A Modest Proposal: Regarding the Protection of Antiquities from Wanton Destruction in Future War

The title of the following observations might better be offered as, “…from wanton destruction by the present heirs and/or occupiers of the lands of their original creators.” As we were sadly aware, immediately upon the lightning-swift liberation of Baghdad after a campaign of less than four weeks it was discovered, even as guns were still rattling outside, that the Iraq National Museum had been despoiled by gangs of vandals, some of whom appeared to have had keys to the vaults and knowledge of where the most valuable items were, people who paused to make sure computers were removed and the old, yellowing card catalogues destroyed. Some days after the arrival of the general appointed to oversee the country while United States forces began to restore water and power and police districts were yet to be pacified, a “specialist in prehistoric ages,” 33 year old Mohammed Sabri (so young, he was most likely employed as a trained shovel-wielder) “bemoaned the losses to the museum and blamed the Americans, at least partially, for failing to protect the building,” according to a Los Angeles Times correspondent. “They were late. They should have been here the first day. The Ministry of Oil was protected from the first day. Why not the Museum? Ask the Americans.” The “Americans” did not need to be asked. The media outcry was shrilling outrage from the day after soldiers entered Baghdad. The keening arose from the “archaeological community,” which includes museums, philanthropists, collectors, scholars, numismatists and most prominently the Archaeological Institute of America. Even though it seems not more than 30-50 “important” objects had gone missing, the abuse of the White House by the media was virulent.

The wreckage was truly appalling; what was left in Baghdad were the odds and ends of collections that had not yet been earlier taken from the Museum’s vaults by insiders with keys, or shipped out during the last decade by the regime’s personal diggers and traders of antiquities — Saddam’s relatives, favorite high officers, and his mistress’ servants — who had long busied themselves retrieving antiquities, trenching, plundering, and transferring works abroad to salesrooms and dealers’ vaults. Journalists and soldiers apparently stuffed their backpacks, augmenting the loss by carrying off stuff from bazaar vendors and as yet unpoliced sites. As the situation stands, what lies hidden in strata dating to ancient Western civilization will simply have to wait for future investigators. The AIA has over the past quarter century conducted a stubborn campaign of lobbying to make the trade in antiquities from anywhere illegal, aiming to suppress dealers who receive and collectors who buy artifacts lifted from tombs, sanctuaries and the like; it declares whatever emerges into the light from the past off-limits, by right the property of governments, meaning favored scholars — a minute portion of the scientific community, to be sure — and by default museum curators, people appointed to minister to the care and display of objects. Never mind that 99% of things warehoused around the world, stacked and sealed in packing cases or gathering dust in drawers in museum cellars are actually examined only once in a century; moreover, almost none of them add more than an iota to our knowledge. It might be better said of such sequestered objects, that they have been entombed yet again, more or less safe from harm.

Well and good. No one questions the premises upon which the strictures of the archæologists stand, shakily enough in the United States, where little attention or respect, and rather scarce financial support have ever been invested from its belated beginnings. So far as the public knows, archæology means picture stories in travel magazines or the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and its TV videos, at best a comic book hero named Indiana Jones wandering armed through movies descended from the genre of the Frankenstein monster via the “curse” of the mummy Nesferatu after the plundering of the sepulcher of an ill-fated youth named King Tut hit the headlines in the 1920s, and who has been toured about again in the new millenium’s first decade. Has the “archæological community” any grounds high or low to have justified the vehemence of its attack upon the soldiers who liberated Iraq, as if they were responsible for the losses of the Baghdad museum? It is not even known in point of fact who those looters were, apart from the anonymous rabble in streets who seem to have been drawn rather to furniture, office machines, government and bank records, vehicles, TV sets, washing machines, sofas, chandeliers, and such. Given the 48 hours during which the lightning thrust into Baghdad took place, there would seem little basis to support this “archæological community’s” arrogation of the right to demand, ex post facto, that a force charged to protect the national museum should have been sent with the first soldiers. Indeed, a harder question might be asked: Is there any reason why securing the museum should even have been considered a war aim? Hindsight is the feeblest argument. Yet for the sake of argument, if it should absolutely have been considered, what solutions might have lain ready and to hand? It is worth some discussion.

