ar in Iraq would halt archaeology not just in that
country but across the Middle East, experts say, and could
result in some of the earliest cities of Mesopotamia being
bombed or looted into ruins of ruins.
Researchers with long experience in Iraq say they are
worried that postwar looting could cause even more damage to
the antiquities than combat. They also fear that some art
dealers and collectors might try to take advantage of any
postwar disarray and change in government to gain access to
more of Iraq's archaeological treasures. After the Persian
Gulf war of 1991, ancient treasures were plundered and sold
illegally in international markets.
Fear of war has already had a widespread effect. All
European research teams left Iraq months ago, indefinitely
suspending excavations along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers
at places like Uruk, Assur, Nimrud and Nineveh.
Others doubt that they will return this year to dig sites
in Syria, Jordan and some places in southern Turkey. In many
cases it is impossible to get insurance for staff and
students. Researchers in Egypt are growing wary, and nascent
plans for reviving long-suspended operations in Iran have been
Archaeology in Israel, already curtailed by internal
hostilities, is expected to suffer further interruptions, with
almost none of 30 American excavations likely to be operating
soon. At one of the largest sites, the ruins of the old
Philistine city of Ashkelon, archaeologists have not dug a pit
for two years and will not return this summer.
Even Israeli teams that often work through the worst of
times have decided not to dig this year.
"Everybody's nervous, and virtually everybody's canceled,"
said Dr. Rudolph Dornemann, executive director of the American
Schools of Oriental Research, which coordinates archaeological
work in Israel, Jordan, Syria and elsewhere in the region.
Even those who have not yet called off this summer's dig
season say they will have to make a decision in the next few
weeks. They are not optimistic.
"I want to go into the field, but I don't want to walk into
a war zone," said Dr. Richard Zettler of the University of
Pennsylvania, who has directed excavations in Syria at Tell
Sweyhat, once considered safely distant from the Iraqi
Archaeologists have set aside their individual concerns and
have tried to alert American officials to the cultural
devastation that war and its aftermath could bring to the land
of the oldest civilization, where urban life and the written
word originated some 5,500 years ago.
Leading archaeologists and representatives of cultural
groups have conferred with officials of the State and Defense
Departments, stressing the importance of compliance with the
1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property
in the Event of Armed Conflict.
The treaty obligates combatants not to target cultural
sites and monuments except where military installations have
been placed on or next to them. The United States signed but
did not ratify the treaty.
At the invitation of the Pentagon, archaeologists have
provided military planners with the locations of hundreds of
Iraq's outstanding ruins from antiquity. But the entire
country, experts say, is an archaeological site.
"We've gone about as far as we can go," said Dr. McGuire
Gibson of the University of Chicago, one of the archaeologists
who met with Pentagon officials. "We reminded them that there
are no natural hills in southern Iraq, and if you see a hill,
in most cases it's the mound of a buried ancient
As a legal adviser to the Archaeological Institute of
America, Dr. Patty Gerstenblith, a law professor at De Paul
University in Chicago, participated in some of the discussions
and said the Pentagon seemed "very receptive, at least in
terms of taking our information."
"They realize that our attitude toward cultural and
religious treasures is very important to world opinion," Dr.
Gerstenblith said. "And it may be especially important in
dealings with Iraq's neighbors in the Middle East."