Archaeology prof McGuile Gibson talks war, saving relics at Law School conference

By Margaret Terry

The University of Chicago Law School hosted a conference last Friday entitled, “Protecting Cultural Heritage: International Law After the War in Iraq.” The two-hour conference focused on the implementation of international law and policy in the aftermath of the Iraq war.

Lawrence Rothfield, faculty director of the Cultural Policy Center at the University, made opening remarks on the failure of policy and law in postwar Iraq, calling for improved strategies against oversights made during and immediately after the war.

McGuile Gibson, an archaeology professor at the Oriental Institute and president of the American Academic Research Institute in Iraq, said that the country was home to the “earliest advancements in human history,” and cited the Iraq Department of Antiquities and Iraq National Museum as safeguards to protect all sites considered valuable.

Violence in modern Iraq has hurt its archaeological treasures, according to the panel. The Iran-Iraq wars, from 1980 to 1988, reduced archaeological projects by depleting both financial resources and manpower. Illicit digging met the recession of the late 1980s, and, as Gibson put it, “looting grew into a huge, managed industry.”

According to Gibson, one leading New York collector of the time had said, “This is the golden age of collecting.”

Gibson said he was concerned when the most recent war between the United States and Iraq appeared to grow nearer. Before Operation Iraqi Freedom, he worked with both the Pentagon and the State Department, where he emphasized the value of the Iraq National Museum, the center of Iraqi antiquities in Baghdad. But despite repeated assurances, Gibson noted that U.S. troops did not protect the museum, which lost 15,000 artifacts after looting reached an all-time high. Only a third of the missing artifacts have been recovered.

Panelists at the conference included Matthew Bodganos, colonel in the U.S. Marine Reserves and leader of the inter-agency investigation of Iraqi antiquities looting during the war; Patrick Boylan, professor emeritus of heritage policy and management at City University in London; Guido Carducci, chief of the international standards section in the Division of Cultural Heritage, UNESCO; Patty Gerstenblith, professor of law at DePaul University; and Jan Hladik, program specialist of the international standards section in the Division of Cultural Heritage, UNESCO.

The U of C, whose archaeological involvement in Iraq dates to 1903, is actively participating in the documentation and recovery of the Iraq Museum’s collection.