Year Zero for the Archaeology of Iraq: A Response to Matthews

Marc Van De Mieroop
2003 Papers from the Institute of Archaeology  
The thought-provoking paper by Roger Matthews addresses issues that by far surpass the boundaries of Iraq, but the ongoing destruction of the cultural heritage of that country is indeed a good occasion to reappraise the attitudes of archaeologists working in the developing world toward their host countries. Matthews addresses important aspects of the ethics of archaeology, a topic that is often ignored and where scholarly practice shows remarkable callousness. It is hard to disagree with any of
more » ... isagree with any of the comments made in this paper, and I will try here to nuance them somewhat and place them in the perspective of someone who is not an archaeologist but an historian of ancient Iraq. The greatest scandal discussed here is the lack of the publication of excavation results. This problem is not limited to Iraq, but characterises archaeological work throughout the Middle East. It may have been exacerbated in Iraq in the last decade, but it has always been a disgrace. Everybody suffers from the negative consequences, except perhaps the archaeologist who continues to excavate. Archaeology is a relatively expensive research method, and granting agencies are denied the results of their investments when excavators do not publish their work. It has always surprised me that this does not seem to prevent the renewal of grants, which reflects the influence project directors have in their home countries. For the host countries this situation is even more disturbing; their heritage is simply destroyed. Since funding institutions do not sufficiently enforce their publication duties, it should be up to the archaeological services to do so. Here the situation in Iraq seems especially inauspicious, with the country's national resources being controlled by the occupying forces and sold off to foreigners. Who will issue excavation permits in the future? If in the past a strong and independently minded Iraqi State Board of Antiquities was unable to make foreign scholars publish, how can one expect a department in the control of the same foreigners to do so? Several national archaeological services in the Middle East wield the threat of discontinuing excavation permits but there is an amazing lack of success. Scholars not connected to the archaeological projects suffer as well. They are usually made aware that data of relevance to their work are out there, but cannot use them. This problem urgently needs to be addressed and fixed; it is a stain on the discipline of archaeology. Another problem that Matthews discusses eloquently is the lack of communication between foreign archaeologists and the local populations and scholarly communities. To the inhabitants living on or near archaeological sites the appearance of an expedition must lead to conflicting sentiments. On the one hand there is an employment opportunity, which can provide income unavailable otherwise. On the other hand, the villages may be threatened by compulsory relocation, as modern villages in Iraq and
doi:10.5334/pia.207 fatcat:t62ir27rb5cjnle5ammbrvusf4