Several centuries have fallen away into time’s dim oubliette since an Italian nobleman strolled through his garden in Florence after the Spring rains and was struck by a ray of sunlight glancing from a muddy, marble limb. Although Italians had always lived amongst great still-standing ruins of walls, temples, palaces and city gates, it seems odd to us today that the idea itself of a buried past from which they scavenged marbles, and built upon and lived over had not suggested to them the notion of a science we now call archæology. Perhaps they had always been too distracted by a millennium and more of invading barbarians, too busy farming and working and fighting to protect the cities that remained after the Empire of Rome had faded from living memory, or been transmuted into a peninsula of cathedrals and churches. In the 18th Century, even Edward Gibbon seated overlooking the vast wreckage of the Roman Forum, its columns and strewn stone fragments spread before his eyes, and musing upon its builders’ all-too ephemeral shadows, had not conceived the possibility of restoring a more ample knowledge of that vast empire’s decline and fall through the unearthing and reconstruction of its ruins by means of a new sort of discipline. That means was still to be developed by the technology of a far-off future. He had to construct his story from whatever written records had survived the fire and flood of time’s constant wars; the treasures of the art and architecture of that bygone Classical civilization had proved easy to smash, cart off or melt down, for indeed that proved the fate of most all the Ancient world’s great creations. Gibbon knew, as Ecclesiastes knew even while the Parthenon was being built, that only the present lives: the past is no more; its records are friable, subject to revision and re-evaluation (In contrast, the civilization of China, dynasty upon dynasty, was threaded by a persistent veneration of the past, and connoisseurs and antiquarians preserved the most fragile things, including its annals, notwithstanding periodic barbarian invasion from the northwest; it also kept crafts and arts alive and new because it was always trading to the west, south and east. In the Christian West nothing much remained known, let alone understood.) That Renaissance discovery in a garden was to evolve into a passion for excavation and recovery, until archæology and its ancillary, paleography, blossomed in the 20th Century. Old things, broken fibulas, votive figurines, mirrors and tiled floors, sarcophagi, mummies, tomb furnishings, statues and walls incited the beginning of an understanding that there was indeed far more to Greece and Rome, Jerusalem, Egypt and Ur of the Chaldees than could have been guessed from the relatively few writings left after the library at Alexandria was burned.

As a corollary concomitant with the growing curiosity about the relics of a lost Classical civilization, as well the great Middle Eastern empires that long preceded it, the 18th Century began to make a market for them: from the antiquarian collector’s cabinet and the rooms set aside by princes for their works of art came the notion of a museum, the repository of objects to be viewed by a middle class that emerged during the 19th Century. When industrial magnates entered the auction rooms, vying with aristocrats, the houses of dealers arose to satisfy their desire for such things. Soon enough, curios and bibelots acquired a cash value, one that rose in proportion to scarcity; furthermore, during the creation of the 19th Century colonial empires, a taste for the exotic and esoteric was cultivated.

None of that however, even the estimation of objects that eventually flowed into the possession of the public, tells us much about their intrinsic value, if any, even when and perhaps because, they may come to be designated as “priceless.” Since most exploration and digging, when it is not treasure hunting on the sea’s floor, has but recently graduated from its status as a hobby for amateur adventurers, remains a minor area of ill-funded research directed by professors in a few institutions of higher learning — how many autonomous departments of archæology exist in the United States? even as many as a half-dozen? — it might be concluded that the remote past of dead civilizations is regarded as something not really worth investment. Whatever glory halos the few scientific excavators and gives some summer employment to a their graduate students, it is a dim glow against the bright background of a commercial-technological culture that nets the globe. As the Viennese wag once categorized the scale of things in society: It may be serious, but it’s not important. (The converse holds true as well.) . Life in short goes on, as it must, and the present alone determines what matters; ancient wisdom reminds us that it is better to be a living dog than a dead lion The past is a foreign land, its richest human remains reduced to swaddled bones at best; their creations are things that served for practical and ritual use: tools for raising animals and crops, for housekeeping chores, weapons for hunting and warfare, clothing and music for leisure; all the things suggestive of daily life — and death — their ways of laying aside their dead together with their doings. If not for what is left in writing and pictures, what they may or may not have believed about whatever there is to be believed is almost as unknowable (and if known, intrinsically incomprehensible) as the world itself and our universe. Certainly most of its self-expression is obscure and mysterious, when not impenetrable; what we imagine the dead meant by what they wrote and drew is merest conjecture . Which is only natural, since it is hard enough to comprehend what we who are alive believe, or think we do. From a financial point of view furthermore, the amount of support of study of the human past is scarcely a trowel’s worth of sand in comparison to what is allotted to our exploration of space, whether our own solar system, or our one galaxy, one among billions of unimaginably vast systems, let alone the remotest past of the universe glimpsed by the puzzled cosmologists — all of which is driven perhaps by hubris, in any case certainly close to inexplicable.

