NY Review of Books Weighs In: The Looting Happened

Larry RothfieldReview3 Comments

Hugh Eakin has a long review article in this week’s New York Review of Books. The kicker is in footnote one:

Citing the June survey, recent reports in the Art Newspaper and The Wall Street Journal have somewhat breathlessly suggested that little or no looting in southern Iraq actually occurred. To the contrary, the findings provide further evidence that organized plunder was both extensive and selective, bearing out earlier indications that some large sites were not affected.

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Lawrence Rothfield's research focuses broadly on the politics and sociology of culture, and in particular on cultural policy. The founding faculty director of the University of Chicago's Cultural Policy Center, he has written or edited volumes on topics ranging from censorship and public funding of museums (Unsettling "Sensation": Arts Policy Lessons from the Brooklyn Museum of Art Controversy), to state–level humanities policy, to the impact of cultural "scenes" on regional urban development. His recent work has concentrated on illicit antiquities and the problem of protecting archaeological sites and museums from looting. Publications on that topic include an edited volume, Antiquities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War, and a book on the disastrous failure to secure Iraq's sites and museums from looting in the wake of the 2003 US invasion, The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum. He is currently working on a book about the illicit antiquities market, and a separate project on the origins of modern cultural policy in Renaissance Florence.

3 Comments on “NY Review of Books Weighs In: The Looting Happened”

  1. Cultural Property Observer

    For an alternative view, please see: http://culturalpropertyobserver.blogspot.com/2008/07/hugh-eakin-and-devastation-of-iraqs.html

    Jumping to a conclusion that no looting occurred based on welcome news that there has been no recent looting at some important sites is wrong, but so too was exaggerating the extent of looting of the Iraq Museum and archaeological sites in the first place. Sorting out the exact truth of the nature and extent of looting after the 2003 Gulf War will probably take years, if it occurs at all. Perhaps, more significantly for the future, Eakin details steps being taken to engage the local populace and convince them not to loot archaeological sites. This seems more promising than the wholly punitive measures that have been the focus to date.

    Sincerely,

    Peter Tompa

  2. Larry Rothfield

    I agree that we should be focusing on the future and on steps to be taken, but it is difficult to look forward when reality is being obfuscated. Three points in that regard:

    a) the exaggeration of looting at the Museum was a mistake made by the news made by reporters in the heat of the moment and long since corrected (unlike the claims made by the Pentagon a few weeks later that only 38 or 39 pieces had been lost – claims that still circulate in the rightwing blogosphere);
    b) the extent of looting on archaeological sites has not been shown to have been exaggerated;
    c) the exact truth of the nature and extent of looting need not take years — it could be done within a few months if only the US government would turn over the satellite images, or if Mr Tompa could persuade some wealthy collector(s) to pay for commercial images.

    That said, the key point on which I hope we can all agree is that we do not need perfectly exact knowledge to push now for policies that will protect archaeological sites, and for the funding to turn those policies into programs. One program would certainly focus on engaging, not the local populace per se but the tribal authorities; it would “convince them” by paying them to guard sites themselves. Another program suggested by Eakin’s reporting would enlist tribes in a joint effort with antiquities police backed by military logistical support (i.e., helicopters, walkie-talkies, etc.).

    Either of these programs could be established quickly if wealthy collectors and dealers were willing to invest a fraction of what they spend on antiquities – or if the US government would impose a tax on legal sales of antiquities and use those monies. A good faith effort by dealers and collectors to plow money into site protection might even convince archaeologists that this is a better tool for protecting sites than mere import restrictions.

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