America’s Archaeologists: Armchair Savants?

We now have a fairly full account of the efforts made by American archaeologists, professors, and curators to safeguard the “heritage” sites and museums of Iraq. They wrote a lot of letters and e-mails. They placed some op-eds. A group visited Washington, and met with low-level officials at the Pentagon. Their best-known member, McGuire (“Mac”) Gibson of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, presented the Pentagon with a bewildering list of 5,000 “no-strike” sites to be avoided by the U.S. military—one for every year since the first cuneiform tablet. There was a follow-up meeting at the State Department. All of this was eventually distilled into a March memo by the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA). It gave high priority to protecting the Iraq Museum, but U.S. commanders in Baghdad never read it.

Archaeologists have sustained a tangible loss. For as long as living archaeologists have been digging, there has been no legal export of finds from Iraq. All the artifacts discovered by American achaeologists—before the embargo suspended their digs in 1990—rested in Iraq’s museums.

Now listening to the scholars, you might be persuaded that the looting of the Iraq Museum is the greatest loss to human knowledge since the Library of Alexandria burned down. Gibson has compared the stolen artifacts to the most famous archaeological treasures in the world: “The Baghdad museum is the equivalent of the Cairo museum. It would be like having American soldiers 200 feet outside the Cairo museum watching people carry away treasures from King Tut’s tomb or carting away mummies.” All of these comparisons are pure hyperbole, much of it self-serving, all of it lapped up by anti-war activists, and some of it believed by editorial writers. Still, for archaeologists and students of later periods of Iraq’s history, this has been an unmitigated catastrophe.

But since Egypt has been cited as a metaphor for Iraq, let’s take it one step further. Napoleon set out to conquer and occupy Egypt in 1798. There were no journalists, but his ships did carry 167 savants: physicists, chemists, engineers, botanists, zoologists, geologists, physicians and pharmacologists, architects, painters, poets, musicians, and antiquarians. Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence tells their story in a few evocative pages. Their prime mission was the careful study of Egypt as they encountered it. Conditions were difficult: not only did the savants have to march like soldiers, but they had to endure the mockery of soldiers, who couldn’t fathom their obsession with Egypt’s ancient sites and modern customs. Napoleon’s campaign was a military failure, writes Barzun, but it was a cultural success, “the Enlightenment in action.” Its ultimate legacy was the monumental Description de l’Égypte: twenty volumes that put Europe’s fascination with ancient Egypt on a sound scholarly footing.

It’s a pity that some of America’s savants weren’t along for the ride to Baghdad. Their presence, like that of embedded journalists, would have reminded field commanders of the need to respect and pursue goals deemed important by influential constituencies at home. But our savants didn’t propose it. Indeed, they would have found the idea preposterous.

Why? Imagine you operate in an academic environment of alienation from American power and its masters. Imagine that your discipline is increasingly subject to post-colonial commissars, who warn that even the idea of Mesopotamia is an imperialist construct, and that scholars will be banished on the mere suspicion of association with the imperium’s legions. Add the fact that your personal access to archaeology, art, and architecture requires that you kowtow to third-world despots. You are more likely to know Tariq Aziz than Paul Wolfowitz. Are you going to don a flak jacket and jump into a Humvee, even to prevent a predictable cultural disaster? We know the answer.

And so the role of alerting American forces on the ground fell to… Robert Fisk of The Independent, who saw the Quran library go up in flames.

I raced to the offices of the occupying power, the US Marines’ Civil Affairs Bureau. An officer shouted to a colleague that “this guy says some biblical [sic] library is on fire.” I gave the map location, the precise name—in Arabic and English. I said the smoke could be seen from three miles away and it would take only five minutes to drive there. Half an hour later, there wasn’t an American at the scene—and the flames were shooting 200 feet into the air.

Before you judge the Marines, I ask you: when was the last time you believed Robert Fisk?

The Egyptian Expedition Under the Command of Bonaparte by Léon Cogniet (1835).