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Scholars Assess State of Artifacts in War Zones

May 17, 2007 By:
Ryan Teitman, JE Feature
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Fredrik Hiebert (left) and Richard Zettler discussed the threats to cultural heritage posed by recent wars.

Wherever wars rage, losses abound -- in lives, in economy and in culture. In Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, decades of ongoing fighting have jeopardized the artifacts of two civilizations that span thousands of years of history.

To explore the effect of conflict on the cultural heritage of these two nations, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology presented a lecture by Richard Zettler, Ph.D., and Fredrik Hiebert, Ph.D.

Hiebert, a research associate at the Penn Museum and an archaeology fellow at the National Geographic Society, discussed the preservation of artifacts since the 2003 fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the many difficulties faced before then.

Zettler, who is curator-in-charge of the Near East section of the Penn Museum and an associate professor in the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, explored the efforts of cultural preservation in light of Iraq's decades of recent war.

European archaeologists began excavating in the mid-19th century, and by the 20th century, Iraq had developed "a very highly professional organization" of trained conservators, noted the professor. But in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war and under the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein, that organization fractured.

At the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Iraqi soldiers turned the Iraq Museum into a makeshift fortress, but then abandoned the position. The compound was looted for three days, said Zettler, with reports of nearly 100 people roaming the museum at a time.

Of the 1,100 pieces left on display, he said, more than 40 were stolen, but most taken were recovered. And of the 15,000 smaller, non-display artifacts, he added, 8,000 are still missing.

While looting is a major problem, a more serious obstacle still remains, he said: "the widespread and growing destruction of archaeological sites."

While the Iraqi government had the looting of sites under control through the 1980s, said the scholar, they "are now being destroyed wholesale throughout the country."

While Zettler remains guarded about the future of archaeology in Iraq, Hiebert has witnessed a resurgence in Afghanistan, where he has been recataloguing the collection of the museum in Kabul. It was bombed in the 1980s, and more recently, the Taliban destroyed all human images there.

Many assumed that various collections had been stolen, lost, destroyed or melted down, he said. But after the fall of the Taliban, sealed boxes were discovered at the Presidential Palace. They contained many of the museum's pieces, which had been smuggled out before the looting and destruction, the archaeologist explained.

Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, ordered the restored collection to be taken on a world tour, "to show that Afghans saved their cultural heritage."

The importance of preserving these fonts of knowledge cannot be underestimated, but the human cost to war is always at the forefront.

"Cultural heritage is being destroyed," said Zettler, but "none of us would trade a human life for a clay tablet."

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