Saturday, September 27, 2014

Protecting heritage in Mesopotamia Redux: Will the US military get it right this time?

It is telling, I think, that the news out of the Metropolitan Museum event focused almost completely on Secretary Kerry's comments and on what the monitoring shows is happening in Syria, and almost not at all on what might be done beyond vague calls for help. Now at least one blogger has indicated at least one more specific suggestion:

Bonnie Earnham (sic)  of the World Monuments Fund proposed an even more radical step: incorporating heritage protection training into American efforts to train Syrian rebels and Iraqi military personnel.
This is a very good idea in principle (and one that Bonnie Burnham may have proffered back in 2007-9 when she participated in the meetings that eventuated in the recommendations and articles, including one by her, in Antiquities under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War).  As I have argued repeatedly, heritage protection -- especially in times of armed conflict -- needs to go beyond the valuable but insufficient focus on monitoring and conservation to also encompass the kind of expertise needed to secure sites from looters. Archaeologists and conservators simply do not know how to train military personnel in how best to deploy guards at archaeological sites, with what kinds of weaponry and other technologies, etc.

In practice, however, it is far from clear that the American military has the kind of expertise in archaeological site security or antiquities policing to do much if any good. Military policing in general has never been a high priority of our military. On the other hand, it would take an incredibly tiny fraction of the American military budget to set up a heritage security unit better than any other military's. That's why in Antiquities under Siege we urged that the US do so. In the meanwhile, we also suggested, any military intervention by the US be planned with an eye to making use of the expertise of some of our allies in this area, notably Italy, Spain, and others.

Is anything like this in the works?

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