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Experts fear for Iraq's archaeological treasure

By Alphonso Van Marsh

This is the bottom of a Mesopotamian tumbler fashioned from gold and silver. It's one of many ancient works of art found in Iraq on display at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.
This is the bottom of a Mesopotamian tumbler fashioned from gold and silver. It's one of many ancient works of art found in Iraq on display at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

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University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropologyexternal link

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- As U.S. troops prepare for a potential war in Iraq, an international coalition of archaeologists, lawyers, researchers and art collectors believe some of the world's most important archaeological sites are at risk.

Iraq -- a cradle of ancient civilization -- is the home of such fabled cities such as Ur, Babylon, Kabala and Nineveh. Many scholars believe that cuneiform writing, glass, accounting -- and even bureaucracy -- were invented there.

Archaeologists are apprehensive that a U.S.-led bombing and land campaign might damage Iraq's tens of thousands of archaeological sites.

"War and archaeology are not a good mix," said University of Chicago archaeologist Maguire Gibson, who has been leading archaeological digs in Iraq since 1964. Gibson heads the American Association for Research in Baghdad -- a consortium of about 30 U.S. museums and universities.

"When you have a war, armies tend to occupy higher ground. When they take higher ground, they tend to dig in. And when they dig in, they are digging in to ancient sites," Gibson said.

The American Council for Cultural Policy wants U.S, forces to be aware of precious sites. Its president, Ashton Hawkins, said his group was offering maps and expertise to the U.S. administration.

"We want to stimulate discussion. The cultural sites and monuments in Iraq are part of the world's heritage," said Hawkins, a former general counsel at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The American Association of Museum Art Directors, American Schools of Oriental Research and the Archaeological Institute of America have issued similar pleas to government leaders to protect Iraq's museums, monuments, cultural centers and archaeological sites.

British activists say the effort isn't progressing as well in the United Kingdom.

"Ram Caught in the Thicket" is one of the most famous pieces from the Royal Cemetery.

"Trying to get the message across is a very slow business. It's like trying to push a dinosaur out of the way," said Harriett Crawford, president of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq.

She said she is teaming up with British legislators to lobby British military authorities and the Foreign Office to commit to a plan to protect Iraq's patrimony.

Crawford said the U.S. and its allies need to realize Iraq's heritage is a unifying factor in a country with no natural boundaries, made up of diverse groups with varying loyalties: Kurds, Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Christians.

"It seems to me that in any attempt of reconstruction after an invasion, heritage has a major role to play," Crawford said.

Duke University Law School professor Scott Silliman believes U.S. forces will select targets with great care. The former Air Force colonel was the senior attorney for U.S. Tactical Air Command during the 1991 Gulf War. His legal team helped U.S. forces target Iraqi sites in Operation Desert Storm.

"The targeting process is extremely complex. Commanders do not just bomb targets willy-nilly," Silliman said.

"A good commander will tell you, or me, that you must give me all the information so I can make the best decision I can. He's certainly not rejecting any source, whether it's inside or outside the Department of Defense," he said.

There is no independent assessment of damage to Iraq's cultural and archaeological treasures following the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

Metal tumblers, like this one, reveal the advanced metallurgy of Mesopotamia.
Metal tumblers, like this one, reveal the advanced metallurgy of Mesopotamia.

But Gibson, Crawford, Houghton and Silliman agree that some of the greatest damage to Iraq's antiquities came from post-Gulf War looting. In the absence of strong central rule, some of Iraq's museums and archaeological sites were cleaned out. Many of the looted items later appeared in international art sales.

Whether under President Saddam Hussein's regime, a new regime, or foreign occupation, Houghton argues, more planning and funds will be needed to rebuild Iraq's cultural and archaeological programs.

The American Council for Cultural Policy and other organizations say they aren't taking sides as to whether the U.S. should invade Iraq.

During the Gulf War, a senior official with the Baghdad Museum -- which is near a railroad station, telecommunications office, the Iraqi Ministry of Information and other military targets -- reportedly slept in the museum, watching over antiquities too large to move to safety. The museum wasn't hit.

But Maguire Gibson of the American Association for Research in Baghdad is worried about Iraqi colleagues: "It is not an easy thing to think that a country that you are very fond of, a people who you are very fond of, are going to be in very real danger."

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