Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Waters of Babylon

The New York Times reports on a major undertaking by the World Monument Fund and Iraq's State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, financed (at least for the assessment and preliminary management planning phase) by the State Department. The last paragraph raises obliquely a criticism of the way in which postwar funding for archaeological concerns may have skewed towards producing more archaeologists, to the neglect of beefing up other kinds of expertise also needed to do the dirty, unglamorous jobs of shoring up buildings, pumping out or diverting water -- and, one might add, securing, monitoring and patrolling sites against looters:

The site was returned to Iraqi control more than a year ago. Ms. Ackerman and Mr. Allen said the project had already surveyed the remains, building by building, and started the restoration of two museums. Although Iraq has a large corps of trained archaeologists, they said, an immediate need is to instruct others in the conservation of ruins and bring in structural engineers and hydrologists to handle the water problem.


LIsa Ackerman said...

The comment about the lack of trained conservators in Iraq was not a criticism of post-war funding. If only the issue were that simple. Archaeology has a long distinguished place in academia. Conservation, while practiced throughout the ages, has been a formalized discipline for a relatively short period. Academic degree-granting programs in conservation began in the
mid-20th century. Archaeological site conservation requires a complex set of skills that may include an understanding of archaeology, architecture, engineering, and materials analysis and hands-on conservation knowledge. During the 20th century in Iraq, more attention was paid to archaeological exploration and in some instances reconstruction of historic elements at archaeological sites. This comment could be made about many places around the world. It is only in recent decades that there has been an expanded interest in overall site conservation and presentation. There are conservators in Iraq, but there numbers are small and many have had limited contact with international colleagues in recent decades. WMF's point of view is that addressing problems at Babylon can be achieved more effectively if it is married to sufficient training opportunities for Iraqi professionals.

Larry Rothfield said...

Lisa Ackerman is right, of course, that site conservation is a poor relation to archaeology, though neither discipline is exactly in the pink. So it is not surprising that archaeologists would grab most of the post-war funding that got put on the table in the 7 years after the disaster at the museum. Heaven knows they needed help. But any policymaker looking at Iraq could and should have been acutely aware that from 2003 until today Iraq's most serious immediate problem was to stop its sites from being flooded, eroded, destroyed by developers -- and, most of all, from being looted. American money could and should have been used, then, to train not just archaeologists, but also site conservators, structural engineers, hydrologists, and (last but by no means least) archaeological site police. Policing is not an academic discipline, and not something either archaeologists or conservators know anything about, but it is something that our State Department and military should have thought about, and should still be thinking about, as a major element in their cultural heritage policy. Unfortunately, they are not doing so.

in the years after the invasion, and almost a year and a half after the belated $13 million finally provided by the Bush administration to support cultural heritage protection in Iraq, the