Editorial

Article excerpt

* For most archaeologists, the material culture of the past belongs to us all, so must be kept in trust by a neutral authority for those not yet born. Antiquities are beyond price, and trading them is just bad. It fuels demand and damages sites. No-one reading Elizabeth Stone's satellite expose of site looting in Iraq (this issue) could doubt that. Zero tolerance is safest. On the other hand, we all know about the large collections stored in the extensive basements of innumerable museums, which are seen only once in a decade by an overworked curator; not to mention the annual tonnage being gathered by commercial companies engaged in CRM. I am sure the unborn will be grateful this stuff will still be there, but the rest of us know less about it than a Roman statuette on someone's mantelpiece. Rigorous laws against looting are famously difficult to police, and encourage destruction of the evidence in the face of disclosure, especially if the penalties are severe. Some indigenous communities might be glad to benefit a little from the sale of antiquities, rather than have them housed in a don't touch bunker of a museum. Perhaps a legitimate market would serve to protect antiquities, as well as raise appreciation for the cultural diversity of peoples. Or would it?

* 'Access to antiquities' may become a hotter topic than ever in 2008. Here are two contradictory examples from the United States, beginning with Fort Drum, New York State, where Laurie Rush, archaeologist in residence, has devised a number of inspired training programmes for sensitising servicemen just off to the Middle East. Pilots were shown a model historic cemetery made of concrete blocks which looked just like the real thing from a helicopter gun-ship. And in amongst the blocks on the ground soldiers were introduced to the idea that the heritage was not just a victim, but a player. Rush explains: "In a recent exercise our guys were engaged by would-be bad guys from the cemetery. Our guys had gone to investigate reports of a weapons cache. They went in carefully, without kicking over tombstones. The danger was that al Qaeda would be using it as a film-op. If it was trashed, that would be propaganda points for them". Drawing attention to the project in the Wall Street Journal's blog Melik Kaylan cautioned that: "In the era of chaos in Iraq, it has been all too easy for the world to airbrush out of mind the longstanding record of American custodial service to other peoples' cultures," and he reminds us of the 'monument men' who saved works of art in Europe in the aftermath of WW2. In another current initiative, emulating the method used to bring the list of Saddam's most wanted to the notice of GIs, new playing cards have been designed showing the most precious archaeological sites in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 5 of clubs shows a soldier walking over mounds in Isin, Iraq, the caption reading "A looted archaeological site means that details of our common past are lost forever". On the backs of the cards, the strap-line reads: Respect Iraqi and Afghan Heritage. This is repeated, around the image of a cuneiform tablet, in Arabic and the Afghan languages Darri and Peshto. (1)

Meanwhile back home another great American institution, Time Magazine, decided to launch a love-offensive in praise of investment in antiquities, leading off with a notable success story: the profit raised on a statuette from Mesopotamia:

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"The sculpture is just three and a half inches tall and looks like a female body-builder with a lion's head. But there's no question that the 1948 purchase of the 'Guennol Lioness' by Alistair Bradley Martin was a brilliant investment. The 5,000 year-old piece of Mesopotamian religious art- presumably of Inanna, goddess of sex and war- was sold at auction by Sotheby's New York last week for a record-shattering $57.2 million. Found at an archaeological dig near Baghdad, it is an extremely rare representation of the goddess--known elsewhere as Ishtar--in animal form. …