Securing a Future for Iraq's Beleaguered Heritage
Ugly things happen in war. In the midst of the nightmare of violence that is Iraq, other tragedies are continuing—ones that are largely unknown to the general public. Destruction of archaeological and cultural sites, of monuments and antiquities is continuing at a furious pace. Weighed in the balance against the toll of death that is visited daily on the people of Iraq, does this matter much? Should it matter? Between oil and antiquities, Iraq’s two vast underground resources, it’s the antiquities that presumably provide some benefit to poor, otherwise destitute people. Even some archaeologists have publicly stated—as at the Fifth World Archaeological Congress in June 2003—that digging their own past for sale is a right of the poor, though it’s widely acknowledged that those who do the digging may receive a pittance. Let us not blame the looters; their trade is after all ancient. Think of the pharaonic tombs—King Tut’s was one of the very few lucky ones to have survived their attentions—and looting is active today in many countries, even wealthy, developed ones like Italy. So, can anything be done to limit looting in Iraq? The answer, obviously, is not much in present times when, it is reported, many of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) professional staff work half-time or less, with meager resources, unlike the looting gangs who are well-equipped and armed. Looting apart, threats to the archaeological resources of Iraq also come from the lack of maintenance and conservation of these sites, an impossible task in the present circumstances, given security operations that involve earth-moving equipment, uncontrolled construction, and future development projects that will certainly affect the landscape of the country once security improves.