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The Plunder of Iraq: John Malcolm Russell with Jim Long

While the Bush administration declares the war against Iraq over, a war against Iraq’s cultural heritage is well underway. Mainstream news organizations are sending the public an unmistakable message: that Western museums and perhaps other, smaller educational and “cultural” institutions can expect to soon share in a glut of antiquities from the Near East. This will be in violation of current international law, as well as the 1954 Hague Convention, but lawyers versed in customs and export law have been at work on this “problem” for a decade or more. The current situation is the creation of U.S. policy, or lack of it, however difficult that may be for a peace-loving and rational public to imagine.

Art historian and archaeologist John Malcolm Russell, who heads the Critical Studies department at the Massachusetts College of Art, is currently in Baghdad, along with a team of scholars who are attempting to honestly assess the real cultural and historical damage caused by the past war. The following conversation actually took place two days before the war began. Now, as news reports come in that a massive U.S. airbase is being constructed next to Ur, and that occupying Marines have spray-painted slogans over the 5500-year-old temple there, it is difficult to imagine that chaos will come to an end.

Jim Long (Rail): The early civilizations, and we’re talking 3200 B.C.E. or so, were trading people. Record keeping would be necessary for trade. There was no wood or metal in the region?

John Malcolm Russell: They had to trade some distance to get anything other than dirt and water. But you don’t have to go too far, maybe 30 or 40 kilometers, to get limestone. The most amazing thing for me about Uruk [in south Iraq; site of the Gilgamesh epic in the late third millennium] is when you visit the site, the stones—worked chunks or debris of semiprecious stones, flint, obsidian, you name it—all crunch underfoot. There’s so much stone that got brought there—from a great distance. For that to carpet the ground is remarkable evidence for the power of the Uruk trading network.

Rail: Tell us about your initial visits to Iraq in the 1980s.

Russell: Well, the first time I visited, I guess it was the Christmas of 1981, I visited Nineveh on a holiday off from excavation, and what I hadn’t known was that the reconstructed palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh, and a reconstructed palace of Ashurnasirpal at Nimrud were quite remarkable monuments, sensitively reconstructed on the foundations of the existing stones. There’s nothing Disney-like about it, or inauthentic. Other than a few photographs, published in inaccessible places, they weren’t documented. When I had a chance to go back and work at Nineveh (having been changed by that experience I wrote my dissertation on Sennacherib), I decided that my free time could be well spent photographing what was above the ground, just because it needed to be done.

Rail: The palaces were reconstructed by the Department of Antiquities?

Russell: The southern half of Nineveh had been developed as a town sometime in the 1950s. It was a pretty dense town, and was threatening to leap the small river that runs through the center of the city and expand onto the northern half. Faced with that, the Antiquities Department decided that what they had better do is turn it into a tourist attraction to show that there were things there that could be valued as an archaeological site rather than a modern town, so they re-excavated the part of the palace that Layard had excavated in the previous century and restored it with a roof over the top, preserving something like a hundred (relief) slabs on the walls.

Rail: A chilling thing happened to you in 1995 that had to do with the palace walls you documented. Can you talk a little about that?

Russell: In the late summer of ’95, a museum in Jerusalem, the Bible Lands Museum, sent me some photographs of Assyrian sculptures they’d been offered for exhibition and they quite appropriately wanted to know if these were things they should be exhibiting, or if I had any thoughts about them. In fact I did: they matched things that I had photographed in 1989 and ’90 at Nineveh, but they weren’t being presented as loans from the Iraqi government, they were being presented as loans from a private individual or dealer; it wasn’t clear who was offering this stuff. Two of them were pieces that were fragmentary already, they had been in storage as fragments. The third one was a small, interesting section from a large slab that I had photographed. I wrote the museum and said “No, you shouldn’t exhibit those,” and they didn’t. One of those actually popped up later in London, and ended up eventually being returned to Iraq. The next year a lawyer sent me photographs of ten sculptures, and they were smashed out of larger slabs as it turned out—leaving the larger slabs just as piles of rubble in order to extract pieces a few inches or maybe a foot square. The lawyer wanted to know did I recognize these, and I did, but it wasn’t easy because the photos I had showed large slabs, and the photos he was showing were tiny fragments.

