Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Special Report: The Specter of War Volume 56 Number 3, May/June 2003
by Joanne Farchakh
Editor's note: The following Special Report was written just before the war's outbreak.

Protecting Iraq's museum collections and archaeological sites in the event of an invasion.


The grand reliefs from the Assyrian palaces of Nimrud and Khorsabad--the pride of the Baghdad Museum--are housed in an exhibition hall across the street from the Ministry of Communication and a mere 300 feet from a television and radio station. These buildings, as experience has shown, are the first targets for air strikes, and Iraqi cultural officials fear that the reliefs, weighing several tons each, will be knocked off their pedestals in the event of a strike. "We do not have the means to prevent such falls," admits museum director Nawala Mettwali, "but we can deaden the shock by covering the floor of the museum with sand and by encasing the masterpieces in sandbags." Across the Iraqi capital, authorities have painted "UNESCO" on museum rooftops to remind pilots that they are cultural buildings--not prime military targets--and the staff of the Baghdad Museum has been trained to empty its thirty-two rooms in less than twenty-four hours and move the collections to secret locations.

Across Iraq, archaeologists and cultural officials have spent the past five months preparing sites, museum collections, and themselves for war. "My work is to protect the past. [When war arrives], I will not be in my house but in my office," vows a smiling Hana Abdel Khalek, director of archaeological excavations in Iraq. Her colleagues voice similar sentiments; "I've already made my bed at the Baghdad Museum," is a common refrain. Are the archaeologists being used as human shields? They say they are not, and they have reached the decision by their own free will. This is their way of defending their country, they insist.

Along with preparing for the possible destruction of the country's museums, Iraqi archaeologists are bracing for a wave of postwar looting (see "Protecting Iraq's Ancient Heritage"). "In case of an American offensive, the looting of sites will be infinitely more aggressive than in 1991," predicts Donny George, research director for the National Organization of Iraqi Antiquities (NOIA). "Looters have had the time to organize their traffic and create an international clientele. They are powerful and armed." "The war is a great opportunity for plundering to return on a grand scale," agrees NOIA director Khalil Jaber. "But we are prepared. Our guardians, the chiefs of the tribes and the leaders of the Ba'ath party in all the mouhafazat [provinces], have received their orders to combat looting. In 1991, we had had little time to prepare. Today, the guards on all the major sites are armed."

It's not just individual collectors that the Iraqis claim to be concerned about. "The Americans want not only our oil but also our history. In order to restock their museums, they have need of new masterpieces," explains one high-ranking government official, sidestepping the Iraqi plunder of the Kuwaiti National Museum in 1991. "Their universities have always carried a particular interest in the civilizations of Mesopotamia," he adds. This assertion could be quickly dismissed as paranoid if not for statements made by members of the New York-based American Council for Cultural Policy (ACCP), an organization of antiquities collectors and museum curators who have met with U.S. State and Defense department officials to discuss heritage preservation in Iraq and to offer their assistance in postwar planning. ACCP treasurer William Pearlstein, a lawyer representing the National Association of Dealers in Ancient, Oriental, and Primitive Art, recently told Science magazine that the ACCP views Iraq's current antiquity laws as "retentionist." Furthermore, the council supports "a sensible post-Saddam cultural administration" that would allow for "some objects [to be] certified for export."

Others feel that the U.S. should have no role in modifying Iraq's postwar antiquity laws. "Iraq's archaeological heritage belongs to the people of Iraq, and it is for them to determine its disposition," says Patty Gerstenblith, an art lawyer and member of the Archaeological Institute of America. "It is not for the U.S. government--whether or not under the influence of pressure from American dealers, collectors, and their lawyers--to change the Iraqi antiquities laws and thereby to facilitate the sale of Iraqi antiquities on the art market in the West."

While Iraq has suffered serious setbacks since the 1991 Gulf War and subsequent sanctions, archaeology has managed to persevere, thanks in good part to archaeology aficionado Saddam Hussein. Archaeologists' salaries have risen to $18 a month, from $4 in the early 1990s, and bonuses are distributed every three months. New cars and computers have been purchased; and in an attempt to combat looting, the government appraises the sale price for objects unearthed by archaeologists and gives the money to the excavation team. The number of students studying archaeology in the universities has also increased. "Certainly, this young generation is full of good intentions and is ready to take the reins, but we are behind the rest of the world," says Jaber. "We are not able to exchange books and journals with most archaeological institutions outside the country. In order to be up to date on discoveries and research, we depend on European colleagues who bring us books in their luggage." Still, the archaeological community has managed to publish a new issue of Sumer, the Iraqi antiquities review. "This will be the fiftieth volume," says George proudly. "And although we are behind by three volumes, we hope to catch up this year by publishing two more volumes."

For the men and women who have dedicated their lives to history, the current crisis is viewed in a larger context. "The Sumerians, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians are our ancestors," says George. "They won some battles and lost others. These years of misfortune and deprivation will not last an eternity. History does not stop."

Joanne Farchakh is a Beruit-based archaeologist and journalist who visited Baghdad in December.

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America