Civilisation Is the Loseer in Antiquities; A North East Heritage Expert Has Gone Public with Details of How the Iraq War Has Fuelled an Illicit Trade in Priceless Artefacts. Tony Henderson Reports

The Journal (Newcastle, England), April 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Civilisation Is the Loseer in Antiquities; A North East Heritage Expert Has Gone Public with Details of How the Iraq War Has Fuelled an Illicit Trade in Priceless Artefacts. Tony Henderson Reports


SITTING at home in Northumberland, heritage expert Peter Stone had seen it coming. As the momentum was gathering for war in Iraq, Peter, who is Professor of Heritage Studies at Newcastle University, warned the UK government and the Ministry of Defence of the peril of wholesale pillaging of antiquities from a country whose ancient cities of Babylon, Ur, Babel and Nineveh are regarded as cradles of civilization.

His fears, and those of colleagues inside and outside Iraq, proved all too well founded.

Museums, libraries and ancient sites across the country were - and are - being plundered to fuel an international trade in illicit antiquities worth an estimated EUR7.8bn which is only beaten by drugs and arms.

Peter, of Haydon Bridge, is well-respected in his field and as well as being head of Newcastle University's School of Arts and Cultures, is chairman of the Hadrian's Wall management plan committee and worked on developing the world heritage site management plan for Durham Cathedral.

He says: "The looting in Iraq currently feeding this apparently insatiable market represents a catastrophic loss for common human heritage."

In 2003 he was approached by the MoD in advance of the invasion of Iraq.

"I argued to a number of UK government departments and to military personnel that there was a real danger of a systematic trade developing in material looted from archaeological sites in Iraq," he says.

"I talked to them about the potential looting of museums and other sites. It was inevitable that it would happen if measures were not put in place to stop it.

"The importance and nature of the archaeology in Iraq, together with the present security situation, have combined to nurture this trade to an almost unprecedented level and to destruction on an unprecedented scale.

"Peter came under fire from some quarters of his profession who suggested that working with the MoD was giving academic and cultural backing to the war.

But he says: "My personal line was that I would work, as requested in secret, with the MoD but that I would not sign any official secret act or other document that would stop me, at an appropriate time, making public everything that I had done."

The appropriate time was last night, when a book co-authored by Peter and colleague Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly was launched at the House of Lords.

When the war started Peter asked people involved in various ways in the conflict, some inside Iraq, to keep diaries of what happened. The eventual result is a book called The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq which includes a contribution by Bernadette Buckley, formerly of Newcastle University's international centre for cultural and heritage studies.

Peter acknowledges the realities of war and politics, not least that the looting of ancient treasures would be overshadowed by the military, ethical and humanitarian issues of the conflict.

"It is a strange and sobering feeling sitting in my chair in the North East and envisaging people half way around the world digging into the remains of early civilizations in order to pay for food for their families." He was also told by the military that there were simply not enough troops to protect sites from pillaging.

A reaction of a leading American politician to what was going on in Iraq was that "stuff happens".

But Peter says: "That 'stuff' is important.

Cultural heritage is very important to the long-term stability of a country after the fighting has stopped.

"Trading in illicit antiquities will continue as long as rich individuals in rich countries prize antiquities as objects of art to be owned privately. …

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Civilisation Is the Loseer in Antiquities; A North East Heritage Expert Has Gone Public with Details of How the Iraq War Has Fuelled an Illicit Trade in Priceless Artefacts. Tony Henderson Reports
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