War on Archeology


1. Digging under fire

2. Dig Iraq?

3. Archeology - political tool

4. Rocket museum

Nineveh, on the eastern bank of the Tigris River in northeastern Mesopotamia (Iraq), was capital of the Assyrian empire from about 800 to 610 BC Nineveh is first mentioned in the Bible in the Book of Genesis. Courtesy Wayne Blank.







Ur of the Chaldees was supposedly the home of Abraham. The ancient city was in southern Mesopotamia, near the Euphrates River, about 150 miles southeast of Babylon.Courtesy Wayne Blank.













Mesopotamian misery
Large stone entrance resembling a castle with drawbridge.Ask anyone who grew up on the Indiana Jones movies: Archeologists take pride in working in wretched conditions. Iraq, frequently called the birthplace of civilization, and the scene of strife for more than 20 years, is a particular sore spot for archeologists.

When we asked Elizabeth Stone, a University of Chicago archeologist who worked there until 1990, she told us, "In some cases, war doesn't make it a whole lot more difficult. I worked in Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war when the Scuds [missiles] came in." The city was large enough, she thought, and the odds favorable in any given spot.

The United States was more or less neutral during the Iran-Iraq war, which was started by Saddam Hussein's invasion and lasted most of the 1980s. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, a U.S.-lead coalition defeated Iraq's army, and the United Nations placed sanctions on the country, in an effort to neutralize Hussein's programs in chemical, biological and nuclear weaponry.

Although conditions for foreign archeologists declined drastically, Stone contends the Iraqis "would be happy for us to be there, but there are the U.S. travel bans and embargoes."

Treasure house
Golden colored stone wall with pyramid-like stairs. At the risk of repeating ourselves, remember that Iraq is practically unique to archeology. According to journalist Andrew Lawler, "Few places on Earth have such a long and complex history as Iraq, which for millennia has served as the stage for a vast array of technological inventions, artistic styles, religious and social experiments, and countless invasions" (see "Destruction in Mesopotamia" in the bibliography). When Lawler visited in 2001, "10 years of war, economic sanctions, and the resulting poverty have taken a devastating toll on the rich heritage of the area."

Iraq's well-regarded Department of Antiquities, Stone says, once ably protected existing and potential archeological sites from looters. But as the economy shriveled under sanctions, Iraqis grew "fairly desperate," says Stone. "Anything they can acquire that can be turned into hard currency is enormously valuable, so looting has increased enormously.... When archeological sites are gone, they are gone forever," she observes, "but the really big ones are not going to be as heavily impacted."

The need to eat
Food shortages caused by the sanctions and embargoes have caused other problems. While the ancient civilizations of present-day Iraq invented agriculture, population growth and soil salinization now prevent it from feeding itself.

"All their wheat and rice were coming from the United States before the Gulf War," says Stone. "With that dropping off, they've had to expand irrigation into every area they could, without the possibility of foreign archeologists coming in to check them out. Since the Gulf War, it's clear that many areas have been given to agriculture."

That, she says, contrasts with 15 years ago. "When they started large irrigation projects up north, they invited foreign archeologists to do research" beforehand. (The Why Files covered salvage archeology in the United States.)

Map of Middle-East

What's on YOUR passport?
Some of the caviling may reflect perspective, however. Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of archeology who has worked in Pakistan for 26 years, admits that war and strife have exacerbated money problems, but says local archeologists continue to dig. "The impact is on American academic scholarship, not on archeology as a whole."

Even though Islamic militants are active in Pakistan, he says "Pakistanis are digging, it doesn't matter if they have foreign archeologists there, they continue to do their work. Unless people are physically bombing and destroying a site, archeology continues. The participants change, but the science continues."

Still, Kenoyer says big projects make an inviting target because large numbers of foreigners stay in one place for months at a stretch. A safer approach, he says, involves smaller, quicker projects.

The cycle turns
War and strife, fortunately, eventually abate, and archeologists, of all people, tend to think long-term. While conditions have changed for the worse in the Middle East, they have improved elsewhere. Stone, who observes that "when one door closes, another opens," has moved her work from Iraq to Eastern Turkey, where the Kurdish rebellion has tapered off.

There are other signs of progress in areas blessed by the treasures of the past:

In Sri Lanka, the long Tamil rebellion seems close to conclusion, says Nancy Wilkie, a professor of archeology at Carlton College and president of the Archeological Institute of America, and archeologists have returned to that island nation.

Aerial view of two large stone pyramids. In Cambodia, tourists have returned to Angkor Wat, the enormous complex of Khmer temples that was started in the 9th century. Archeologists cannot be far behind.

In the Balkans, where the break-up of Yugoslavia made work difficult or impossible, archeologists are again digging.

Northern Guatemala (The Petén) was inhabited by several million Maya before their collapse in the 9th century. These are temples at Tikal, in the Petén. NASA.

In Central America, for all its unending poverty, tensions have abated. During the 1970s and '80s, the area suffered from genocide, poverty, civil war and repression. "Not until very recently have archeologists and anthropologists gone back into the Guatemalan highlands," says Jeremy Sabloff, director of the archeology museum at the University of Pennsylvania, who began studying Mayan sites in Guatemala in the 1960s.

The political battles over archeology can linger long after the guns go silent.



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