From the issue dated April 17, 2009
A Fragile History, Besieged
A post-mortem examination of the cultural disaster in Iraq
Six years ago this month, the National Museum of Iraq was extensively looted amid the chaos of the U.S. invasion of Baghdad. Among the stolen objects was the Mask of Warka, a 5,100-year-old Sumerian artifact that is believed to be one of the earliest surviving representations of a human face. The mask was found buried on an Iraqi farm five months later — but thousands of other precious objects were destroyed or disappeared into the black market.
“We do not know, and we may never know, a great many lessons about how human civilization first arose, because of this disaster,” says Lawrence Rothfield, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Chicago and a former director of the university’s Cultural Policy Center.
In his new book, The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum (University of Chicago Press), Rothfield examines the sacking of the museum and the “slow-motion disaster” of the looting of archaeological sites across Iraq since 2003.
Rothfield recently spoke with The Chronicle’s David Glenn. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.
Q. Why should the world care about Iraqi antiquities? Doesn’t this issue pale in comparison to the war’s political struggles and tens of thousands of deaths?
I hear that question sometimes: Why should we care? Why should we worry that all of this material is being brought onto the black market? After all, isn’t this making available to the rest of the world the beauty of all these objects that otherwise would not have been available for us to see?
One reason to worry is that this material is being ripped out of its context. The individual intact pieces that fall into the hands of collectors might be beautiful. But most of what we know about the origins of civilization has come from piecing together fragments and reconstructing contexts. The Epic of Gilgamesh was pieced together from fragments that looters today would have crushed underfoot.
Q. Before 2003 the National Museum of Iraq was regarded as one of the best in the region. Despite all of the cruelties and travails of Saddam Hussein’s regime, this institution thrived. Why was that?
Saddam thought of the Mesopotamian past as a propaganda tool — which meant that at least he cared enough about it to impose severe penalties on looters, and to spend the resources needed to support the work of the museum. And even before Saddam came to power, Iraq had some longstanding relationships with European and American archaeological institutions, including the Oriental Institute here at Chicago. So for decades, they had been training archaeologists to produce work that was of very high quality.
Q. Why did the United States do such a bad job of protecting the museum in 2003?
Before the war, nobody except archaeologists was worried about civilians looting the archaeological sites and the museum. And that includes the Iraqi exiles who were advising the State Department’s Future of Iraq Project, which was supposed to develop plans for the postwar period. They set up working groups on all sectors of society — but they forgot about culture.
Q. But would it have made a difference if the Future of Iraq Project had paid attention to culture?
No, it wouldn’t have made any difference at all, given that the military threw all of their plans in the garbage can anyway.
Now, the military itself was very interested in doing its job in terms of protecting cultural sites and museums. But under international law, its job is defined as not destroying or looting cultural sites itself — not as preventing civilians from destroying sites.
So before the war, they reached out to archaeologists, and they did a perfect job of identifying sites to put on a no-strike list. None of those sites was destroyed in active combat operations.
Unfortunately, they ignored warnings from the same archaeologists they were working with that the museums and sites might be looted by Iraqis. The Pentagon should have known about that issue. Nine museums were looted after the 1991 Gulf War. The military did not learn its lesson from that experience.
Q. There were reports last year that the military had asked archaeologists to develop a similar no-strike list for cultural sites in Iran. And some archaeologists have argued that it is unethical to cooperate with that project, because they say an American attack on Iran would be immoral. Have you been part of those debates?
My thought is that requiring the military to spend time and effort to protect cultural sites actually makes the cost of war higher for the military than it would otherwise be. So if you’re interested in doing what you can to discourage the U.S. from going to war, raising the cost of war is one way to do so.
There’s no contradiction between speaking out publicly against the war and making sure that the military protects cultural sites if it does go to war.
Q. Do you believe the American military has learned lessons since 2003?
It’s a mixed picture. The new Army Field Manual includes on its task list the imperative to secure and protect cultural sites and museums. That’s a huge step forward in itself. They’ve also been developing excellent cultural-awareness training programs to sensitize soldiers heading into war zones, working with the Archaeological Institute of America.
But there is also the separate question about what to do going forward in Iraq — and in Afghanistan, where matters are arguably even worse. There is still severe looting in both countries. The British recently returned several tons of Afghan antiquities that had been seized at London airports since 2003, just to give you some sense of the size of the problem.
The looting of the Iraq museum was terrible, but the amount of material lost from the slow looting of Iraq’s archaeological sites dwarfs the amount that was taken from the museum. Estimates are that roughly half a million pieces have been destroyed or taken from the ground since 2003.
Q. If you had half an hour to talk to people at the Pentagon or the State Department, what would you say?
Archaeologists have been asking for years now for the military to share satellite photographs of the Iraqi archaeological sites so that they could count the number of holes and track the rate of looting around the country. They’re still waiting.
I would also urge the Pentagon to form a task force to develop operational plans to inject resources into those areas where it’s possible to make a difference. In some cases that might mean providing cars, weapons, and walkie-talkies to the civilians who are supposed to be protecting sites.
And I would suggest a tax on all sales of antiquities from Iraq and Afghanistan. The proceeds could be used to help finance anti-looting efforts in those countries.
Q. At the end of your book, you wrote that you didn’t expect the Iraq museum to reopen “for years to come.” But in February, after your book went to press, a part of the museum reopened. Were you surprised?
Well, I was dismayed by it, as were [the museum's former director] Donny George and a number of other Iraqi archaeologists. Conditions in Baghdad are still very fragile. And the museum is nowhere near ready to be open to the public, even if the situation weren’t so touchy. The recent reduction in violence is heartening, but it only brings us down to levels that are equivalent to other long-running civil wars.
David Glenn is a senior reporter at The Chronicle.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 55, Issue 32, Page B17