Rail: Is pillage like this a desperate act? I’ve understood that the Iraqi people are very proud of being an ancient civilization and having these historic artifacts. Would that kind of thing be the mark of an unscrupulous outsider or internal desperation?

Russell: Certainly before the ’91 Gulf War there simply wasn’t archaeological pillage or looting in Iraq. I attribute that to the professionalism and strength of the Antiquities Department. Also, people were reluctant to break the law in Iraq because they didn’t want to get in trouble, I think.

Rail: You say in various places that UN sanctions prohibited outside assistance to the Antiquities Department—film, developing chemicals, things they would need to do documentation work.

Russell: That has relaxed in the last couple of years. I know about two years ago I heard from UNESCO that they had been finally cleared to go work in Iraq. About ten years too late. You may have read about the initial request, from the Iraqi Antiquities Department directly after the second Gulf War, (and you recognize my terminology: As far as the Iraqis are concerned there have been two Gulf Wars already, the first one being the one with Iran, and the second being over Kuwait.) In response to catastrophe and their concern about their heritage, the Iraqis have done two things. One is to ask for help. It was the Iraqis who asked UNESCO to help preserve their heritage, it wasn’t us forcing it on them, and the United States blocked that twice—a very nasty thing to do, either thoughtless or nasty. If it was not thoughtless, it was horrible. But, the other thing is that in the Iraqi declarations they always emphasize that Iraqi heritage is also world heritage—we should all be proud to share it. Already in 1991 the economic situation was weakened by the eight years of war with Iran, so it wasn’t exactly a healthy economy to start with, and that’s part of the reason it became possible so quickly for the looting to take hold and for the Antiquities Department to collapse. The constant through all this is there are always going to be Western collectors, outside, willing to pay money, no questions asked, for things coming out of an antiquities-rich country.

Rail: When that begins to happen, aren’t there agreements, even “unwritten” agreements that historians, scholars, and people involved with the arts have with each other? Isn’t it difficult to pass things like that along?

Russell: No, not at all. The antiquities market is fueled by plunder and by the money of people all along it, a chain of plunder from the collectors who finance it ultimately to the people, impoverished or speculative, who pull things out of the ground. The problem we’re talking about is not the destruction of Nineveh, however sad an occurrence that may be. It’s the destruction of the hundred or hundred dozen sites over Iraq that haven’t been excavated, or not fully excavated, and where people went in at the height of the looting in the mid-1990s, with front loaders and dump trucks, scooping up the sites and carrying them off to the desert to dump them out on the ground and pull out the marketable things.

Rail: In terms of a coming disaster, what are we looking at?

Russell: The breakdown in law and order; the control that the Antiquities Department exerts. This breakdown expressed itself most critically in two ways after the second Gulf War, especially in the looting we’ve already talked about. One of the lessons of the last war is that the Antiquities Department collapsed and so did the heritage of Iraq. So you don’t want the Antiquities Department falling apart again; you don’t want someone taking over and telling the Iraqis how to run it.

Rail: The first thing I hope is clear to our readers is our concern for the people of Iraq and the people who border it.

Russell: I had just looked back over a letter to the editor from the Natural History article I wrote a few years back and someone wrote in practically comparing me to a Nazi because I hadn’t thought to, in that article, sufficiently express my concern for the people of Iraq. So I want to make it clear that I’m very concerned about Iraqi society and Iraqi people, and as a heritage specialist I think it’s my duty also to speak up for heritage. If I didn’t, I think my friends in Iraq would be very irritated with me, because that’s what they want me to do; they’re the ones asking for the help also. You know, it’s really much more damaging to target heritage, to destroy heritage, than people generally think. There is something about having a past, having a sense of who you are that allows you to measure yourself against what political leaders or market forces think you should be. And if you don’t stick up for the past and for who you really are, you risk being anybody. Ancient Iraq is a large part of who we are today. I don’t want to seem colonialist about it, or imperialist, but I’m happy to have ancient Iraq as part of my heritage and to acknowledge that, just as the Iraqis are happy to share that identity with us.


Jim Long


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN-JUL 2003

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