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All Eyes on Iraq Volume 58 Number 6, November/December 2005
by Jack Cheng

After the looting of museums in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities in the wake of the U.S. invasion, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld trivialized the importance of the thousands of artifacts that had been lost. "Oh my goodness," he said sarcastically, "is it possible that there were that many vases in the entire country?" He might as well have said, "Who cares?"

In a batch of new books, a number of authors who care deeply about the fate of Iraq's archaeological heritage portray Operation Iraqi Freedom as a setback to the scholarship of human history. From first-person accounts to more specialized analysis, these titles offer a variety of avenues to better understand the history of the region and war's impact on it.

The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad

Perhaps the most activist of the batch is the lavishly illustrated The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad (New York: Abrams, 2005; $35). Virtually all of the proceeds are being donated to the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. Despite the title, very little of the content has to do with the looting itself. Instead, editors Milbry Polk and Angela M.H. Schuster, a former ARCHAEOLOGY editor, tapped more than a dozen scholars to write archaeological overviews or accounts of the museum and its collections. Most illuminating to the ongoing recovery efforts are essays by three Iraqi archaeologists, Lamia Al-Gailani Werr, Selma Al-Radi, and Zainab Bahrani, who have taken leave from teaching posts in America to help reorganize the museum in Baghdad and protect sites threatened by looting--and by coalition military construction projects. (Constant vibrations from heavy vehicles destabilize ancient structures such as those at Babylon.) As frustrating as these tales are, the photographs can be even more heartbreaking. An aerial image of Umma by Micah Garen and Marie-Hélène Carleton (see review below), showing the Sumerian site riddled with looters' holes, speaks to archaeological loss as much as do dozens of pages of text.

Iraq Beyond the Headlines

Intended for readers with little prior knowledge of the region, Iraq Beyond the Headlines (London: World Scientific Publishing Company, 2005; $38) is informative without getting bogged down in details (each major period is characterized, but not every ruler is listed). Writing in academic but serviceable prose, Yale scholars Benjamin Foster and Karen Polinger Foster offer Iraq's history from the Neolithic period to the present, and archaeology in Iraq, respectively. Patty Gerstenblith, a cultural property law specialist, contributes an essay that answers most questions about how the antiquities market drives looting and what legal recourses have been established internationally.

Reclaiming a Plundered Past

In Reclaiming a Plundered Past (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006; $45), his lively political history of Iraqi archaeology, Magnus Bernhardsson argues that both colonial ambition and national identities from the nineteenth century to Saddam's reign were explicitly tied to the region's pre-Islamic heritage. While the book duly notes the significance of archaeologists' finds, the archaeologists themselves are the subject. For instance, Gertrude Bell, founder of the National Museum and Iraq's first director of antiquities, created a common history for a number of autonomous groups cobbled together into one nation by foreign powers. This is an insightful and amusing volume.

American Hostage

ARCHAEOLOGY contributor Micah Garen's American Hostage (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005; $25), a memoir written with his life and documentary partner Marie-Hélène Carleton, reminds us that our knowledge of archaeological looting can come from journalists risking their lives to get the story out. Last year, while finishing a documentary on the plundering of archaeological sites in southern Iraq ("War Within the War," July/August 2004), Garen and his translator were taken hostage. The story of his captivity, and Carleton's efforts to coordinate a network of family, friends, and colleagues to obtain his release, is as thrilling and romantic as any novel. The book also offers a very human perspective on ordinary Iraqis. Garen even expresses some sympathy for his kidnappers--one actually asks him for help to immigrate to the United States.

For further resources, Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad has a fine bibliography organized by historical eras, archaeologists' memoirs, catalogs of the Iraq Museum, and cultural property issues. Francis Deblauwe maintains the most comprehensive coverage of archaeological heritage issues on the Web at And the July 2005 issue of ARCHAEOLOGY's sister publication, the scholarly journal American Journal of Archaeology, features an article by Matthew Bogdanos, the Marine Corps colonel and New York assistant district attorney, about his team's investigation of the Iraq Museum looting. ("Building Trust in Iraq," Conversations, January/February, 2004.) The full text is online at

Together, these materials reinforce what's at stake in this war: lives, history, and culture.

Jack Cheng is a Near East scholar and writer.

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© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America