Related Topics:

Archaeology is invariably politicized; in this revision of a Yale University dissertation, Bernhardsson shows that in Iraq the battle was primarily imperialist British military officers and diplomats versus nationalist Iraqi politicians and educators.

On the British side, many of the figures in this surprisingly conventional diplomatic and social history are familiar. Lord Curzon, and Winston Churchill, British Museum keeper Frederick Kenyon, and archaeologist H.R. Hall are shown deeply engaged in exchanging memos about the status of sites, collections, and excavation permits. The formidable romantic Gertrude Bell oversaw the new department of antiquities and interjected herself into all matters as part of her personal nation-building efforts.

On the Iraqi side, were those politicians and educators, not archaeologists, who exploited the past as it was being recovered during the golden age of Mesopotamian discovery (after World War I) to construct a variety of glorious pasts (primarily Assyrian, Babylonian, and Abbasid) that would stand as prelude to a precarious future. Archaeology served them as another means of creating a nation.

Iraqis correctly believed archaeology to be important to the British and saw it as another front to press for full political and cultural independence. Nationalists like Sati' al-Husri, director general of education (and later director of antiquities), newspaper editorialists, and politicians, including prime minister Rashid ‘Ali Gaylani, debated general policy and minutiae such as the end-of-season division of excavation finds. Their interpretations of archaeological finds and epochs followed larger trends, as pan-Arabism gave way to Iraqi particularism and then back to pan-Arabism, alternately privileging the equally artificial "Arab nation" or "Iraq."

Refreshingly, Edward Said and Orientalism barely appear in this well-researched volume. Although the introductory chapter is overlong and the discussion of Iraq ends somewhat abruptly in 1936, making the concluding chapter on the subsequent seventy years rather cursory, the volume takes a quantum leap forward in the study of archaeology and nationalism.