As troops struggle to restore order to Iraq, the country's future and its past hang in the balance. Adrian Mourby reports on fears for Iraq's unique cultural heritage
From his home in Cambridge, Nicholas Postgate is watching the news from Baghdad with mounting concern. Until last summer, this distinguished archaeologist was a frequent visitor to the city. He knows the area around Iraq's much-targeted television station particularly well, for just across the road is the National Museum. "That is where I was working, and it is in extreme danger because of its proximity to the broadcasting centre," he says.
Postgate, professor of Assyriology at Cambridge University, has just deciphered and published the text of a unique set of cuneiform tablets dug up and archived in Iraq. The project began in 1968, though progress in the past decade had been hindered by the difficulty obtaining visas to view the material. "Fortunately, I completed everything in August, by which time everyone knew that war was coming," Postgate says. "As I left, I remember thinking there was no sign of things being packed up out of harm's way - which was done in 1990. This concerned me as packing in haste and storage in unsuitable places is no good for this kind of material." Until last weekend, Postgate's main concern had been that no amount of conscientious storage could safeguard these tablets from a direct hit, but now reports from Baghdad have revealed that the National Museum's priceless collection - including the cuneiform tablets - has been ransacked.
The war in Iraq has been a cause of great worry for western archaeologists, who recognise a potential for cultural, as well as political, disaster in the Middle East. Prominent among them has been Nancy Wilkie, president of the Archaeological Institute of America. She has publicly criticised both the US and the UK for failing to ratify the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, commonly known as the Hague Convention.
"We are particularly concerned that the targeting of archaeological sites could destroy important remains of the world's cultural heritage," she says. "We are also concerned that Saddam may have made unexcavated archaeological sites bombing targets by placing military installations on them, and the scientific knowledge that could be gained by their excavation in the future would be lost for ever."
Postgate shares Wilkie's fears, but he is not so sure the Iraqi military would deliberately endanger key archaeological sites because they would be unlikely to consider the US military to be sensitive to such ploys. Rather, he imagines they considered many of them of vital military importance.
"These raised mounds are the only strategic sites in the southern desert, so it is likely that commanders will make use of them. There have been reports of cluster bombs being released near Hilla, the site of ancient Babylon."
Iraq is unusually dense with archaeological interest. According to Lord Renfrew, professor of archaeology at Cambridge: "The land of Sumer is there: that's the cradle of civilisation and writing. You also have Ur, Uruk and more than a dozen other sites that gave impetus to civilisation, although there is not a vast amount to see. There are not many standing monuments that might be damaged." Still, he lists the restored ziggurat at Ur, a medieval spiral tower at Samarrah, the palaces of Nineveh and Nimrud and buildings and sculptures at Hatra near Mosul as being vulnerable.
But bombing is not the only threat to Iraq's antiquities. Harriet Crawford, chair of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, has described two phases of danger - "the attack itself and then the ensuing civil disturbance". She recognises that the coalition forces are trying to avoid cultural targets but, like Wilkie, she suspects that Saddam Hussein has manipulated western scruples. "For instance, he has positioned a military base near Ur. There is a photograph from the first Gulf war of Iraqi fighter planes stationed at the foot of the Ur ziggurat."
Crawford was opposed to the war, but once it began she believed western archaeologists had a duty to make sure the armed forces were as well informed as possible. "The threat to the heritage of Iraq is of importance to us all. So much of western civilisation has its roots in ancient Mesopotamia. During the last war, the Allies were in touch with officials at the British Museum for advice. This time, the US military is speaking to archaeologists on both sides of the Atlantic, including to us."
Britain has long played a key role investigating Iraq's archaeological sites. In the 19th century, diplomats such as Sir Henry Rawlinson and A. H.
Layard were among the first to recognise the importance of what was to be found beneath the country's sands. Gertrude Bell, a distinguished orientalist and civil servant, set up the National Museum in Baghdad during the reign of King Faisal. "She also set up the antiquities service, a government department for the care of antiquities," Crawford says. The British Museum's remarkable collection of Assyrian reliefs is testament to the importance of the UK's work at Nineveh.
Crawford is full of admiration for her Iraqi colleagues: "They have done an enormous amount. The large and extremely active state organisation for antiquities and heritage is doing its best, under appalling conditions, to try to protect sites. Unfortunately, because of sanctions, they are unable to import even the simplest of chemicals to assist in the preservation and repair of antiquities already in their care. They are also doing their best to prevent the selling-off of artefacts."
Looting is a big worry for everyone with a professional interest in Iraq.
Crawford says: "The period of maximum danger comes now, at the end of the conflict, with civil disorder breaking out, the settling of old scores, the looting of museums and the sale of articles on the black market. You can still pick up Iraqi artefacts stolen ten years ago."
Postgate remembers the damage done in 1990. "After the retreat from Kuwait when Baghdad lost control, there was a ransacking of government buildings in the south. This was destruction, sheer wanton destruction, directed at anywhere associated with the regime - and that included museums." Now TV images show wrecked galleries in the National Museum littered with smashed statues and stripped of treasures.
The trade in looted antiquities has been a constant worry for Renfrew. But he is less worried about bombing than he is by the US's failure to ratify the Hague Convention. "Worse still is what I'm hearing in America of suggestions that laws concerning the removal of Iraqi artefacts should be relaxed so things can be bought up. There was serious looting in Afghanistan, which still continues, and I must say I find it monstrous to think that antiquities from Iraq might be bought up by acquisitive American museums."
Earlier this month, a petition was handed in to the United Nations requesting that personnel posted to Iraq be made aware of the ethical and legal consequences of removing antiquities from the country. It had been signed by academics worldwide.
With a view to the future, western archaeologists are already looking forward to returning to Iraq once the fighting is over. "We have a very good idea of the locations of major sites in Iraq," Wilkie says. "But it is the smaller sites - farmsteads, industrial installations such as pottery kilns and so on - that are often overlooked in the initial survey of a landscape. However, our analytical tools are more sophisticated now."
Postgate is also cautiously optimistic about the future of post-Saddam archaeology in Iraq. "It's a bit like the general situation as presented by Tony Blair, justifying what's going on in terms of the long-term good. If as a result of this war there is a less oppressive regime in Baghdad, which improves the economy and which can afford to police archaeological sites - and if Iraqi archaeologists can get the resources they need to resume their work and western, Japanese and Russian archaeologists are allowed back to research - I can see long term that there may be a benefit."