Warfare and the protection of archaeological resources

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)


Modern warfare, with heavy equipment, large bombs, and extensive mobilization areas, can destroy archaeological resources.

You may not know that soon after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, a “squad” of American museum personnel became “soldier-scholars,” as Robert M. Edsel calls them in the September 2010 issue of the newsletter of the Society for American Archaeology, and were known as Monument Men.

As the war progressed and the full scope of Hitler and the Nazi’s greatest theft in history became known, the Monuments Men’s attention shifted to locating and protecting tens of thousands of the most treasured works of art, including paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Leonardo da Vinci, and sculpture by Donatello and Michelangelo, to name but a few…. In the closing months of the war these Monuments Men, by that time numbering no more than 37 or so American and British officers and soldiers, located in more than 1500 hiding places—salt and copper mines, castles, and other structures above and below ground—paintings, sculpture, church bells, Torah scrolls and other religious artifacts, stained glass, the great libraries of Europe, the entire contents of the Reichsbank—including gold worth about five billion in today’s dollars, and even the trolley cars from the city of Amsterdam. It was the greatest treasure hunt in history, a hunt that continues to this day. [pg. 21]

Contrast this with what happened during the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, when over about three days, looters removed perhaps 15,000 objects from the Iraq National Museum, as discussed by Corine Wegener in the same issue of the newsletter, although museum staff were able to protect most of the collection.

Once stability returned to Baghdad, the Iraq Museum staff returned to begin the slow process of inventorying losses, stabilizing damaged objects, and recovery. Some looted objects were recovered under a “no questions asked” policy in which Iraqis returned a number of important museum objects. Others would be recovered during raids within Iraq and at customs entry points in other countries over the next several months. To date, just under half of the estimated 15,000 objects looted from the museum have been recovered.

In addition to the looting of the Iraq National Museum, Iraqis burned the National Library and portions of the Iraqi National Archives were damaged by water. Looters also turned their attention to more than 12,000 archaeological sites across the country. While the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage has increased efforts to provide archaeological site guards and refurbish damaged cultural institutions, it is an ongoing challenge of providing training, equipment, and funding while instability still prevents routine safe access to many areas. [pg. 28]

As Wegener reports, the USA in 1954 joined many other nations “pledged to protect cultural property during armed conflict” (pg. 29). Wegener concludes, however, that lessons have been learned:

The looting of the Iraq Museum, a moment when the world recognized an irretrievable loss to our shared past, has served as the impetus for a renewed commitment to protecting cultural property during armed conflict. The US military now recognizes the fragile nature of cultural heritage and its key role in a nation’s recovery and has taken positive steps to improve training and doctrine in this area. A number of cultural heritage organizations have joined forces to provide military training and to promote the 1954 Hague Convention. And finally, the US government has recognized the importance of becoming part of the international community that places a special emphasis on cultural property by ratifying the 1954 Hague Convention. Now it remains is to be seen how the US will implement the treaty domestically, particularly without a department of culture at the federal level. Robust and meaningful implementation will require the coordinated efforts of all those who have a stake in protecting our shared cultural heritage. [pg. 29]

What do you think about all this? How should warfare coexist with heritage preservation?


Photograph from Wikimedia Commons—here, with the note: The Republican Palace (Arabic: al-Qaṣr al-Ǧumhūriy) in Baghdad, Iraq is the largest of the palaces commissioned by Saddam Hussein and was his preferred place to meet visiting heads of state. The United States spared the palace during its shock and awe raid during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, in the belief that it might hold valuable documents. The Green Zone developed around it. The palace itself served as the headquarters of the American occupation of Iraq and continues to serve as a primary base of operations for the American diplomatic mission in Iraq pending the construction of the new US Embassy in Baghdad.

Consider the following…. The symbolism of buildings is undeniable. Saddam Hussein famously used architecture to demonstrate his power and legitimacy to Iraqis and foreigners, including, of course, the Republican Palace. Indeed, occupying forces chose to incorporate Saddam’s huge palatial compound into their physical base of operation, the Green Zone. What do you think about preserving this massive symbol of Saddam’s leadership? What Saddam-period buildings, statues, etc. should be preserved? Is this an Iraqi-only decision?

Read these articles and more in the September 2010 issue (vol. 10, no. 4) of the newsletter of the Society for American Archaeology, The SAA Archaeological Record, available for free from the SAA’s website. Click here to go to the full listing of available SAA newsletters, dating back to its initial publication in 2001.