The looting of the Iraq Museum (Baghdad) is the most severe single blow to cultural heritage in modern history, comparable to the sack of Constantinople, the burning of the library at Alexandria, the Vandal and Mogul invasions, and the ravages of the

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The looting of the Iraq Museum (Baghdad) is the most severe single blow to cultural heritage in modern history, comparable to the sack of Constantinople, the burning of the library at Alexandria, the Vandal and Mogul invasions, and the ravages of the conquistadors.

—The American Schools of Oriental Research, Apr. 16, 2003[1]

From April 10 to 12, 2003, during the mayhem that followed the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, looters entered the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad. They stole and destroyed artifacts and caused damage to the museum. But as the confusion also enveloped the museum, no one outside Iraq knew exactly what was taken or the identity of the thieves. Seizing upon tiny bits of available information, Western archaeologists created their own narrative of events and aggressively promoted it through the world media. That narrative revealed nothing about what had happened at the museum. It told everything about the prejudices and biases of its authors.[2]

In this account, U.S. authorities had been explicitly warned of the danger to the museum prior to the war. They deliberately neglected to stop the looting and were possibly complicit in it. The archaeologists' narrative told a moralizing tale of culpability and guilt and heaped it upon U.S. policymakers and forces, even as the battles raged. No analogy was too far-fetched, from the thirteenth-century Crusader sack of Constantinople to the Mongol destruction of Baghdad.

There was only one problem: this saga had no connection to reality. Over time, the truth trickled out, and it was less dramatic than the tale of the "sack of Baghdad" told by the archaeologists. Though severe, the looting of the museum was far less devastating than originally represented. Western scholars of ancient Iraq, who already had a long record of silence about the crimes of Hussein and the Baath Party, compounded their ignominy in April 2003 by irresponsible distortions and unwarranted extrapolations. The years of silence gave way to a spasm of anti-coalition hysteria, some of it genuine, much of it self-serving.

The public expressions of outrage on the part of the archaeological profession subsequently have almost completely evaporated. But questions remain: What was the nature of the relations between archaeologists and the Baath regime? What sorts of compromises did they involve? And did the conduct of the archaeologists prior to and during the war reflect more than a professional concern for the fate of artifacts? Did it constitute a continuation of complicity with the regime, or perhaps for some even a strategy to conceal it, in order to secure a privileged place on the ground in the war's aftermath?

These questions can only be answered by examining the layers of evidence. In this case, the evidence is close to the surface and unequivocal.


Middle Eastern archaeology requires direct access to ancient places that are subject to modern politics. In the nineteenth century, the sites of Mesopotamia were under Ottoman rule, and the progress of archaeology depended largely upon opportunities created by the imperial leverage of Western powers over Ottoman officials. Pioneers such as Claudius Rich, James Silk Buckingham, Austen Henry Layard, and Paul Emile Botta combined explorations with imperial activities. British, French, German, and American teams competed for access to the choicest sites. In a spirit of adventurous rivalry, they unearthed the great mounds of Assyria, such as Nineveh and Nimrud, and then those of Babylonia. Thanks to them, as well as the brilliant linguists who translated the cuneiform script, Mesopotamia was resurrected from oblivion.

After the seizure of Iraq by Britain in 1918, Westerners were no longer subject to Ottoman controls. Gertrude Bell, the British interloper and romantic, established a department of antiquities that continues to oversee excavations, antiquities sites, and museums. Foreign archaeologists trained a professional cadre of Iraqis, who became their colleagues. Archaeology also played an important role in the development of Iraqi national identity. Ruling elites manipulated the past, and school curricula emphasized Mesopotamian originality, Semitic (thus, pan-Arab) authority, and Assyrian and Babylonian imperial power.[3]

The relationship of Western archaeologists to the rulers of independent Iraq varied over the years. Outbreaks of nationalism periodically disrupted archaeological work and soured attitudes to Westerners. This occurred during the Nazi-led insurrection against the government in 1941 (in which a German archaeologist, Julius Jordan, played a key role), the 1958 revolution, the coup of 1963, and the Baathist takeover of 1968.

