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Insider: Archaeology at War Volume 60 Number 3, May/June 2007
by Kristin M. Romey

What is the role of preservation in times of conflict?

Early last November, the Institute of Archaeology at University College London (UCL) held a three-day conference called "Archaeology in Conflict." The mission of the weekend, according to the conference announcement, was ambitious: to attempt to contextualize heritage management, social theory, sustainable development, and poverty relief within the discipline of archaeology. The array of talks ran from case studies of specific sites in the West Bank and Beirut, to the problem of looting, to "diachronic comparative approaches" to heritage, to the traditional paeans for the preservation of global heritage for future generations. Images of shattered buildings and ancient landscapes pockmarked by illegal digging--photos seen so often in these circles--still have not lost their original sting, and evoked sharp draws of breath and sad "tsks" from the crowd when projected on the screen.

(Ken Feisel)

Perhaps the biggest draw for the audience, myself included, was the attendance of Donny George, former director-general of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities. A self-assured George gave a brief sketch of the current state of the Iraqi National Museum and a profile of those who continue to loot the country, while avoiding any mention of the Coalition or the current Iraqi government's role in preserving the country's heritage.

Many pundits--and we're not talking just archaeologists here--have characterized the looting and destruction of the National Museum in Baghdad and the National Library and Archives in April 2003 as the "greatest cultural disaster" of the last half-century or even the millennium. But when do the lines between cultural disasters and humanitarian ones begin to blur? You can't have magnificent monuments if you don't have the people and infrastructure to build them. But the attitude in that London auditorium seemed to be that archaeological and historical monuments and objects are a non-renewable resource, while the Iraqi people are a renewable one, as are the soldiers on the ground.

George told of a notorious Italian archaeologist recently in the news, and how he had gone off to inspect a site against the advice of Iraqi authorities without Iraqi guards and with only a carabiniere, an Italian military policeman, as an escort. Arriving at the site, surprised looters fired upon the men, killing the carabiniere. The archaeologist was not punished. The ethics of putting soldiers in this position were never raised.

But, at a conference titled "Archaeology in Conflict," they should have been. When is it worth risking a life for an archaeological site? Does it depend on the site? Does it depend on whose life it is? And on that last day of the conference--Armistice Day--I never turned to the Mesopotamian archaeologist next to me to ask why he called René Teijgeler's musings on humanitarian work "a load of bullshit." As a journalist, I regret not having done so. As an archaeologist, I was afraid to.

Kristin M. Romey is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America