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Scholars Worry About Damage to Iraqi Archaeological Sites - 2003-03-24


Scholars are worried that the Iraq war will further damage the country's vast archaeological treasures. Much of this cultural heritage has been looted since the 1991 Gulf War. In an effort to avoid further ravages, academics have asked U.S. military leaders to avoid targeting sites of archaeological value.

Iraq is the ancient land of Mesopotamia, called the cradle of civilization. University of Chicago archaeologist McGuire Gibson says it is the region of the first settled farming and cities, the earliest writing, and the first monumental architecture.

"Traditionally there are nine or 10 criteria that people have used to indicate civilization," he said. "Mesopotamia had them all and had them earlier than anyplace else."

Nearly 10,000 years of Mesopotamian history is stored in countless thousands of locations around Iraq, a large proportion of which have not been documented.

"The entire country is an archaeological site," according to Mr. Gibson.

Scholars estimate that Iraq has hundreds of thousands of locations of archeological interest. Mr. Gibson and others recently presented U.S. military officials with a list of more than 4,000 of the most important ones they want bombs and artillery to avoid.

The Defense Department says it will comply, but points out the sites could become targets if Iraqi leaders place weapons at them. Some military analysts predict Saddam Hussein might do that as a way of shielding the arms, understanding the cultural sensitivity of these locations.

The record of the 1991 Gulf War offers hope. Damage to historic places was relatively light because allied bombers avoided the most important monuments. But archaeologist John Malcolm Russell of the Massachusetts College of Art says the real problems began after the shooting stopped.

"In the ensuing period of economic hardship of government contraction in Iraq, there was a massive wave of looting of archaeological sites," he said. "That was by far the most destructive aspect of the gulf crisis in the '90s."

Art historians say thousands of significant objects were lost to international art markets. The beleaguered Iraqi Department of Antiquities, once a strong preserver of these resources, could not stop the plundering.

Financial stresses induced by the United Nations economic embargo forced it to fire guards at museums and other sites. Mr. Russell says many trained Department of Antiquities staff members left for jobs in neighboring countries.

"It is not the objects themselves that represent such a tremendous loss to Iraq. Iraq has lots of objects in its museum," he said. "What we all lose is the stories that surround them, the context of these objects in the archaeological sites."

What added to the problem after the 1991 war was emergency Iraqi agricultural needs, which caused farmers to irrigate new fields in the southern desert and eliminate sites that scientists say would have been respected in normal times.

Mr. Russell fears a recurrence of such activities this time.

"What happens if the government in Iraq weakens in the course of a campaign of uncertain duration? Do the now-established looting networks revive themselves, and is the war itself marked by looting? And the post war [period] - that is a complete unknown," he said.

To keep matters from getting out of hand again, archaeologists are asking governments to protect Iraqi historical locations. The University of Chicago's McGuire Gibson says that whoever is in control after the fighting should recognize Iraq's antiquities law. He calls for authorities to also let the Antiquities Department reassemble its staff, assess war damage, and organize salvage operations.

"I am hoping that this war will be over fast, and when it is over, we have to pick up the pieces - pieces of the archaeological past in that country," Mr. Gibson said.

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