But Western archaeologists showed great flexibility in adapting to changing politics. Even during the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988, they continued their excavations and surveys, often on salvage projects in areas designated for dams, reservoirs, or agricultural development. Among archaeologists, Saddam Hussein developed a reputation as a faithful steward of Iraq's archaeological heritage. "Saddam has a conscious sense that he belongs to a history going back to ancient times," Oleg Grabar of Harvard University said. "He believes he is in that grand tradition, so destroying it does not fit in with his self-image."[4] As recently as 2001, a Western reporter visited the Iraq National Museum and was told by one of its officials, Donny George (also the foremost spokesman of Iraqi archaeology), that Hussein read his reports and returned them with careful notes in the margins.[5]

For foreign archaeologists, including Americans, Hussein's obsession with antiquity created ideal working conditions. They enjoyed close relations with Iraqi authorities, zealous protection of their sites, and plenty of logistical support. The Iraqis kept all finds, but the archaeologists took them home in the form of publications, tenure, grants, and professional fame. Access meant success, and no one was so bold or foolish as to speak unpleasant truths publicly about Hussein's Iraq. In fact, working in Iraq could be quite agreeable. While in Baghdad, Americans were often the guests of the British School of Archaeology, which maintained what an American archaeologist described as "a beautiful expedition house.... Many archaeologists, both British and foreign, enjoyed the warm hospitality, great food, and excellent library of this residential facility." The ruthless politics of the dictatorship did not impinge.[6]

All this came to an end with Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. As half a million U.S. forces poured into Saudi Arabia in response, Western archaeologists recoiled in horror at the prospect of a major war, which might harm their Iraqi colleagues and damage precious sites. On the one hand, some advised the U.S. military as to the location of archaeological sites; on the other, they began to lobby against the war. McGuire Gibson, a prominent archaeologist at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, who had led the institute's expedition at Nippur, summarized his and his colleagues' concerns:

It's very difficult to deal with this without looking like someone who is more concerned about destroying objects than killing people, but I oppose both. I want to stop the war, but I am also concerned about the destruction of archeological sites and museums.[7]

Archaeologists warned President George H.W. Bush of the need to protect archaeological sites: "Intentional crime or careless error leading to their destruction would almost equally darken the record of any nation or individual responsible."[8] As it happened, very little damage was done to archaeological sites by the U.S.-led war. The Iraq National Museum in Baghdad safely removed most of its holdings to storage within the building or to other locations such as bank vaults.

But in the aftermath of the local uprisings against Hussein in 1991, looters pillaged many provincial museums, and their contents quickly appeared on antiquities markets, primarily in Europe. Thousands of artifacts bled out of Iraq after 1991, and only a tiny handful have been recovered.[9] Still worse, by the mid-1990s, organized gangs of thieves set upon archaeological sites, which they randomly mined for artifacts, carved slabs and sculpture. The Iraqis blamed the chaos on the United Nations sanctions regime, imposed on Iraq after the war. The sanctions, they claimed, had impoverished the Iraqi Department of Antiquities, which lacked resources to protect sites. The looting, they alleged, served wealthy collectors in the West, who bought up the contraband artifacts. "The priority now is how to feed the people," said the head of the antiquity department, Mu'ayyad Sa'id, in 1994. "The department's coffers are empty."[10]

Western archaeologists similarly blamed the chaos on the sanctions. John Malcolm Russell, an art historian and archaeologist at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, had surveyed the palace of the Assyrian king Sennacherib at Nineveh. Locals plundered the site in the early 1990s. "United Nations sanctions against Iraq have finally destroyed Sennacherib's palace," Russell later seethed, "finishing the work of the ancient Medes and Babylonians who sacked Nineveh in 612 BC. To be sure, market and political forces are also at work here, but the fact remains that without the sanctions, this destruction would not have happened."[11]

No one noticed, or commented upon the obvious contradiction between the regime's ability to build enormous palaces—including one at Babylon itself—and its neglect of archaeological sites and museums. At no point did anyone in the profession direct criticism at the regime although media reports pointed to the complicity of Iraqi officials in the looting.[12] Under the sanctions, travel bans prevented American and European archaeologists from working in Iraq. But they hoped to return to Iraq again, and they said nothing that might put them on the wrong side of Hussein's officials.

By the late 1990s, the Iraqi regime was regularly tempting foreign archaeologists to evade sanctions and succeeded in luring European archaeologists back into the country. Only Americans and Britons continued grudgingly to respect their governments' travel bans. But in March 2001, Iraq held an international conference in Baghdad, ostensibly to mark five millennia to the advent of writing. Iraq issued invitations to most of the leading foreign archaeologists; much to Iraq's satisfaction, prominent American and British archaeologists defied the travel ban and came to Baghdad. They included, among many others, Americans Gibson and Russell.

