The Archaeology of Conflict

Another article I wrote for the current issue of Minerva, covering the conference in London last year.

The Archaeology of Conflict - Minerva Magazine:

By Dorothy King

Dorothy King reports on on a conference on ‘Cultural Heritage, Site Management and Sustainable Development in Conflict and Post-Conflict States in the Middle East’ at University College London from 10-12 November 2006.

The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas and the looting of Baghdad Museum were well publicised, but the destruction of cultural property during wars rightly tends to take a back seat to reporting the death of humans. When peace returns, inventories are drawn up and plans made to try to resume archaeology and restore national pride in history. Doing so can be productive, such as President Sadat using Pharaonic images to counter the Islamicism of his predecessor in Egypt, as well as encouraging tourism.

Unfortunately, however, totalitarian governments have all too often used cultural heritage for propaganda and so newly liberated peoples have tended to turn against buildings and objects they associate with their former oppressors - Saddam Hussein’s use of history as propaganda is well known, rebuilding a gate of Babylon with his own name stamped on the bricks, and this may have contributed to subsequent looting of both archaeological sites and the Iraq Museum. Similarly, in Kosovo many Orthodox Churches were destroyed by Muslims as they broke away from Yugoslavia. Kosovo once had a significant number of Byzantine churches, most of which only now exist as a few scattered architectural fragments.

Although petty politics and fingerpointing was not absent, the emphasis of many papers at a recent conference in London on the ‘Archaeology of Conflict’ focused on how to rebuild and improve, rather than merely to accuse. Rapid rebuilding of a war-torn country can in itself endanger archaeological sites, although in Lebanon care was taken to thoroughly excavate as many as possible by corporations such as the Solidere, which was entrusted with the reconstruction of the centre of Beirut. Archaeologists estimate, however, that outside the well-regulated capital, smaller cities suffered more extensively, and believe that up to 40% of the buried archaeological heritage of Tyre was destroyed by uncontrolled urbanisation in the years 1973-2005, both during and after the Civil War. Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly, a Lebanese journalist, pointed out that after war people want to rebuild rapidly, in an attempt to forget its destruction by physically blotting it out. She gave examples of over-zealous post-war development by religious groups - both Christians adding hotels to monasteries and Muslims overexpanding old mosque complexes - in a country where both factions are once again becoming overtly politicised, and where it is difficult for local authorities to intervene.

The work of Assad Seif, of the Lebanese Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA), serves as an example to us all. After the destruction of much of Beirut during the Civil War, the entire capital had to be re-built. Dr Seif told a story about hiding in Beirut Museum during the war while working as a Red Cross driver, and admits that at the time, like many other Lebanese, he was more interested in saving his own skin than antiquities.

For archaeologists comfortably tenured in the West it is all to easy to criticise cultural heritage management in areas suffering from conflict, but his story clearly illustrated how, when under fire, even a man now considered a great archaeologist is likely to be more immediately concerned with saving his own skin than his heritage. Although many of the sarcophagi were protected by thick concrete slabs, other items from the museum were hidden away and a surprising amount survived. Archaeological sites on the surface survived less well through the
decades of repeated bombing in Lebanon, but the greater challenge for archaeology proved to be the emergency rescue digs which needed to be undertaken before reconstruction.

Generally, economic interests are chosen by people over history; they expect the government to provide them with necessities and heritage is often not seen as being a high priority in many countries. Excavations tended to be rapid immediately after the war, with some overly-idealistic foreign archaeologists complaining that not everything could be saved. Dr Seif has now embraced a free-market system with developers, which works well for both sides - rather than wait years for the archaeological service to get around to a site and thus delay construction, most builders prefer to ear-mark a percentage of their budget (usually 1%) to fund DGA excavations between buying land and the issuing of the construction permits. This means that Beirut has one of the most efficient and best-funded archaeological services, and had allowed for rapid but relatively culture-friendly reconstruction of the city. Dr Seif has shown how a person with initiative can combine the two approaches of being pro-cultural and economically aware and, in this way, make substantial progress. Foreign university teams have expressed dismay that permits for new long-term excavations are not yet being issued in Lebanon; understandably the DGA prefers to encourage them instead to undertake much-needed rescue digs.

Aerial photographs show that a great deal of damage was done to archaeological sites around Beirut, Tyre, and Sidon by Israeli bombing in the July 2006 war, but the country now has a much more sophisticated set-up for dealing with its heritage. Reports by journalists of ‘no damage’ were mostly filed from Jerusalem using stock photos - some of the structures at Baalbek did for example develop some new cracks in 2006, but the damage suffered by the Roman temples was relatively small compared to the destruction of the centre of the town.

