World Archaeological Congress weighs in on archaeologists’ advising war planners

Larry RothfieldReportLeave a Comment

The recent meeting of the World Archaeological Congress in Dublin, from what I hear, included a rather raucous debate about the proper relations between archaeologists and the military. Here’s the resolution they passed, preceded by a press release. I have a more detailed preliminary response on my blogsite, but suffice it to say that I think the point of view expressed by the WAC is misguided and naive. Had this policy been followed in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, the loss of archaeological heritage would have been even worse than it has been.

Archaeologists urged not to become part of the war planning against Iran

More than a thousand archaeologists from all over the world gathered in Dublin at the end of June to attend the 6th World Archaeological Congress (WAC). WAC is the only archaeological organisation with global elected representation, and one which places particular emphasis on archaeological ethics. (

In the final plenary session on Friday 4 July 2008, the delegates passed a resolution which not only opposes any military attack on Iran, but also urges archaeologists not to offer any advice to the military on archaeological issues during the planning of such attack. In the recent past, archaeologists in the USA were approached by the military and were asked to provide expertise and advice on Iranian archaeological sites. The Congress felt that to provide such information at this stage is to offer “cultural credibility and respectability to the military action”. In 2003, prior to the invasion of Iraq, some archaeologists both in the USA and the UK were asked to provide (or volunteered) information on sites “to be spared”. Their actions attracted considerably criticism from many of their colleagues.

The text of the resolution is as follows:

“The 6th World Archaeological Congress expresses its strong opposition to any
unilateral and unprovoked, covert or overt military action (including air strikes) against Iran by the US government, or by any other government. Such action will have catastrophic consequences for millions of people and will seriously endanger the cultural heritage of Iran and of the Middle East in general. Any differences with Iran (as with any other country) should be resolved through peaceful and diplomatic means.

The Congress also urges its members, all archaeologists and heritage professionals to resist any attempts by the military and governments to be co-opted in any planned military operation, for example by providing advice and expertise to the military on archaeological and cultural heritage matters. Such advice would provide cultural credibility and respectability to the military action. Archaeologists should continue emphasising instead the detrimental consequences of such actions for the people and the heritage of the area, for the past and the present alike. A universal refusal by archaeologists and others would send the message that such a plan is hugely unpopular amongst cultural professionals as well as he wider public”.

CONTACT: Dr Yannis Hamilakis, University of Southampton, co-ordinator, WAC “Archaeologist and War Task Force” (

Dr Umberto Albarella, University of Sheffield, (

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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.

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