The regime did little to conceal the purpose of the conference. "Hussein's name was emblazoned in gold on the conference's official banner," according to one press report. "Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz addressed the researchers at the opening ceremony, telling them that Iraq was the victim of United States lies and distortions." Iraq's culture minister, Hamid Yusuf Hamadi, in military uniform, addressed the gathering, and defiantly laid out Iraq's purpose: "Thank you for breaking the cultural embargo on Iraq and serving humanity."[13] The visiting Americans got to revisit their excavation sites: Gibson stopped in Nippur, and Russell checked on Nineveh. Their return to Iraq must have seemed tantalizingly imminent. A cover story in Science magazine of July 2001 announced that "the worst may be over" for archaeology in Iraq and made a subtle case for lifting the U.S. embargo, lest American archaeologists lose in the "scramble for prime sites." Certainly that was Gibson's worry. "It's awful, it's horrible. We'll be the last ones back," he complained. "It puts our students at a tremendous disadvantage."[14]

It was a stunning attitude, but a characteristic one. Western archaeologists had lived and worked alongside Iraqis and were intimately familiar with the country, its culture, and its people. Yet no archaeologists publicly protested the Anfal campaign that destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages and took hundreds of thousands of lives. None protested the suppression of the Shi'ite uprising in 1991. No petitions were circulated to protest the draining of the southern marshes or even the destruction of hundreds if not thousands of archaeological sites by the regime's dams and irrigation projects. The Baathist manipulation of archaeology, such as the garishly restored site of Babylon, went without protest. Instead, Western professionals carefully praised the stewardship of Hussein and the Baathists—even as the regime destroyed sites, stole antiquities, and imprisoned and tortured Iraqi scholars. The archaeologists claimed both intimacy and solidarity with Iraq. But their moral indignation ended where their own interests began.

War Looms

Science magazine was wrong: the worst was not over. As the Bush administration geared up for war against Iraq, American archaeologists faced not the prospect of an imminent return to their excavations but the likelihood of a U.S. invasion to topple the Hussein regime. They mobilized to stop it.

In January 2003, a group of archaeologists published a letter in the newsletter of the Society of American Archaeology:

The undersigned, archaeologists and other scholars who have lived and worked in the Middle East, wish to go on the record as opposing the current threat by the Bush administration to wage war against Iraq. Iraq poses no direct military threat to the U.S. and the likelihood that it would attack its neighbors is far greater in the event of a U.S. attack. War, regardless of the means by which it is waged, will cost the lives of innocent civilians. U.S. military action poses the gravest consequences, not only for the people of Iraq but also for the entire Middle East.[15]

As war approached, archaeologists often played a role in campus teach-ins and off-campus protests. They cast their opposition to the war in terms of the war's threat to the common heritage of mankind, by claiming that the entire country of Iraq had to be treated like a museum piece.

By emphasizing this last theme, the archaeologists, intentionally or not, amplified a message that came directly out of Hussein's bureaucracy. "The entire country is the home of ancient and precious cultures and artifacts," Donny George, Iraqi archaeology's spokesman, announced from Baghdad. "This means that a bomb or missile landing anywhere can destroy a historic site or obliterate finds yet to be made."[16] "People don't understand that Iraq is more important than Egypt in world heritage," echoed Gibson. "The whole country is an archaeological site."[17]

At the same time, the archaeologists prepared for war and its aftermath. In January 2003, Gibson met with Pentagon officials and presented them with a "no-strike" list of some 5,000 archaeological sites in Iraq. The Defense Department set up an internal website with the information, for consultation by war planners.[18] Russell also explicitly demanded the post-war preservation of the institutions of Iraqi archaeology: "The absolutely, positively stupidest thing I can think of that the United States could do for archaeology in a … postwar scenario would be to try to take over the operation of the antiquities department or to change Iraq's state-of-the-art antiquities policies," Russell said. "The smartest thing would be to ask the department what it needs and then make sure they get it."[19] For their part, some Iraqi archaeologists saw especially sinister, if far-fetched, motives on the part of America. According to former director of Iraqi antiquities Mu'ayyad Damerji, "We are sure that the Americans, like they were in the Gulf War, are intent on occupying Iraq for religious purposes."[20]

Above all, Gibson staked the claims of the discipline in the work of post-war reconstruction. He let it be known that he had provided the U.S. military with a list of sites in Iraq, and he called for "archaeological assessments" as a vital part of reconstruction.[21] "Archaeological assessment" is an American usage, and by using it, Gibson deftly moved from supporting the Iraqi institutional status quo to asserting American primacy in archaeological reconstruction. Archaeologists, accustomed to looking at the past, had one eye on the future and its opportunities.

