Iraqi scientists join forces with Americans to save antiquities

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... U.S. commanders issued no orders to protect the world heritage sites [in Iraq after the invasion], although troops were ordered to protect Iraq’s oilfields. Some 15,000 objects were taken from the museum, and 6,000 have been recovered to date. It was the museum staff that eventually drove out the looters and secured the museum.

When confronted with consequences of this man-made disaster, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld blithely told the press, “Stuff happens.”

Dr. James Phillips, director of the Iraq Cultural Heritage Project at The Field Museum here [Chicago], had a different view. At a May 4 press conference announcing a State Department-funded program to train 18 Iraqi scientists in modern conservation techniques, Phillips said the U.S. should have had a plan to protect the museum and sites from “day one.”

Phillips said he thinks the U.S. has an obligation to help pick up the pieces as the war and occupation wind down.

“Do I believe that we owe them this training? Absolutely," he said.

The Field Museum is partnering with the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute on the $13 million project. Phillips and the institute’s director, Gil Stein, will travel to Iraq (their first visit there) in October and visit archaeological sites throughout the country. “We hope to learn from our Iraqi colleagues” and find out their “specific needs,” Phillips said.

“There are hundreds, if not thousands of unexcavated sites,” he noted. “Some are towns or cities — huge places where you have to choose what to excavate. There aren’t enough archaeologists in the world to excavate all the sites we know of in Iraq.”

Stein emphasized the project is most important because it builds relationships between American and Iraqi scientists.

Last year the Oriental Institute presented an award-winning exhibit, “Catastrophe! The Looting and Destruction of Iraq's Past." It pointed out the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which was finally ratified by the U.S. Congress in September 2008.

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