Friday, March 23, 2007

A Handful of Dust

Not content with stealing the same vase over and over again, looters are pillaging unguarded archaeological sites all over Iraq:

Though the museum is now safe—its doors bricked shut and collections entombed behind welded cellar doors—the country's 12,000 archeological sites are mostly unprotected and the Iraqi government is hard put to stop their plunder.

The longtime former director of the state board of antiquities fled to the United States last August after receiving a death threat. Car bombings and other violence mean the guards who would look after remote sites are often unable to get there.
With no way to stop the looting, archaeologists are reduced to monitoring historical sites via satellite; holes appear in the landscape as the sites are dug up:
At sites dating to 1700 BC, 63 percent of sites were looted, with 84 million square feet of ground torn up and some 30 million square feet of the surface missing entirely.
By an odd coincidence, the antiquities trade seems to be thriving in Afghanistan, too:
"I bought my pieces from the villagers. Then I brought them here," says shopkeeper Ghawsuddin.

"Many Pakistanis buy them. The most beautiful go overseas, he says. "Of course it is a pity to see our riches sold off, but most Afghans are poor and illiterate and for them the treasures mean little more than survival."
There’s speculation that poverty-stricken Iraqi looters are hoarding antiquities at home, in order to sell them later. Other looters seem to be more organized, and I can't help wondering about the possibility of an arms-for-artifacts trade. Whatever the motivation, though, the results are disastrous:
After brief exposure to sun and open air, many of Mesopotamia's clay artifacts, particularly cuneiform tablets, quickly decompose and therefore could be lost forever.

If that is the case, "a huge amount of Mesopotamia is turning to dust….”
In The Destruction of Memory, Robert Bevan understates matters considerably when he says:
America’s awareness of Iraq’s contribution to its cultural self is not comparable to Eisenhower’s strong sense of the centrality of Italy’s art treasures to Western culture.
I'd propose that this awareness isn't comparable because it doesn't exist. But even if it did, it wouldn't necessarily result in Eisenhowerian sentimentality about our shared past. On the contrary, it'd probably make us more desperate and brutal in our efforts to distance ourselves from the Evildoers (who, come to think of it, are very likely to have no word for freedom).

To be fair, we don't particularly care about our own historic sites, either:
One of the last surviving communities built by freed slaves after the U.S. Civil War is on the verge of disappearing, despite long efforts to save it.

The old buildings of Freedmen's Town in Houston are being bulldozed to make way for new homes in a transformation that preservationists say is wiping out an important piece of history....The loss of Freedmen's Town is particularly significant because historians believe it was the largest of the freed slave settlements that was still intact architecturally and to some degree culturally.
In other looting news, the GAO reports that the US still hasn't secured Iraq's munitions dumps:
Failure to guard the sites "has been costly," the Government Accountability Office report said, noting looted munitions are being used to make roadside bombs, the No. 1 killer of U.S. soldiers in Iraq....

In the report, the Defense Department said that commanders are aware of the problem, have done similar surveys over the past three years and lack the manpower for a new one without harming the war effort.
In other words, if we try to secure the munitions that comprise "the No. 1 killer of U.S. soldiers in Iraq," we won't have sufficient troops to combat the people who are using these munitions in a war of attrition against U.S. soldiers.

On the bright side, at least we're aware of the problem.


Rmj said...

One of the last surviving communities built by freed slaves after the U.S. Civil War is on the verge of disappearing, despite long efforts to save it.

Houston notoriously despises any sense of history. But is it remarkable that many from the Administration are from Texas?

It's certainly no coincidence.

Interrobang said...

The loss of Iraqi antiquities is something that's going to be written about (in that quietly incensed way that historians can have) in history textbooks generations from now. We already know so little about that time and place.

Freed slave communities confound the narrative, so of course evidence for their existence needs to be wiped off the map. Come to think of it, given the prevailing narrative these days, Tigiris-Euphrates antiquities confound the narrative too.

(Apropos of nothing, the first three letters of my word verification string are the airport code for the city in which I live. Weird.)