War Comes

The war began on March 19, 2003. On April 9, there was the first report of looting of a museum in Basra, and by the morning of April 10, the media filled with reports of the looting of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad. The initial tone of news reporting was dramatic. Gibson quickly assumed that the news accounts were correct and that U.S. forces had acted irresponsibly: "They've known the importance of this museum; I showed them where it was. There's no reason this should be looted."[22]

Individuals claiming to be Iraqi museum officials immediately began issuing statements regarding the losses. Nabhal Amin, identified as the museum's deputy director, told Reuters:

Looters have taken or destroyed 170,000 items of antiquity dating back thousands of years. … They were worth billions of dollars. … The Americans were supposed to protect the museum. If they had just one tank and two soldiers nothing like this would have happened.[23]

In reality, the person interviewed was no longer a museum official but merely lived in the neighborhood. But the figure of 170,000 artifacts had been launched into the media, along with the image of the missing "one tank." The number and the image would resonate for days to come. The BBC article did go on to note that, "Some of the museum's artifacts had been moved into storage to avoid a repeat of damage to other antiquities during the 1991 Gulf war," but did not elaborate. [24] On April 12, The New York Times reported a total loss:

Nothing remained, museum officials said, at least nothing of real value, from a museum that had been regarded by archaeologists and other specialists as perhaps the richest of all such institutions in the Middle East.[25]

The narrative, as of April 12, was that everything from the museum had been taken, leaving nothing of value, and that U.S. forces had abandoned the museum to its fate.

Gibson amplified this, with an "I-told-you-so" claim that in his Pentagon pre-war contacts, "I stressed that the most important site of all, the No. 1, is this museum. Because of this, I assumed that it would be secured as soon as they [soldiers] were in the neighborhood."[26] But the narrative also needed Iraqi heroes, and Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, provided them: the Iraqi Department of Antiquities staff who had never been corrupted by the Baath party, "and had done everything they could to keep these artifacts safe. It's not their failure. The failure is ours."[27]

By April 13, higher-profile cultural figures lent their weight to this narrative. One was Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art: "We can't conquer and then shirk further responsibility by allowing anarchy in the cities and allowing Iraq's ancient heritage to be pillaged." De Montebello complained of the apparent lack of effective policing by U.S. troops. He said that he and other museum officials and archaeologists had already held meetings to explore what must be done "to help the Baghdad museum and Iraq's antiquities authorities to restore themselves."[28]

But to complete the narrative, there was a need for a sinister arch-villain, operating behind the scenes. For many archaeologists, this was the American Council for Cultural Policy, an organization of collectors and museum directors. On April 14, a number of British archaeologists published a letter in The Guardian, warning that at "an official level the American Council for Cultural Policy is already persuading the Pentagon to relax legislation that protects Iraq's heritage by prevention of sales abroad, arguing that antiquities will be safer in American museums and private collections than in Iraq."[29] The implication was that private American collectors had encouraged the looting by organized criminals and stood to profit by it.

Narrative Undermined

Starting on April 14, information began to surface that undermined this version of events. First, it turned out that the vaults of the museum showed no sign of being forced open. "None of the museum staff was going to admit this," said one report.[30] Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya expanded on the matter and pointed an accusing finger:

One friend told me that the looting of the National Museum—something that cut deeply into me—was the work of newly deposed Baathist officials, who had been selling off our patrimony as they saw their days were numbered. As the regime fell, these (ex-) Baathists went back for one last swindle, and took with them treasures that dated back 9,000 years, to the Sumerians and the Babylonians. One final crime perpetrated by Saddam's thugs.[31]

The notion of an inside job was fully in the open, and media accounts immediately began to follow up on the possibility.

