city walls, private residences, administrative buildings, cuneiform tablets and thousands of ivories.
During its active decades in Iraq the School carried out a wealth of fieldwork and research – from the prehistoric settlements at Umm Dabaghiyah and Arpachiyah to the capital of the Abbasid caliphs at Samarra. Many of the findings from these excavations are documented in the School’s annual journal IRAQ.
From the late 1940s, the BSAI maintained premises and a library in Baghdad. During the Gulf War, the School was forced to close. It transferred its library and other effects to the French and British Embassies for storage.
From time to time the Institute awards the Gertrude Bell Memorial Gold medal to individuals for outstanding services to Mesopotamian archaeology. So far the medal has been awarded to:
In 2007, the School was renamed The British Institute for the Study of Iraq (Gertrude Bell Memorial) — BISI — and broadened its academic coverage. Today we support the study of Iraq, from prehistoric times to the present, including social sciences research on modern and contemporary Iraq.
Throughout our history, collaborating with Iraqis on the interpretation of their history, society and culture has been a vital part of what we do. BISI launched its Visiting Iraqi Scholarship programme in 2005, in order to offer Iraqi academics and heritage professionals with the opportunity to undertake short periods of research at UK partner institutions (universities, museums and libraries). Since then, we have awarded over 30 scholarships.
BISI receives generous in-kind support from the British Academy as one of the British International Research Institutions. The British Academy provides us with office facilities and venue space for public meetings and events.