AIA Urges Protection of Iraq's Archaeological Heritage
March 21, 2010

As the prospect for war in Iraq gains momentum, archaeologists have become increasingly concerned about the fate of that country’s archaeological sites, antiquities, and cultural property. In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, the Archaeological Institute of America passed a Resolution Regarding War and the Destruction of Antiquities (PDF), which urges all governments to honor the terms of the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.

As the oldest and largest organization in North America devoted to the study and preservation of the world’s cultural heritage, the Archaeological Institute of America expresses its profound concern about the potential for damage to monuments, sites, antiquities, and cultural institutions as a result of war.

Iraq, the land of Mesopotamia located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, is the home of some of the world’s oldest and most significant archaeological and cultural sites. One of the areas of initial agriculture and animal domestication, Iraq was the center of the development of cuneiform writing on clay tablets in ca. 3200 B.C. Numerous archaeological sites relating to Biblical history and the Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian and Babylonian Empires are located in Iraq, including Babylon, Ur, Ashur, Nineveh and Nimrud. Iraq’s museums, particularly the national museum in Baghdad and the regional museum in Mosul, are repositories for countless irreplaceable sculptures, inscribed tablets, reliefs, cylinder seals and other cultural objects that record this history.

The AIA therefore urges all governments, working in accordance with the terms of the Hague Convention, in concert with recognized experts in the scholarly community, to develop and implement carefully-researched programs to protect ancient sites, monuments, antiquities, and cultural institutions in the case of war. The AIA also offers the expertise of its members to assist all governments in undertaking these programs.

In addition, in the aftermath of war, the Archaeological Institute of America calls on all governments in a position to act to provide the necessary resources, human and financial, to assess the damage done by war to cultural property and to develop and implement appropriate plans for necessary repairs and restoration. In the case of the looting of antiquities and works of art, detailed plans developed by trained experts should be made for the proper repatriation or restitution of such cultural artifacts.

It should also be recognized that following the 1991 Gulf War, archaeological sites and museums in Iraq were looted on a large scale, with stolen antiquities appearing on the art markets in Western Europe and the United States. We therefore call upon the appropriate governments to take reasonable actions to prevent such looting in the aftermath of war. This includes assisting with security, as well as rebuilding, of museums and sites, providing training for professional staff. Academically-degreed staff who are now working in neighboring countries must be brought back; guards for archaeological sites and overseers who are responsible for antiquities in larger administrative areas must be rehired or replaced. It also means maintaining and enforcing the strong legal framework within Iraq that today serves to protect its archaeological heritage through, among other provisions, state ownership of sites and archaeological objects. Every effort should be made to ensure that any new economic development and exploration that occurs in Iraq will be undertaken with sensitivity and concern for the preservation of archaeological sites and historic monuments.

The AIA is particularly concerned that in the aftermath of war, Iraqi cultural objects may be removed from museums and archaeological sites and placed on the international art market. The removal of such objects would denude the national and local museums of Iraq and cause irreparable losses to some of the world’s most significant archaeological sites. This cultural heritage is of great value to the people of Iraq (as well as people throughout the world) and plays an important role within civil society. The preservation of this heritage is also of long-term economic benefit to the nation and to the region. The actions of all governments in preserving this heritage during a post-war reconstruction phase should be consistent with the terms and spirit of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, of which there are ninety-six States Parties, including the United States, Iraq, the United Kingdom, France, Turkey, Canada and Australia.

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