Still, we continue to build museums; we do pursue and gather objects brought up from out of the buried past to be displayed in these our contemporary mausoleums. We convince ourselves that in visiting them we are entertained, and now and again may even learn something when reading the signage describing what is placed on exhibition. Learning about a thing is simply the acquiring some information, these days not necessarily factually accurate nor much different from political propaganda . It is difficult to believe we can be enlightened by the occasional visit to one of these public tombs through whose halls we stroll, glancing idly at the crafts and arts of the ancients, those objects once devised to support and augment their well-being, and those images by which they expressed to themselves their now forever-vanished life — such as it was for the rich, such as it was for the poor. And if we are for a fleeting hour consoled by the pathos of the past, the very pastness of the past, it serves to remind us, at least at such moments, that, yes, we ourselves are alive. No negligible reminder. And yet not very instructive, let alone useful to most of us, it seems.

If there is however a lesson taught as we gaze through the glass of museum cases or walk round statues or look up contemplating paintings, it is that in truth we are infinitely remote from what we see. We try to imagine what they say to us, or if they tell us anything at all. They are relics, things upon which the energy of the living was once expended; in today’s jargon, “surplus energy”; nevertheless they are au fond things that as such are impenetrable, impervious to our wished-for communication. Silent, they resist our questioning; it even may be said they reject it. Reflection tells us, if we’re honest with ourselves, that whatever they may be, they are subsist but virtually, only as long as we look at them or hold them up to memory in the mind’s eye. What is a costume on a dummy in a glass case? For that matter, what is the suit of clothes left behind when a parent dies? Or even the suit or dress we ourselves wore once upon a time at our own wedding ? They are as nothing. They have passed in the way that a day in Heraclitus’ flows by, in the evening leaving us different from what and who we were that morning. Philosophy murmurs, This is how it is. The past is momentarily returned in the song of the elegist, that poetry voiced long before philosophy, in the keening of Gilgamesh, by the ecstasy of The Psalmist, through the joyous lamentations of Sappho. Perhaps such places stuffed full as they are with untouchable, unusable relics of life are no more than our extravagantly expensive collections of memento mori. They serve well in that way — so long as we can afford to protect and care for them.

To the living at this hour, how little matter those inventories of thousands upon thousands of objects, pieces of sculpture, jewelry, pottery, baked cuneiform clay tablets disemboweled from the sands, as in Baghdad, and in what was Babylon long before the Prophet lived in Arabia — and long before the nomad Arabs — arrived to occupy the lands between the two great rivers? Serious they may seem to be; still, hardly important. Is it surprising that they had so very little value that enraged gangs of brutal men suddenly unshackled from the grip of a peasant tyrant like Saddam armed with the latest weapons made elsewhere and refined techniques of social control developed elsewhere should have burst in to pillage the museum? Perhaps its holdings have cash value to some, given the world market for antiquities; but obviously nothing as useful as sofas or TV sets? Instantly such a howl went up in the West at their despoliation you would have supposed the Great god Pan had died yet again, when in fact it was the usual havoc of barbarism, newly-hatched in the demotic populace of a city built on sand, and paid for, supported by what lies far below — not antiquities but something immensely more useful to the West: oil. What waste, what a shame to have smashed all that stuff to smithereens, lamented our pundits. The truth, they overlooked: those objects have value only to those with money; their value is determined by a dealer who sets the rate according to cost and profit, and what the traffic will bear. Any cultural or intellectual value in them exists only insofar as it may be useful to curators who put up captions and placards presumed to convey their history, perhaps enhanced by invented anecdotage about what the dead did when they lived, stories varying according to the political vicissitudes and ideological deformities of each generation. An amusing and absurd example of this inherent fantastification was to be seen recently in Xian at the entrance to the hall exhibiting the famous terra cotta army of the tyrant who first unified China. A huge mural representing the people of the Ice Age, probably dating from Chairman Mao’s decades, presumably representative of the new Western (Soviet?) science of archæology, depicts a family of forebears in skins: blonde-haired women and children and ax-wielding Nordic-featured hunters! The painters seem to have modeled their drawing style on the 1940s comic strip, Terry and the Pirates. To the looters of today’s Iraq, those things signify nothing: they are neither work nor food, knowledge nor skills. Looters have no inclination to luxuriate in the nostalgias archæology offers in the Smithsonian.

