IRAQ: Reclaiming a Plundered Past: Archaeology and Nation Building in Modern Iraq

By Zimansky, Paul | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

IRAQ: Reclaiming a Plundered Past: Archaeology and Nation Building in Modern Iraq


Zimansky, Paul, The Middle East Journal


IRAQ Reclaiming a Plundered Past: Archaeology and Nation Building in Modern Iraq, by Magnus T. Bernhardsson. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2006. xi + 221 pages. Notes to p. 284. Works consulted to p. 311. Index to p. 327. $45.

The title and dust jacket picture of this important book may provide camouflage on a shelf of recent works on the looting of the Iraq Museum, but it embraces a much deeper and politically more complex subject than that lamentable episode of April 2003, which occurred after the manuscript had been shaped as a 1999 Yale dissertation. The plundering in question is not the anarchy, vandalism, and shady pilfering for private gain that now prejudices further scientific investigation of the world's first cities, but rather the creation of laws and institutions governing the recovery and exploitation of Mesopotamia's past. The narrative begins with Europe's rediscovery of ancient Assyria and Babylonia in the mid-19th century AD and ends as a sovereign government of Iraq takes control of its own antiquities policy in the mid-20th century. In the sense that over this span much of the material legacy of ancient Iraq wound up in museums in Europe and the United States, one may indeed speak of a "plundered past."

The basic plot line that Bernhardsson develops is that the archaeology of Mesopotamia began as a European concern, to a large extent stimulated by interest in the Bible. British, French, German, and American expeditions had slightly different priorities, but none was much constrained in its quest for portable antiquities by the Ottoman authorities, who administered the unruly provinces that today comprise Iraq with indifference. Local institutions for protecting and promoting the appreciation of the pre-Islamic past did not exist until Iraq became an independent state. Even after Gertrude Bell, during the British Mandate in the 1920s, created the National Museum and Directorate of Antiquities, the laws remained generous to foreign excavators, who were funded by museums and expected to export much of what they found. The first Directors of Antiquities were themselves foreigners, and at least one was not above smuggling antiquities out of Iraq after he left office. At the end of the Mandate, Iraqi officials, most notably Sati' al-Husri, sought to rein in the exports by restricting the divisions of excavated materials. This brought protests from the foreign archaeologists, some of whom decamped for Syria, but in fact did no more than bring Iraq's policies into line with those of other countries like Greece and Egypt. …

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