What has happened to the archaeology of Iraq?
Last week I reviewed an extraordinary book for the Times Saturday Books page.The Destruction of the Cultural Heritage in Iraq is a collection of essays about what has happened to the archaeology and museums of Iraq around, and since, the invasion. Where are the treasures of Ur, Babylon etc. now? Answer: many are lost, destroyed, or making a lot of money for antiquities dealers in the west.
The review was, in some ways, a stupid thing to take on. My Pompeii book is to be finished -- bar the would-be elegant conclusion – on Tuesday (sic). But I have recently got very interested in the relationship between archaeology/culture and war. This is partly because of the bombing of Pompeii by the allies in 1943, which left many areas of the site a wreck (though thirsty travellers may be ironically grateful that it cleared the way for the site restaurant).
The book proved even more fascinating than I imagined, and more fascinating than I could squeeze into the 500 words I was given.
I hadn’t for a start properly appreciated the history of the Baghdad Museum, which had been founded by Gertrude Bell, as part of the British Mandate in the 1920s. Indeed it seems to have been Bell who started the practice of keeping some of the antiquities in Iraq, rather than sending them round the Museums of the Great Powers.
That said, given what has happened, one feels quite grateful – as I’m sure I’ve said before – that some of the Iraqi treasures were in the safe housing of the British Museum.
More than the history, the essays offered a marvellous galaxy of different perspectives on what had gone on in the battle for/looting of the Baghdad Museum in 2003. The Director – an able man called Donny George, and a pretty able self-publicist too, by all accounts – had obviously done a heroic job in trying to save what he could of the collection from the assorted and dangerous looters. A tragic amount of material was destroyed; but more than anyone expected actually came back.
But, as I said in the review, there was a slight tendency for the other archaeologists in the volume to be a bit starry eyed about what might be done to protect cultural heritage in the middle of a combat zone. One of the ex-military men writing, Matthew Bogdanos, was nicely hard-headed over the Museum itself. He did actually point out, unlike most of the archaeologists that it had not been open to the public since 1991, except to celebrate Saddam’s birthday in 2000. So maybe that explains why, it seemed for some Iraqis, fair game.
He also went through some of the reasons why the Coalition forces might have had trouble defending the Museum, even if they had had the will. “. . You cannot just hail a tank the way you hail a taxi. Unless you are requesting a suicide mission, you need a tank platoon. What those who have never been in combat do not understand is that a stationary tank is a death trap . . . one well placed round from an anti-tank weapon and you would need to use dog-tags to identify the charred remains of the four men inside.”
Got it boffins?
I was sad to see from the preface that one of my friends had refused to contribute to the volume, because he didn’t want to share covers with any soldiers. It seems to me that some sharing of that kind is exactly what we need.
Boffins need to know a bit more about tank-warfare. Soldiers need to know a good bit more about archaeology and why it's important. Indeed, very quietly that’s exactly what some people in the USA are piloting. Brian Rose and the Archaeological Institute of America have been getting to GIs and explaining to them the importance of the land of Iraq for the whole of world culture.
It is at least a good try.