Archaeology is once again making news in Iraq. Iraqi archaeologists trained in England have returned home to begin excavations of mass graves. More mass graves are being discovered weekly, including those of Kuwaitis murdered during the first Gulf War. And on March 8th Dr. Sinje Stoyke of the German group Archaeologists for Human Rights was honored with the Human Rights Award of the Kurdish Regional Government for her group's work on the mass graves and missing persons issue in Kurdistan. But there is more traditional archaeological news as well.
In late December 2004 a report released by Dr. John Curtis of the British Museum severely castigated American forces for damage to the ancient site of Babylon. His report was based on personal observations, and on a 500 page report prepared by Polish archaeologists attached to that country's forces in Iraq. A number of new tank tracks and trenches were noted around the site, large areas had been flattened and covered with debris, as was the fact that the helicopter landing pads had been sprayed with a petroleum product to keep down dust. Most disturbing, a few of the famous glazed bricks of the Ishtar Gate had been damaged.
In late January 2005 it was also reported that American forces in Samarra were using the towering al-Mutawakkil mosque as a sniper position against insurgents in the area. Many were quick to note Article 4 of the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict:
"High Contracting Parties undertake to respect cultural property situated within their own territory...refraining from any use of the property and its immediate surroundings...for purposes which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage in the event of armed conflict."
This obligation, however, may be waived in cases of "imperative military necessity". American troops were persuaded to withdraw, and several weeks later Iraqi insurgents, for reasons unknown, blew up the top of the structure.
In response to both these reports, on Babylon and Samarra, the archaeological community went into a brief and characteristic tizzy. Email lists and blogs were abuzz, with charges about American barbarism and with rebuttals. The charges were echoed by the international press as a "catalog of disasters" and "cultural barbarism." That some of the engineering works at Babylon had been carried out by Kellogg, Brown and Root, a subsidiary of the demonic Halliburton corporation, did not go without mention.
In a remarkably short time, rhetoric about Iraqi archaeology has returned to normal, quibbling about legalisms, lofty universalizing about the "heritage of mankind," and posturing a 'courageous' refusal to judge 'resistance fighters' firing on American troops, pending the ultimate judgment of 'history.' John Curtis of the British Museum intrepidly called for a "full international investigation." In an article titled 'Babylon Wrecked by War' Lord Redesdale made it clear to all that "Outrage is hardly the word, this is just dreadful." In its inimitable language, the Guardian wrote of:
"the avoidable and philistinian actions of the coalition forces [who] at the very least ought to pay for the damage they have inflicted. No one knows exactly how many more historical treasures lie beneath Babylon … Meanwhile, the aggravated ruins of the city of stand as a metaphor for the war itself which has left modern Iraq as well as ancient Babylon in a much worse state than they were before the saviours arrived. The task of reconstruction cannot happen too quickly."
All these criticisms are correct, and yet their merit is greatly diminished. In purely archaeological terms we search in vain for comparable criticism of Saddam's construction of a palace at Babylon, or his crude reconstruction of the site, or egomaniacal practice of cementing bricking inscribed with his own name into the reconstruction, in the style of previous Mesopotamian kings. Even more significantly, throughout the 1980s the Iraqi practice of building dams that flooded hundreds of sites was profitable to Western archaeologists, who labored mightily in advance of the floodwaters, but uttered not a peep of criticism. And as far as mass graves go -- including one on the very outskirts of Babylon -- Western archaeologists continue to avert their eyes, just as they did when those graves were being filled.
To criticize now that Iraq is not held in a death grip by a tyrant, without a hint of irony, introspection or remorse, is churlish, if not morally absurd. To posit that beheaders seeking to plunge Iraq into medieval barbarity are resistance fighters defies all belief. But none of this is truly new. In the years prior to the fall of Saddam Hussein, Western archaeologists were among the most vocal of his supporters. Saddam was a faithful steward of Iraq's antiquities, or so the story went, albeit one who ruthlessly manipulated the past for his own purposes, and obliterated sites when it suited his fancy. The virtues of state socialism were extolled, and its hundreds of thousands of victims conveniently ignored.
But archaeologists found themselves on the wrong side of history, overtaken by events that they tried hard to forestall. Prior to the 1991 Gulf War the archaeological community issued ominous warnings about the dire consequences for archaeological sites and museums should America invade, and worked itself into a petulant frenzy as the first misleading reports about the looting of the Iraq Museum became available. As it turned out, the looting, though terrible, was far less catastrophic than initially described. But by crying wolf and declaring the American invasion of Iraq the worst cultural disaster in history -- the Mongol sacking of Babylon revisited -- the profession expended its credibility early. And now by seizing on a few incidents of apparent US misdeeds, the archaeological profession has been unable to reestablish its credibility and its public voice. The real archeological disaster, the continued looting of archaeological sites -- by Iraqis -- under the noses of the coalition, remains shamefully neglected. But only American perfidy is worthy of criticism, not that of archaeologists or Iraqis.
In its casual treatment of Iraq's cultural remains, the American government has much to answer for. But one would also think that archaeologists would have learned lessons about credibility, about hysteria, and the connection between political freedom and an honest approach to the past. Until they do, excavating mass graves remains the only ethical form of archaeology that should be undertaken in Iraq.
Alexander H. Joffe is director of Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.