Second, it turned out that U.S. officials had never given any guarantees to the archaeologists. On April 14 in The Washington Post, Gibson said, "I thought I was given assurances that sites and museums would be protected."[32] But Dr. Joseph Collins, a deputy assistant secretary of defense for humanitarian and peacekeeping operations, said that such assurances had never been given. "We could never guarantee ahead of time the safety of a single building," he said.'" In response, Gibson backtracked:

I thought we had understandings … I didn't expect that we would stand by and let them loot the museum and burn the ministries … Maybe I just wasn't talking to people high enough in the organization … I got nothing in writing.[33]

Third, and most important, Donny George began to revise his estimates of losses. "It's not a total loss," he told The New York Times. "But some of the major masterpieces are gone." George also indicated that part of the collection had been stored in vaults in the museum and elsewhere. The headline of the story: "Museum Pillage Described as Devastating but Not Total."[34]

Thus, in the space of only four days, the Iraqis and the archaeologists had dramatically revised their shared narrative. The devastation was now only partial, the looting was the work of "organized gangs," and the status of certain storage areas was uncertain but hopeful. From this point onward, the media became increasingly skeptical of the fevered claims made by both Iraqis and Western archaeologists.

On a specific case, the shared narrative collapsed entirely, concerning the collection of over 100,000 cuneiform tablets. After an emergency meeting in Paris of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Gibson told reporters that he had spoken with museum officials in Baghdad, and that the collection "has apparently been lost." Scholars once more took second-hand information from Iraqi sources at face value and expressed their outrage. Benjamin Foster of Yale University deemed it "a tragedy of the first order," while Elizabeth Stone of the State University of New York at Stony Brook lamented, "Now I'll never see them." Jerry Cooper, a Johns Hopkins University Assyriologist, said, "It's very hard to absorb what has happened here. … It is as if the entire Mall—the National Archives and the Smithsonian—had been looted, along with the Library of Congress."[35] In fact the tablet collection was undisturbed; only the museum's much smaller cylinder seal collection (about 5,000 pieces) had been stolen.

The Non-Reckoning

On April 18, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was assigned to aid in the recovery of stolen items. Then on April 23, a task force was created under the leadership of U.S. Marine reserve officer Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, a Manhattan district attorney in civilian life. At the same time, objects began to be returned by looters and "Iraqi protectors," primarily residents of surrounding neighborhoods and local religious leaders.[36] With Bogdanos in place, and Western media now on the scene in numbers, the picture began to change dramatically.

At the very end of April, Donny George participated in a conference at the British Museum where he was quoted as saying, "the Iraq Museum may have lost in excess of 170,000 items, some dating back 500,000 years."[37] But back in Baghdad, Bogdanos was beginning to raise questions over the scale of thefts: "Twenty-five pieces is not the same as 170,000," he said, referring to the actual number of display objects declared stolen by museum officials.[38] On May 1, The New York Times ran this headline: "Loss Estimates Are Cut on Iraqi Artifacts, but Questions Remain." And on May 2, Donny George gave an interview in The Art Newspaper that accelerated the reduction in loss estimates. Contradicting what he had stated just three days earlier to the press, and presumably at the British Museum conference, he now admitted, "We had moved out thousands of objects from the showcases, everything we could. There were something like a hundred that were either too heavy or too fragile—but among them were some very important pieces…. From the traces of what I have seen it could be a small percentage of the 170,000 objects.".[39] In later months, George would claim that he and others had been misquoted and had never actually used the figure of 170,000 losses.[40]

During the late spring and summer of 2003, it became increasingly clear that the events at the museum did not conform to the initial narrative. Most of the missing high-quality artifacts had indeed been hidden in various vaults and locations by the staff.[41] The staff portrayed its deception as necessary to protect the holdings, but some journalists were enraged at the manipulation.[42] Daniel Aaronovitch, writing in The Guardian, gave it fullest expression:

Furious, I conclude two things from all this. The first is the credulousness of many Western academics and others who cannot conceive that a plausible and intelligent fellow-professional might have been an apparatchik of a fascist regime and a propagandist for his own past. The second is that—these days—you cannot say anything too bad about the Yanks and not be believed.[43]

The continued recovery of objects, such as the Assyrian gold jewelry stored in the Central Bank and the famed Warka vase, made it increasingly difficult for the archaeologists to maintain high levels of indignation in public. The display of selected treasures in early July also defused angry sentiments and received wide media attention although professionals naturally dismissed it as a stunt.[44] (In September, another famous object, the Sumerian sculpture called the Warka lady, was recovered intact.) News reports also made it increasingly clear that the museum had been the scene of combat during April with the interior spaces used by Iraqi troops to fire at advancing Americans.[45]

