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This past March saw two events, one sad, the other celebratory, that marked the end of an era that had begun in 2003 with the war in Iraq and the subsequent looting of the National Museum in Baghdad. I am saddened to write of the death of Donny George, at the age of 60, on March 11. George was director of research for Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage at the time of the invasion. In the chaos of war he tried valiantly to protect the priceless holdings of the museum from looters. Despite his efforts, thousands of archaeological objects, made by the extraordinary ancient cultures that had occupied Iraq over countless millennia, disappeared. The story, however, didn’t end there. And this is what we must celebrate. Ultimately, nearly half of the looted treasures were returned.

In the war’s aftermath George oversaw a rebuilding of the museum, launched a conservation program, and improved security for Iraq’s many archaeological sites. George left Iraq in 2006 and made a new life with his family in the U.S. It is thanks to his vision and energy that archaeology has a future in Iraq. We must also celebrate a significant friendship in George’s life, as we remember him. In the week before his death, George was able to be present for the military retirement of the U.S. soldier who partnered with him in the recovery of Baghdad’s looted museum objects, Colonel Matthew Bogdanos. A highly decorated Marine, Bogdanos served multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to helping George secure thousands of museum artifacts after the war, he also headed the U.S. investigation into the looting. As with George, this work was but one aspect of a career rich in its contributions to cultural preservation. His 2005 book, Thieves of Baghdad, makes a persuasive case for the link between trafficking in antiquities and terrorist financing and thus has implications that transcend Iraq.

In one sense, the death of George and retirement of Bogdanos close an historical episode that transformed the terms of debate about looting and cultural heritage. When Egypt descended into civil war this past January, the AIA and countless cultural heritage groups around the world immediately expressed public concern for the country’s archaeological patrimony, condemned the looting, and advocated both for protections in Egypt and for scrutiny of imports of potentially looted material into other countries.

War and civil unrest will long be with us, but the lessons of Iraq will reduce the loss of cultural patrimony. Two brave and principled men, Donny George and Matthew Bogdanos, have permanently altered our response to archaeology under military threat. All persons who care about the survival of cultural heritage owe a profound debt to this pair—in George’s poignant characterization, two “brothers of different mothers.”

Elizabeth Bartman is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.

« President's Letter M/J 2011

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