Iraqi Cultural Heritage

In today’s Independent Robert Fisk has a special investigation on Iraqi cultural heritage. It’s an interesting account, though it gives only one side of the argument. I’m not sure what the special investigation was, he seems to be relying in large measure on one Lebanese archaeologist. Here’s an excerpt:

In a long and devastating appraisal to be published in December, Lebanese archaeologist Joanne Farchakh says that armies of looters have not spared “one metre of these Sumerian capitals that have been buried under the sand for thousands of years.

“They systematically destroyed the remains of this civilisation in their tireless search for sellable artefacts: ancient cities, covering an estimated surface area of 20 square kilometres, which – if properly excavated – could have provided extensive new information concerning the development of the human race.

“Humankind is losing its past for a cuneiform tablet or a sculpture or piece of jewellery that the dealer buys and pays for in cash in a country devastated by war. Humankind is losing its history for the pleasure of private collectors living safely in their luxurious houses and ordering specific objects for their collection.”

Ms Farchakh, who helped with the original investigation into stolen treasures from the Baghdad Archaeological Museum in the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, says Iraq may soon end up with no history.

“There are 10,000 archaeological sites in the country. In the Nassariyah area alone, there are about 840 Sumerian sites; they have all been systematically looted. Even when Alexander the Great destroyed a city, he would always build another. But now the robbers are destroying everything because they are going down to bedrock. What’s new is that the looters are becoming more and more organised with, apparently, lots of money.

“Quite apart from this, military operations are damaging these sites forever. There’s been a US base in Ur for five years and the walls are cracking because of the weight of military vehicles. It’s like putting an archaeological site under a continuous earthquake.”

I’m afraid I have a pessimistic view of conflict and cultural property. Conflict always leads to theft and destruction. The activities of the US military in and around some of these archaeological sites is indeed troubling as I’ve written about before. But I have a bit of skepticism about the looting of sites. Is this something that only began after the Invasion in 2003? I’m not sure about the answer to that question. But though the 1954 Hague Convention is mentioned briefly, no mention is made of the efforts of Marine Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, the import restrictions in the US and the UK on Iraqi objects, or any other efforts.

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4 thoughts on “Iraqi Cultural Heritage”

  1. To me, this Fisk piece does provide new insights into the local social fabric and politics of looting and site destruction in Iraq. It is not just about blaming the United States but also chronicling what has happened as the old national scientific institutions were dismantled along with the rest of Saddam’s regime.

  2. I think you’re right there. I’m just wondering if looting took place under Saddam? This culture of looting doesn’t seem like something that just happened overnight. As sad as it is, caring for archaeological sites comes second to earning a living and safety I suppose. It is unfortunate many of these objects will end up in markets in N. America and Europe.

  3. I agree partly with what Don Thieme says – this article provides some new local details – for instance the passage about mud brick factories, and the mention that trained archaeologists were participating in looting (though it doesn’t say where the evidence for this comes from).

    I know it is not “just about blaming the Americans”, but as the competent (sic) authority in the region, they must be held largely responsible, especially for the erosion of Iraq’s institutions.

    I’ve just written a post on this report and about how the looting of Iraq is not the same as imperialist cultural appropriations of the past, but is more akin to fundamentalist iconoclasm, i.e. wilful destruction.


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