Friday, April 24, 2009

Brian Rose's radio interview -- a few comments

AIAPresident and Professor at University of Pennsylvania Brian Rose describes his recent first trip to Iraq where he saw ancient sites cratered by looters. Professor Rose also speaks about the cultural heritage briefings he has been giving to American soldiers on the archaeology of Iraq and Afghanistan, and his visit to the Iraq Museum. The interview can be heard here in the second part of the broadcast.

Rose was struck by the great number of sites that had been looted, and waxed eloquent on what has been lost: history has been murdered. Hammering home this reality is vital, and Rose is to be commended for doing so with great effectiveness. Even more important is to translate the despair at what has been lost into a determination to do something going forward to stop the looting. Here again Rose met the challenge. His visit, he said, had a purpose, which was to add to the credibility of suggestions for how to protect the sites, since “archaeologists have been talking about what would be the best way to safeguard the archaeological sites and antiquities yet few of us have actually been there on the ground witnessing the situation as it really exists, so we were making recommendations without a full deck of cards.”

No doubt Rose is correct in believing that speaking as one who has been “in country” will give recommendations the patina of being based on an assessment of the situation “as it really exists.” The problem, however, is that it is not clear from the interview how full or accurate a view of what really exists he achieved during a State Department-run tour that, at least from what one can glean from the interview, included stops at Babylon and at Ur, both sites that have been visited already by others and that have had military bases established on or near them since 2003. (See my earlier blogs on the visit of the British Museum team in June/July 2008.) A better view of the overall situation as it really exists would have been gained if the State Department had instead given the AIA time-series photos of a representative sample of sites, so archaeologists could count the number of new holes.

The more serious concern, however, is about whether recommendations from archaeologists for safeguarding the sites will go beyond site management plans such as the one for Ur that Rose mentions discussing with Iraqi officials eager to promote tourism to Abraham’s birthplace. For major sites like Ur and Babylon that have long been well-protected, site management may be just fine, but most sites are not so lucky. They need to be secured from looters, not managed for tourist visits.

And site security is not going to be achieved by cultural awareness training for troops, something Rose has been doing for the past five years. Not that such efforts are not extremely important for other reasons and worth continuing. They are crucial. But if sites are going to be secured archaeologists need to give the military and the State Department pointed practical directions for specific tasks they can and should undertake to secure them, and the tools needed to perform that job. It would have made no difference whatsoever had the tank crew that approached the Iraq Museum received a lecture in the history of Mesopotamia – they had no riot gear, no tear gas, no barbed wire, no crowd control training, and were barred under the rules of engagement from firing over the heads of looters.

Figuring out what these tasks and tools are is not that difficult, but it is not the kind of thing that archaeologists are used to thinking about. In fact, while Rose speaks of recommendations being made about how to protect sites, there are none from the archaeologists – at least not to my knowledge, and I would be delighted to be told otherwise – that are based on input from site security experts, cultural police like the carabinieri, or the Iraqis themselves, who have repeatedly decried shortages of money for site guards, gas for vehicles, communications equipment, etc.

The Italians are coming back in to help train Iraqis to fight the trafficking of antiquities, and it would be fantastic if the AIA set up a task force with them and other policing experts to develop teaching modules. When Brian Rose’s lectures for deploying officers include a powerpoint segment entitled “how to secure a site from looters”, with a bulleted tasklist linking to resources, this trip will have been worth it.

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