If we are honest with ourselves, we must recognize not only that dead men tell no tales, but that their dead things, in and of themselves, whether ten or ten thousand, are silent; they simply do not, cannot speak to us. A library of clay tablets recording the transactions of their day — trading in sheep, goats, oil, wine, slaves, and so on — is not much more enlightening than grandfather’s tax return, even though the economist may deduce the scale of commerce and its organization millennia ago. And the craft that made little votive idols, or jewelry, manifests the level of their skill, all such remains being but adjuncts to a diurnal round that exists no more. Daily life is gone with each revolution of the turning globe. Temples unearthed and restored are temples for tourists, not worshipers of whatever gods may have been; they are museums. Is there anyone who can know what the great statue of a god meant to its beholders at the time that god was honored, when rituals were performed by priests and votaries? All the commentary in the world, even if accurately explained, is essentially imagined, a confabulated, rickety sort of rope and plank bridge swaying between the viewer today and the living then, who knew what they knew about their gods, just as today we know what a red light, a yellow light, and green light mean to us as we stand at a street corner. Between the consciousness of those who are no more and ours there is the unfathomable abyss of many-too-many yesterdays. What they were may be hinted at by what they left behind, or buried to sequester from us; who they were can no more be guessed than what we, standing with a watering can and a bouquet of fresh flowers before the headstones of our own parents, can suppose we know of them. Furthermore, what is the underlying significance of treasure buried with its owner, from Egypt to China, and everywhere in South America? The Norse heroes were put into deep barrows with their gold and silver and amber, or like Beowulf in his epic poem set adrift on a burning pyre, laid out with his hard-won riches on that bark, its sails iced-up in winter, like Scyld Sefing, and set to drift with the tide out to sea, to a place no one knows. Surely there was no practical reason compelling mourners to keep treasure and owner together when death was celebrated? There was a market value to things even when a pyramid covered its maker, which looted tombs tell us, not to mention their marble sheathing. Practically speaking, the dead have no need for any thing of material or cultural value. Rather, there is some profound wisdom at work, wherein it was felt or known or believed that material riches were meaningful things of interest solely to those who had enjoyed them when they lived. Those who lived on would of necessity create new things of their own, for they had their present hour in which to do so. What was buried with the dead was the dead’s. Somehow, the modern market place, its wealth and connoisseurship, has shown that it prizes inanimate objects before all else. Modern society rationalizes its emptiness by pretending to admire beautiful objects, even if they were painted and burnt clay cooking vessels. Perhaps the simple greed of ancient looters and recent conquistadors was morally less suspect: beauty was melted down for its gold and silver; gems were gouged out to be set in bangles and coronets for new royalty. What is served by the display of pots and feathers and idols of clay but vanity? The descendants now living off those who made them have other gods, and their votive objects are not made of scarce and costly metals in order to be buried with their owner. In our world, graves hold urns of ashes or bones. All relations to spirit or soul have altered forever, and the old magnificence of the after-life has been abandoned.

Nevertheless, since the enormity of the wanton and deliberate destruction wreaked upon the Iraq National Museum of recovered things was declared an immeasurable cultural disaster for that nation by those who declare what culture is, perhaps we must turn and consider what is to be done to prevent such a calamity tomorrow. And tomorrow is already present, since the conflict we see now is likely to spread throughout that region of desert and mountain, to Egypt and Syria, Iran and Pakistan and India, if not beyond. Surely the lesson of Baghdad ought not to be lost upon us? If we are serious, it is an important lesson. Undoubtedly scholars and the American Institute of Archæology, pundits and critics who shouted, Shame upon you, President Bush! are serious, if not important, persons. Since there are agencies trying to track and retrieve and restore whatever can be salvaged, our first concern ought to see to securing beforehand precious ancient objects from such ravage. Our category must include as yet undiscovered treasures buried with their former owners, who took them with them into the airless dark. In other words, let the demand for preservation be respected: viz., antiquities, per se priceless, beyond any and all valuation, must be protected and guarded no matter the cost; whether unearthed or retrieved from their millennial slumber, they must repose in safety, conserved and locked up for study by those who devote a lifetime to it. Failure to do so is a crime against all humanity, for they are the heritage and legacy of generations yet unborn. Let it also be recognized that war and its attendant chaos is not merely foreseeable, but inevitable during the rest of the 21st Century. Therefore the fundamental question that looms before us is: Do we preserve people, or relics? Before the answer comes, it should be understood that a trade-off is entailed. Consider what will be done in either case.

The premise of archæologists, diggers, historians, curators and, of course the market, assumes a priori that the answer lies to hand: antiquities matter in the long run since they are irreplaceable. People, on the other hand, crowd the earth in our epoch, polluting it and exhausting its resources. That people are disposable by the tens of millions was demonstrated in the 20th Century in its world wars and by the rise of totalist regimes for which genocide is a basic principle. Insofar far as this issue asserts precious objects must be spared, people need not be. Their removal during warfare would consist merely of those unfortunates residing near museums and libraries, or on places built beside or upon the lost cities of archaic societies and their burial sites — only the minimum necessary, of course, since a population displaced wholesale would revive the enormities committed by Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. There are always empty regions to which they, after proper warning, and with financial and logistical assistance, might transfer themselves, or be transferred. In the event of resistance to forced exodus from a homeland, the next step would be stronger action following upon the proclamation of imminent mortality.

