Book of the week: The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq

Eleanor Robson on an admirable study of Iraq.

July 31, 2008

Five years on from the looting of the Iraq Museum in April 2003, the apparently endless destruction of that nation's extraordinary cultural heritage is slowing down. Using a dated sequence of satellite images of the country's southern desert, Elizabeth Stone reports in this year's March issue of Antiquity that the plunder of archaeological sites has mostly stopped. The haemorrhaging of artworks and antiquities across Iraq's long and porous borders is occasionally reversed by the high-profile recovery and return of artefacts.

It is thus an opportune moment to reflect on the past five years and to ask what, if anything, can be learnt for cultural heritage management in future conflicts. This anthology presents some 30 accounts by Iraqi, European and American experts who have been involved in Iraq over the past five years or more. Collectively, they raise deep and important questions whose pertinence extends far beyond the immediate tragedy. What counts as cultural heritage? What forms does destruction take, and how can it be measured and ameliorated? What are cultural heritage professionals' ethical obligations and responsibilities in times of war and political instability? How should risk to life be measured against risk to heritage - if, indeed, they are at all commensurable?

Most fundamentally, what is meant by that ugly phrase cultural heritage? Editors Peter Stone and Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly define it in their introduction as the objects, buildings, texts and landscapes - the creations of past inhabitants of the region - that help shape a sense of self and local identity. (Others have called this cultural property or tangible cultural heritage. For pragmatic reasons, the editors exclude intangible heritage such as language, music, dance and ritual.) Most obviously, in Iraq's case we think of museum objects and items looted from archaeological sites (Jean-Louis Huot, Lamia Al-Gailani Werr and Farchakh Bajjaly, chapters 2, 3 and 12). But, as Usam Ghaidan points out in chapter 9, cultural heritage also comprises the built environment (including unexcavated ancient cities destroyed by looters in search of saleable artefacts) and natural landscapes, such as the Kurdish mountains, which foster particular traditions. As archaeologists and anthropologists well understand, decontextualised objects lose much of their meaning; the cultural whole is more than the sum of its parts. Similarly, when displaced or deracinated from culturally meaningful things and places, whether by local regimes or international interventions, people and societies struggle to cohere.

Cultural destruction has taken many forms over recent decades in Iraq, not solely the theft of high-value antiquities. The Baathists drained the southern marshes and undertook incompetent and politically motivated "restoration" of Babylon. The economic devastation of sanctions and Iraqi political neglect irreversibly damaged heritage buildings, archaeological sites and museum objects. Iraqi heritage professionals were deskilled through decades of isolation, underfunding and secret policing, followed by postwar threats, assassinations and flight. Careless if sometimes well-meaning military occupation damaged sites such as Babylon and Ur (Miriam Umran Moussa, Abdulamir Hamdani and Zainab Bahrani, chapters 13, 14 and 16).

Perhaps most insidious is the ubiquitous privileging of Iraq's ancient, biblically related past over its Islamic heritage. As Donny George describes in chapter 10, to a great extent this is rooted in Baathism's emphasis on and close identity with ancient history, which exposed the Iraq Museum to pillaging just like any other perceived bastion of Saddam's tyrannous establishment. And, as Jeff Spur relates in chapter , the Baathist arson of academic libraries and national archives during and after the 2003 war provoked a pitiful level of international attention and assistance.

What are cultural heritage professionals to do in times of crisis, when those in power are deeply ethically compromised? Iraqis such as George under Saddam and Bahrani under the Americans gritted their teeth and worked within the system, feeling that their duty was to their heritage, whoever was in power. Bahrani's angry regret at her choice led her to dismiss the pivotal role she had played in removing occupying troops from Babylon, a turning point in Iraq's postwar cultural development.

Her predecessor and her successor as the Coalition Provisional Authority's cultural adviser to the Iraq Government in postwar Baghdad are both disarmingly honest about the problems of working in the Green Zone. In chapter 13, John Russell focuses on the practicalities of dealing with politicians, mortar attacks and the deaths of close colleagues, while in chapter 15 Rene Teijgeler reflects on his attempts to retain integrity and distance as an "embedded archaeologist".

Outside the immediate conflict zone, Stone and Lukasz Oledzki (chapters 8 and 25) ruminate on the moral dilemmas inherent in liaising with the British and Polish armies. More straightforwardly, other contributors describe the wide-ranging support that various organisations have provided to Iraqi cultural heritage professionals since the war (chapters 19-24).

Much of that support has focused not just on re-equipping institutions but also on retraining individuals while giving them respite from the grind of postwar Iraqi life. For, as Bernadette Buckley argues so passionately in chapter 28, the destruction of heritage consists as much in people's loss of the ability to create and preserve as it does in the damage to things. But the social, economic and political entailments of cultural destruction extend far beyond professional livelihoods.

Neil Brodie, MacGuire Gibson and Matthew Bogdanos (chapters 4, 5 and 11) provide evidence of the ways in which the illegal trade in antiquities fuels looting, and is in turn stimulated and protected by its legal counterpart. The "farming" of archaeological sites for saleable goods has provided a lifeline for starving Iraqis over the past two decades but has also funded the insurgency. Vernon Rapley, Sue Cole and Patty Gerstenblith (chapters 6, 7 and 18) make pessimistic assessments of the abilities of national and international legislation and law enforcement agencies to identify and prosecute black marketeers. On a more constructive note, in chapter 26 Margaret Cox describes how human rights-based forensic archaeology can collect evidence of atrocity crimes in postwar Iraq and elsewhere. Thus there is no moral choice to be made between people and objects: they thrive best together and the neglect of one entails damage to the other.

This intriguing book pays rereading. The non-Anglophone authors' contributions have been polished into elegant prose, but less attention has been paid to other editorial tasks. Astute readers can guess that Di Qar, Dhi Qar and Thi Qar are variant spellings - but how is the non-specialist to know that Uruk and Warka are the same place? The writers on Babylon all use variant spellings of ancient toponyms. Annoying for insiders, it is baffling for most of the intended audience.

An index would have forced the resolution of the inconsistencies and facilitated exploration of the often complex relationships between themes presented from different standpoints (compare George and Bogdanos on the looting of the Iraq Museum). There are also several places where a brief explanation would help to locate events, people or objects in time and space. Despite these minor deficiencies this book is an extraordinary achievement that will stand as the definitive account of the desperate, avoidable cultural tragedy of Iraq for many years to come.

Eleanor Robson is senior lecturer in the department of history and philosophy of science, University of Cambridge, a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and vice-chair of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq.


"I was bored in the holidays so I went and dug holes for the York Archaeological Trust." Not a conventional start to an archaeological career, but Peter Stone is not a conventional archaeologist.

Rather than digging things up, he believes that archaeologists should work to protect sites of cultural heritage, "Archaeology is destruction," he says. "Once you've excavated the site, that's it. You can't go back and find it again."

Currently professor of heritage studies at Newcastle University, he has just stepped down as the chief executive officer of the World Archaeological Congress, an organisation that he helped to create.

He has not shied away from controversial positions, evidenced by his responsibility for Stonehenge at a time of social conflict over the site and more recently his position as special adviser to the UK Ministry of Defence on the identification and protection of Iraq's cultural artefacts. This led to many archaeologists accusing him of failing to condemn the war, a stance he firmly denies, saying: "There is no point in just not talking to people, if you don't talk to people, you don't move forward." The controversy looks set to continue with his next venture, working to help China protect its cultural heritage.

- Sarah Cunnane

The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq

Edited by Peter G. Stone and Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly. Boydell Press. 352pp, £50.00. ISBN 9781843833840. Published 20 March 2008

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