Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
From the President: Iraq Alert! Volume 56 Number 3, May/June 2003
by Jane C. Waldbaum

An extraordinary heritage is now at risk

Archaeologists and the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) are actively involved in one of the most important issues of the day--the protection of the archaeological and cultural heritage of Iraq (ancient Mesopotamia) during and after a possible war. A few months ago my predecessor, Nancy Wilkie, wrote on this page about the AIA resolution passed in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War ("In the Shadow of War," January/February 2003). As this magazine went to press, the AIA's Executive Committee unanimously endorsed the following Open Declaration on Cultural Heritage at Risk in Iraq:

The extraordinary significance of the monuments, museums, and archaeological sites of Iraq (ancient Mesopotamia) imposes an obligation on all peoples and governments to protect them. In any military conflict that heritage is put at risk, and it appears now to be in grave danger.

Should war take place, we call upon all governments to respect the terms of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its First Protocol. We urge all governments, institutions, and individuals in a position to act to recognize and uphold the validity of Iraq's existing, strong Antiquities Law. To secure the long-term safety of the archaeological and cultural heritage of Iraq of all historical periods and to stop the illicit digging and smuggling of antiquities that have occurred during the period of the Embargo and that may follow a period of conflict, the staff of the Department of Antiquities must be returned to pre-Embargo numbers in academic and technical fields. Most important, the number of guards for individual sites, monuments, and museums must be returned to pre-Embargo strength.

As represented by the signatories of this letter, the international scholarly community is prepared, at the conclusion of the present crisis, to support the Iraqi Department of Antiquities in strengthening and retraining its staff, in assessing the conservation needs of artifacts and buildings, and in refitting laboratories. If asked, international archaeologists are also willing to play a role in any needed assessment of damage done by illicit digging or warfare, in salvage operations directed by the Department of Antiquities, and in repatriating stolen antiquities.

The signatories of this letter urge all governments to recognize that cultural heritage is inevitably damaged by warfare, that irreparable losses both to local communities and to all humanity are caused by the destruction of cultural sites, monuments, and works of art, and that it is our common duty to take all possible steps to protect them.

The Declaration, published in the journal Science on March 21, 2003, mobilizes the international archaeological community and has been signed by some of the most prestigious institutions and scholars specializing in Mesopotamian archaeology. A particular concern the Declaration addresses is the necessity, in the rebuilding phase following any armed conflict, of enforcing Iraq's current strong antiquities law. "Iraq has an excellent antiquities law and an administrative structure that only needs to be brought back to full strength to be effective," says Malcolm Bell, Vice President for Professional Responsibilities of the AIA. "It is important for everyone to endorse the existing antiquities administration, which in the past provided the necessary protection and can do so again." Ancient Mesopotamia gave the world many of the hallmarks of civilization including some of the first cities, writing, monumental art and architecture, and organized religion. Iraq's cultural heritage is of value to all of us, and the Open Declaration is a call for the world's governments to protect and preserve it.

For more information on efforts to preserve Iraq's cultural heritage and a list of signatories to the declaration, visit the AIA's website. See "Protecting Iraq's Ancient Heritage" for more on the looting of Iraqi sites following the Gulf War.

previousPresident's Letter
M/A 2003
President's Letter
J/A 2003

Jane C. Waldbaum is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America