A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
At a U.S. Central Command briefing on March 26, 2003, it was stated that Iraqi forces have placed military and communications equipment near the 2,000-year-old Ctesiphon arch located on the banks of the Tigris. This situation, similar to Iraq's deliberate placement of fighter planes near the 4,000-year-old ziggurat at Ur during the 1991 Gulf War, illustrates the threat of destruction plaguing the cradle of civilization.
Iraqi officials reported in 1992 that 4,000 artifacts went missing during the Gulf War. Only 20 had been returned by 1998. Post-war sanctions on Iraq limited the government's financial ability to preserve antiquities, protect sites, and enforce cultural property laws. Conflict in Afghanistan has had similar consequences. After the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the fall of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan in 1992, attacks to control Kabul resulted in the looting of seventy percent of its coin collection. More recently, the Taliban destroyed un-Islamic artifacts at the Kabul Museum, and an impoverished population continues to plunder its culturally rich sites.
Incited by a pattern of post-war archaeological disruption, there is currently an international effort among archaeologists and art dealers alike to mitigate cultural damage in Iraq. Officials at the Baghdad Museum have placed their stone sculptures in sandbags to protect them from 'ground-shaking' bombs. They have also painted "UNESCO" on the roof of their museum to mark its cultural significance and to avoid its being a target of an air strike. The staff is now living in the museum to prevent potential plundering and has been trained to transport artifacts filling thirty-two exhibition rooms to secret locations in just one day.
In the United States, art collectors and dealers including Ashton Hawkins, former counsel to New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, have formed the American Council for Cultural Policy to help defend and preserve Iraq's cultural sites and artifacts. They met with U.S. Defense and State officials in early January to inform them of the thousands of archaeological sites dotting the Iraqi landscape to protect against their unnecessary destruction. However, many have not regarded their efforts as solely philanthropic. Art lawyer and AIA member Patty Gerstenblith remarks that "one has the strong sense that this group is using this discussion as a pretext for their ultimate goal: to change Iraq's treatment of archaeological objects." Indeed, the Council seeks to revamp the Cultural Property Implementation Act so that the U.S. cannot be as easily blocked from importing foreign antiquities. Additionally, Hawkins has recommended that the Cairo Museum increase its budget by providing incentive to its financial donors, such as rewarding each of its patrons with 50 Egyptian artifacts. These suggestions have led archaeologists to view the Council's actions as an attempt to shake foreign nations' stringent regulations on ownership and export of artifacts. AIA president Jane C. Waldbaum has declared the Institute's position on the matter and rallies for nations to support Iraq's current laws (see "From the President: Iraq Alert!").
In regard to the current situation in Iraq, government officials have mentioned their use of smart bombs and precision weapons to limit cultural damage. However, after only eight-days of fighting in Iraq, UNESCO commented today that historic sites have already been affected. A television broadcast showed live footage of Baghdad's Al-Zohour Palace--home to many works of art--being bombed. It has also been rumored that the National Museum of Baghdad was accidentally hit in an attack. UNESCO staunchly urges the U.S. to respect Iraq's heritage.--MARISA MACARI