But no one took responsibility for the deception. In June, John Malcolm Russell spoke to the "exaggerated claims" of the museum staff. Now he acknowledged that many people felt conned:

Most people I know share my relief that so much of the collection survived, yet many also feel that their noble instincts were manipulated not only to produce shock and grief at a loss of such unprecedented magnitude but also to provoke rage at the cultural callousness of the United States in failing to prevent this predictable tragedy. I can sympathize with those who feel conned. For two weeks after the looting I must have been known as the weeping archaeologist ... So why did the museum staff apparently make such exaggerated claims? I don't know. Recent news reports have suggested that perhaps the first reporters on the scene, confronted with an empty museum, inquired about the total number of registered objects and reported that figure as the loss, or that the museum's senior staff, outraged by the lack of protection, produced this figure in anger to embarrass the Americans. I may never know the answer. Or perhaps some day, over dinner or a cup of tea, one of the Iraqi curators, whom I trust completely, will explain what happened.[46]

Yet Russell did not include himself among those who had been conned, or who had conned others. Just as he brushed off complicity in defying pre-war sanctions, so he brushed off his role in abetting this last Iraqi deception. In September 2003, Russell was appointed deputy senior advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Culture by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

Donny George, the prime purveyor of the museum deception, also landed on his feet. The Western archaeological community did not care that he had misled the media and defamed the United States. In fact, he emerged as their hero, for secreting away the vast bulk of the museum holdings. Secure in the knowledge that he had this backing, George continued into the fall of 2003 to speak of U.S. perfidy, primarily in European and Arab newspapers.[47] He is now head of museums for the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage.

The archaeological community also enjoyed a tremendous windfall as a result of the publicity that followed the deception. The combination of public interest and a lingering sense of guilt could be leveraged into resources. "There's more interest in Mesopotamian archaeology now than there ever has been," archaeologist Paul Zimansky of Boston University noted. "That energy could be harnessed."[48]

And it has been. The University of California at Berkeley began raising money for a "virtual museum" of the Iraq Museum collection;[49] the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago created an on-line inventory of the museum;[50] and a non-profit organization called the Baghdad Museum Project came into existence.[51] This last organization is a collaboration between Iraqi and Western academics and businessmen and now appears directed toward marketing the idea of "culture and reconstruction" in Iraq. Large quantities of equipment and funds were also channeled to Iraqi archaeologists, and the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Agency for International Development are funding training programs.[52]

The professional community also made legislative progress. The Iraq Cultural Heritage Act, or H.R.2009, was introduced on May 5 and referred immediately to the Ways and Means Committee, where it remains. The bill prohibits importation of broadly defined antiquities and cultural properties removed from Iraq after August 2, 1990, provides for seizure and forfeit, and importantly, gives the president powers to restrict importation of cultural objects from elsewhere during crises. The bill has enjoyed wide professional support over its more vague Senate counterpart.[53] Similar legislation has been introduced in Britain and Europe; Switzerland was finally induced to sign UNESCO protocols about antiquities trafficking.[54] Thus, the professional organizations partially succeeded in their long-term goal of further criminalizing the antiquities market.

The irony was that while the archaeologists leveraged guilt into resources, their reputation for exaggeration and hysteria helped prevent the public from taking them seriously over the very real looting that has taken place on remote sites across the country since the end of the war. Gibson complained, "The [archaeological] sites have been butchered. … I've seen them. Everybody in the field knows it's happening."[55] Australian archaeologist Timothy Potts put it this way:

Much of the press has since played down the disaster as overblown. This is not the case. … What has happened in recent months is already among the worst mass desecrations of cultural sites in our lifetime, perhaps the worst. … We can only hope that the violence still being inflicted on it in the mounds of Iraq will soon be brought to an end.[56]

In July 2003, at an international Assyriological conference in London, archaeologist Elizabeth Stone of the State University of New York at Stony Brook called for looters to be shot: "I think you have to kill some people to stop this."[57] The Baath regime, which in 1994 had made antiquities smuggling punishable by death, had done just that.