By what means? Our Third Millennium opened with a dark prospect exhibiting ingenious developments in death-dealing: the distant delivery of fatal chemical agents and biological vectors, perhaps even more fearsome than the familiar detonation of giant explosives dropped from the sky. Weapons of Mass Destruction, we term them. It seems, however, that at present they are not sufficiently accurate or reliable, being subject to wind and rain, and to an extent able to be defended against by armored clothing, masks and the like. In any case, gas and germ warfare is likely to be employed by the weaker combatant — and by the terrorist — since major powers regard themselves constrained by treaty and law, if not by morality. Nuclear bombs great and small, the nec plus ultra of physical annihilation, destroy not merely people and structures, but incinerate the very ground itself, and deposit far and wide a bitter glow of radioactive debris that lasts for decades or can be designed to endure for centuries, inciting genetic horror, as was recently shown by the Chernobyl nuclear power-plant meltdown in the former Soviet Union. Furthermore, the dirty mini-bombs now threatening population centers everywhere will leave the legacy of plutonium’s fatal decay products, radiating with terrible half-life for the next 26,000 years. What then can safeguard the antiquities they insist are mankind’s link to its civilized origins — originally and by right the property archæology has ravished from the helpless dead?

Having in theory ruled those weapons out, what’s left? Given the great probability of attacks from hidden sources of terror, may defense accept the necessity of pre-emptive strikes? The instrument of choice required to extinguish a city’s structures and/or its population must neither blast, burn, nor stir up lethal clouds of dust and sand. Only some clean device, one that leaves little chemical or biological residue, will serve. Some four or so decades ago such a weapon was announced ready for use in artillery, designed to stop the expected “unstoppable” waves of Soviet tanks poised to ram through the Fulda Gap into Western Germany and Europe. Some objection there was; after a while, however, news reports ceased to appear. That tool was a neutron bomb. Today precision carriers, drones and missiles could deliver it from a great distance.

The purpose of that instrument was the release upon detonation of gamma rays. Buildings and all other structures would remain intact. Protection, there is none. In 36-48 hours, those exposed perish. A silence of quarantine will remain for some days, followed by the burial of the dead. A gloomy-enough task, yet necessary for public safety.

And thus, a great work shall have been accomplished: the buried hoards of our lost and forgotten progenitors may rest intact until tomorrow’s archæologists return to find and restore them to light, to be catalogued for future study. Museums will not be razed; on the contrary, their holdings will constantly be augmented, that our children’s children may learn about their ancestors, by whom the past that is always only the past was created. To today’s materialists of our technological civilization, which aspires to leap into space, that matters least as the species grows older, foreseeing already the death of our sun. People today cannot conceive of an ancient humanity for whom the end of each person was from the first consciously prepared. It cannot retrieve the notion of a life accepted as the fulfillment of a search, not for buried treasure, but for the rule of the good life, the true and beautiful and proper relations between ourselves. Life was for most, as Hobbes remarked, brutal and short. Daily, life was lived out under the Sword of Damocles, so to say; and death hung over us by a thread. This was the teaching of Socrates, of Gautama, both of whom chose to depart quietly, having held nothing and owned nothing but the present, which they filled with conversation, with seeking and teaching the best way to make a path through the few hours of our days. Neither wished to possess more.

On the other hand, what characterizes fanatics who seek to liquidate people like us, including our archæologists, is the promised reward of ease in some supermundane Garden of Eden, a Paradise exempt from time. Today’s soldiers of a warring Islam care nothing for their own lives, let alone the obliteration of the records of the past. The reply we must make is to prevent them from their goal, the destruction of themselves and ourselves as well. That is moreover the task implicitly assigned by our demanding archæologists. We can agree with them; it is our choice to make; and it must be done. If such means as the gamma rays of neutron devices as has been suggested above are employed when and as the strategic situation requires, there will no reason for critics and pundits to carp and accuse our leaders of dereliction in their duty to save what is left of Ur of the Chaldees, or Damascus or Cairo or Persepolis, and other points east.

Jascha Kessler is a Professor of English & Modern Literature at UCLA. He has published seven books of poetry and fiction, as well as six volumes of translations of poetry and fiction from Hungarian, Persian, Serbian and Bulgarian.