Ten Ten Years after Iraq: Archaeology, Archaeologists, and U.S. Foreign Relations

By: Morag M. Kersel and Christina Luke



Posted on May 15, 2013 by jennfitz source http://asorblog.org/?p=4505


Ten years ago, in April of 2003, a coalition led by the United States invaded Iraq. This quickly toppled the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein but also resulted in the loss of life, local unrest, displacement, and the ransacking of cultural institutions, archives, libraries, and the national museum in Baghdad. During that eventful month we both worked for the U.S. Department of State in the Cultural Heritage Center– Christina as a cultural property analyst and Morag as a contractor, administering the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation.

In our daily work lives at State we knew that we were carrying out foreign policy initiatives under the guise of archaeology, but until April of 2003 and the unfolding events in Iraq we did not realize that all of the programming and initiatives we carried out at State, and much of our previous lives as archaeologists, was in the service of the state, under a paradigm of national bridge building and fence mending. While we do not wish to diminish the myriad devastating effects of war on humanity, as archaeologists we are also concerned with the consequences of war on cultural heritage.

The days following the invasion were action-packed, filled with discussions and consultations on the best courses of action to protect cultural heritage sites, how to recover and repatriate artifacts looted from sites and museums, and how best to work with our archaeological and cultural heritage counterparts in academic institutions, non-governmental entities, and at the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage [SBAH] in Iraq. After three years of working with/for the Department of State, one thing became very clear to us: archaeology and archaeologists are key elements in the U.S. diplomatic toolkit. Archaeology and archaeologists are among the everyday, on the ground diplomats who present the non-military face of the U.S. to the world at large.

In the days after initial reports of looting and ransacking of cultural institutions, archaeological sites, and museums in Baghdad and the countryside, coalition forces and the U.S.in particular were excoriated in the press. The public woke up to front page headlines like “US Blamed for Failure to Stop Sacking of Museum” and “The greatest cultural disaster of the last 500 years.” The negative publicity associated with the failure of coalition forces to protect the cultural resources in the “cradle of civilization” sent foreign opinion of the United States into a tailspin. Most of the world believed that the U.S. did not care about culture and our failure to place a tank in front of the national museum, but choosing to protect the oil ministry, reinforced this notion. How could a country overcome such damaging allegations?

Many an archaeologist will declare that they do not “do politics” or “heritage.” To many, the science of archaeology allows them to remain above the political fray. We argue to the contrary, that support of scientific endeavors, especially with U.S. governmental sources, is steeped in politics. We think it is time that as a discipline we recognize the power of archaeology in diplomatic relations, whether it is through advancements in technologies using CORONA imagery, research focused on sustainable agriculture and climate change, or heritage management. The interdisciplinary and international networks of field archaeologists leverage cultural capital in ways that other disciplines cannot. This component represents our greatest strength in making the case for future funding of U.S. overseas archaeological projects and U.S. foreign centers. Archaeology and archaeologists are effective but undervalued elements of foreign relations that we should be championing.

Morag M. Kersel is assistant professor in the Anthropology Department at DePaul University and a member of the ASOR Program Committee. Christina Luke is senior lecturer in the Archaeology Department at Boston University and is the Chairperson of the Committee on Archaeological Policy of the Archaeological Institute of America. They are the co-authors of the recently published US Cultural Diplomacy and Archaeology: Soft Power, Hard Heritage (Routledge 2013).