Ethical Lapse

Western archaeologists speak the language of scholarly authority, pacifism, and universalism. Stone's statement revealed an underlying truth: the profession only values high culture in its most rarified form and is entirely possessed with its role of mediating the meaning of objects to a high-brow Western audience.

Working in a wretched totalitarian country was a conscious choice for archaeologists as it was for businessmen. Iraq purchased most of its weapons from Russia and France, sophisticated electronics from the United States, and germ samples from all over the world. Profit is its own excuse, and those who armed and supported Iraq have much for which to answer. But archaeologists submitted paperwork to the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, knowing full well that staff lists would be vetted by Iraqi intelligence. European and American Jews, among the pioneers of Mesopotamian archaeology during the first half of the twentieth century, were systematically excluded from participation, as they still are in Syria and Saudi Arabia. No one protested.

The teams did their fieldwork under the watchful eye of government minders, came back, kept their mouths shut about whatever they might have seen or heard, and not infrequently sang the praises of Hussein, at least his treatment of archaeology. Access was everything. The situation is uncannily similar to that finally admitted by the president of CNN, Eason Jordan. Even the regime's torture of CNN employees was hushed up, lest it jeopardize CNN's access to reporting from Baghdad. John Burns of The New York Times has expanded this indictment, graphically pointing out the mutual lies, collusion, and bribery that kept the Western press working in Iraq.[58]

No such admissions have been forthcoming from archaeologists. Even today, the profession disguises its pursuit of self-interest beneath the language of service to the heritage of humankind or the Iraqi people. Only a small group of German professionals, Archaeologists for Human Rights, have taken the courageous stand of putting the archaeological focus on the calamity of Baathist rule. Their efforts to organize the excavations of mass graves have met with strong support from Kurdish authorities but clumsy indecision from the CPA. Nonetheless, they have touched a nerve, and nearly 300 archaeologists and forensic specialists have volunteered to undertake this mournful research, the only ethical type of archaeology that should be conducted in Iraq at the present time.[59]

But the archaeological establishment is already busy building a new order, which looks surprisingly like the old one. They have recently recommended that archaeology in Iraq be supported directly through the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Army Corps of Engineers, but that it come under the formal supervision of old friends at the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage.[60] With the archaeological status quo restored in Iraq, where are the incentives for moral reassessment?

Alexander H. Joffe taught archaeology in the department of anthropology at the Pennsylvania State University from 1993 to 2000. He is now a lecturer at Purchase College, State University of New York, and an associate of Global Policy Exchange, Ltd., of Alexandria, Virginia, an organization that focuses on the role of culture in international affairs.