Dr Donny George, until recently Director of the Iraq Museum, reported that he and his colleagues had learnt from the example of post-Civil War Lebanon, and were now concentrating on training a new generation of restorers and archaeologists in Baghdad with the help of groups such as UNESCO, the Getty, and the World Monuments Fund, as well as colleagues around the world. Although Dr George did not think foreigners should resume excavations in Iraq yet - it remains far too dangerous - his successor, Dr Abbas al-Hussainy, did issue an appeal for international colleagues to get in touch with him about their excavations. The archives of many excavations were lost in the post-war turmoil - the site houses at Babylon, for example, were ransacked - and so he and his teams are busy trying to reconstruct the paperwork for the archaeology of Iraq. Dr Abbas al-Hussainy would also like to know what archaeological teams plan for future excavations in Iraq. Although new to the job, and with site guards seriously short of resources, he began a systematic survey of all five Iraqi provinces at the end of 2006 to inventory and re-open provincial museums and to consolidate archaeological sites.

Unfortunately, the museum in Baghdad had to be closed and sealed again in summer 2006 due to security concerns. Before leaving Iraq, Dr George completed a near-miraculous job of getting many of the treasures looted in 2003 returned. His appeals to the people of Baghdad seem to have worked, and he clearly became a trusted figure in post-Saddam Iraq despite having been forced to join the Baathist party by the previous regime.

Dr George’s association with the pre-Islamic history of Iraq, and his attempts to emphasise the importance of the country’s culture, resulted in direct intimidation by Shiite fundamentalists. Death threats forced him to flee the land he loves, but he is adamant that one day he plans to return. Meanwhile, through Stony Brook University he continues to collaborate with colleagues both in Iraq and abroad. The English-language version of the Iraq Museum’s website is ready, and as soon as Dr George has translated it into Arabic it will go online.

Clarification over the April 2003 looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, including many graphic photographs, has revealed that this was probably initiated through inside knowledge held by former employees under a previous director. Further damage was caused by the poor storage of objects by a predecessor at the time of the 1991 first Gulf War, when the exhibition cases were emptied and their contents stored elsewhere. The Nineveh Ivories, for example, were split between the Central Bank and the museum. Those in the former were deliberately flooded by members of Saddam’s regime during the fall of Baghdad. Those in the museum were hidden in a bricked-up basement, where they were inaccessible and could not be monitored; curators were unaware of rising water levels which soaked them. Ivory is an organic material, so mould began to grow, which in turn attracted insects. When finally re-discovered, like many other damaged antiquities they were restored by conservators newly-trained in foreign museums such as the British Museum. The Italians were particularly active in restoring the galleries, and the refurbishment of the building itself was well under way. When the situation in Baghdad improves, work will resume. At the end of 2006 the National Library - badly burnt by looters days after the museum in 2003 - was also closed after the director and staff had received death threats. (The archive of the Jews of Iraq, hidden by Saddam elsewhere, was damaged by water in 2003, but thanks to generous donations from the Jewish community is being conserved and will soon be accessible again.)

Although many people were executed without trial in Saddam’s Iraq, according to Dr George Saddam insisted on trials for looters of archaeological sites before they were publicly shot to discourage copycat behaviour. Between the two Gulf Wars there was relatively little looting of excavation sites. Instead, the problem commenced during the economic embargo as a way of making money to purchase necessities on the black market.

Professor Elizabeth Stone has studied the patterns of looting throughout Iraq using satellite photographs. Although she had expected to observe a pattern whereby looting increased rapidly after the start of the war, this turned out not to be the case. In February 2003 some sites showed signs of fresh looting, such as recently turned earth, but even as late as 2005 there seems to have been no marked increase in disturbance. Patterns in the data are not entirely clear, but site plundering seems to mirror unrest and the prevailing security situation; some sites for example were looted at the start of the war, continuing previous illegal digging which had gone on under Saddam Hussein, but did not continue to be looted under the Coalition.

In June 2003 UNESCO documented some looting holes at Nippur. Zaboam had been badly looted by December 2000, but nothing suggests further digging since then. Other sites follow similar patterns. Those that have fared badly include Wilaya; the Antiquities Service stopped the official excavation due to the war, and locals started an unofficial excavation with finds ending up abroad rather than in museums. The worst-hit sites in the south are so full of craters that they look like the surface of the moon. Although Syria and Jordon have been confiscating antiquities at the borders and returning them to Baghdad, Turkey and Iran have been merely confiscating them and failing to inform Dr George.

Overall, since 2005 Iraq has suffered from pervasive site looting, mostly aimed at finding cuneiform tablets and coins, particularly Parthian ones. Surprisingly, the search for texts suggests that academics are the intended end market rather than the private collectors since - as Professor Stone pointed out, they need Assyriologists to decipher them. The most intense period of looting occured in early 2003 just before and at the start of the war; this was followed by a long pause after the invasion, after which earlier patterns resumed. ‘If security had been established, the looting probably may have abated’, Stone claimed.

Although it is easy to focus on the negative - with well-published photos of smashed sculptures in museums grabbing attention - in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan, museum directors and archaeologists managed to save surprising amounts of cultural heritage in Iraq. Many of the delegates were optimistic about the future, learning from the example of others in previous conflicts, and striving to save what they can. In Iraq, the Americans made efforts to avoid shelling major archaeological sites, and the Dutch even included an ‘embedded archaeologist’, Rene Teijgeler, in their military coalition unit. Archaeology, like human beings, will always suffer in conflicts. The important thing is that when the conflict is over heritage should be incorporated into reconstruction plans, to remind people of their great history.

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