[1] ASOR statement on Baghdad Museum, Apr. 16, 2003, at
[2] This study is indebted to Francis Deblauwe, who provided an invaluable service in collecting news reports and other resources at his web site, "The 2003 Iraq War and Archaeology," at
[3] Amatzia Baram, "A Case of Imported Identity: The Modernizing Secular Ruling Elites of Iraq and the Concept of Mesopotamian-Inspired Territorial Nationalism, 1922-1992," Poetics Today, 15 (1994): 297-319.
[4] The New York Times, Feb. 9, 1991.
[5] Financial Times, Aug. 4, 2001.
[6] John Malcolm Russell, "The Modern Sack of Nineveh and Nimrud," Culture without Context, Autumn 1997, at
[7] The New York Times, Feb. 9, 1991.
[8] "Scientists Fear Ancient Mesopotamia Is Being Bombed," Associated Press, Feb. 27, 1991.
[9] McGuire Gibson, "The Loss of Archaeological Context and the Illegal Trade in Mesopotamian Antiquities," Culture without Context, Autumn 1997, at
[10] The Guardian, Dec. 22, 1994.
[11] Russell, "The Modern Sack of Nineveh and Nimrud."
[12] "Sale of Artifacts from Iraq Worries Archeologists," The New York Times News Service, June 24, 1996.
[13] The Chicago Tribune, Mar. 26, 2001, at
[14] Quoted by Andrew Lawler, "Foreigners Return: Iraq Opening Sets off Scramble for Sites," Science, July 6, 2001.
[15] "Letter to the Editor," SAA Archaeological Record, Jan. 2003, p. 3, at
[16] The Independent, Jan. 12, 2003.
[17] The Denver Post, Jan. 26, 2003.
[18] The Boston Globe, Jan. 27, 2003; "Protecting Ancient History in Iraq," National Public Radio, Feb. 20, 2003.
[19] The San Francisco Chronicle, Mar. 19, 2003.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid., Mar. 31, 2003.
[22] Knight Ridder news service, Apr. 11, 2003, at
[23] "Looters Ransack Baghdad Museum," BBC News, at
[24] Ibid.
[25] The New York Times, Apr. 12, 2003.
[26] The Chicago Tribute, Apr. 13, 2003.
[27] Ibid.
[28] The New York Times, Apr. 13, 2003.
[29] The Guardian, Apr. 14, 2003.
[30] "Rich Past Stripped as Future in Tatters," The Sydney Morning Herald, Apr. 14, 2003.
[31] "Kanan Makiya's War Diary," The New Republic Online, Apr. 14, 2003, at; Kanan Makiya, "Free Iraq Starts to Take Form," The National Post, Apr. 17, 2003.
[32] The Washington Post, Apr. 14, 2003.
[33] The New York Times, Apr. 16, 2003.
[34] Ibid., Apr. 17, 2003.
[35] The Washington Post, Apr. 18, 2003.
[36] "FBI to Hunt Baghdad Museum Looters," Agence France-Presse, Apr. 18, 2003; The New York Times, Apr. 23, 2003.
[37] The Scotsman, Apr. 30, 2003.
[38] The New York Times, May 1, 2003.
[39] The Art Newspaper, May 2, 2003.
[40] Andrew Lawler, personal e-mail, Dec. 18, 2003.
[41] A. Marshall, "Missing Iraqi Antiquities Found in Secret Vault," Reuters, June 7, 2003; The Washington Post, June 9, 2003.
[42] Andrew Sullivan, "Idiocy of the Week,", June 10, 2003, at; Howard Kurtz, "A Small Correction Is in Order," The Washington Post, June 11, 2003; Andrew Lawler, "Mayhem in Mesopotamia," Science, Aug. 1, 2003.
[43] David Aaronovitch, "Lost from the Baghdad Museum: Truth," The Guardian, June 10, 2003.
[44] Andrew Marshall, "Missing Iraqi Antiquities Found in Secret Vault," Reuters, June 7, 2003; Martin Bailey, "Warka Vase Returned to Baghdad Museum," The Art Newspaper, June 13, 2003; Los Angeles Times, July 2, 2003; The New York Times, July 3, 2003. Compare Patrick Cockburn, "Americans Restore Ancient Treasures to Museum for Two Hours Only," The Independent, July 3, 2003; Michael Jansen, "Iraqi Museum Exhibit—a Public Relations Stunt," The Jordan Times, July 3, 2003.
[45] Los Angeles Times, May 10, 2003.
[46] John Malcolm Russell, "We're Still Missing the Looting Picture," The Washington Post, June 15, 2003.
[47] Christiane Hoffmans, "'Das war organisierte Kriminalität,'" Welt am Sonntag, June 1, 2003; Robin Finn, "To Preserve and Protect Iraq's Treasure Trove," The New York Times, Oct. 22, 2003.
[48] The Christian Science Monitor, Apr. 24, 2003.
[49] "Iraq 'Virtual Heritage' Archive Planned. A U.S. University Is Hoping to Create a Virtual Archive of Iraq's Historical Treasures," BBC News, June 3, 2003.
[50] "Lost Treasures from Iraq," at
[51] Baghdad Museum Project, at
[52] The Washington Times, July 16, 2003; Robin Finn, "To Preserve and Protect Iraq's Treasure Trove," The New York Times, Oct. 22, 2003.
[53] Andrew Lawler, "Researchers Weigh in on Trading," Science, Aug. 1, 2003.
[54] The Independent, Dec. 17, 2003; Martin Bailey, "A New UK Law to Fight the Illicit Trade," The Art Newspaper, Jan. 9, 2004.
[55] The Chicago Tribune, May 2, 2003.
[56] Timothy Potts, "Buried between the Rivers," The New York Review of Books, Sept. 25, 2003.
[57] The Guardian, July 8, 2003.
[58] Eason Jordan, "The News We Kept to Ourselves," The New York Times, Apr. 11, 2003; John Burns, "There Is Corruption in Our Business," Editor and Publisher, Jan. 30, 2004.
[59] Archaeologists for Human Rights, at
[60] "AIA Sends Letter Concerning Cultural Heritage Resource Management in Iraq," Jan. 8, 2004, at