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Archeology and War

By
March 18, 2010

Brian Rose is not out of place on the Swarthmore campus. His graying hair, glasses, tweed jacket, and tie featuring decorations form a Sumerian vase, declare that he belongs to the elite academic world. And he has the credentials to back his appearance. After receiving a B.A. in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology from Haverford College, Rose went on to graduate school at the University of Columbia, and is now a professor of Classical Studies and Archeology at University of Pennsylvania. He is also an excavator at Troy in Turkey. Rose is sure in his role as college professor, but he has taken on a new group of students: the United States Military.

After the American invasion of Iraq, many cultural institutions felt the need to intervene to protect the rich archeological heritage of the embattled country. At that time Rose was Vice President of the Archeological Institute of America — he is now President — and it was his task to organize a response. At a lecture on Wednesday, he shared his experiences in establishing a program to educate American troops on the importance of protecting archeological heritage in the Middle East.

At the beginning of the Iraq War, museums and concerned institutions did not have a unified response to the dangers faced by art; a concern with publicity prevented collaboration. In looking at what the AIA could do, Rose was unsure of how to best protect the ancient treasures. He determined to go to the source and ask archeologists native to Iraq and Afghanistan what they needed. It was not an easy task in these war-torn countries. The most pressing concern put forward was that the American soldiers, charged with protecting the nation and its cultural heritage, did not understand the importance of archeology. Rose had found a niche. He could help soldiers appreciate the beauty and fragility of history.

Rose proposed the concept of a lecture on archeology as a part of basic training and wrote to Donald Rumsfeld, then the Secretary of Defense. He has yet to receive a reply. Next he turned to a casual acquaintance from his graduate school days at Columbia, Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, a marine, attorney, and classical studies master. Bogdanos helped Rose create a one page proposal (“a struggle”) and submit it to the appropriate authorities. The program was approved by US High Command, but Rose had to seek approval from every base he wished to lecture at. Starting with two bases, the program has expanded across the country.

Even with the program established, it’s not an easy task to present the lectures. The audience ranges in size from 35 to a thousand, and the archeologists might be expected to speak for 20 minutes or an hour. Multiple lecturers are now involved. “On lecture tours you’re usually treated like a rock star. The army doesn’t do that. You need to be able to change on a dime.” Rose tries to use veterans who later became archeologists for the program: people who are used to adapting for the army’s need.

“I thank you in advance for safeguarding the material I devoted my life to protecting.” This is how Brian Rose begins all his lectures to troops. “I don’t want to put anyone on the defensive. The goal is to make them care.” In his lectures Rose stresses the importance of history. “The danger of looting is that artifacts will lose their historical context and will not be able tell us all they can about the past,” says Rose. He gives the troops a primer on conservation and identification of archeological sites; any hill in Southern Iraq is an archeological site and cannot be built and any change in soil color indicates mud brick and must be reported to a superior.

“In the beginning I had trouble making this information relevant to the soldiers. I found that what really interests many of them is the Biblical aspect.” Rose makes the history of Iraq relatable by drawing in a possible site of the Garden of Eden and Noah’s flood. He also emphasizes the importance of Iraq as the “cradle of civilization” and as the place with the world’s first written law code. So soldiers remember all the important lessons, Rose gives out playing cards with pictures and helpful facts, paid for by the Defense Department.

“This is all the cultural training the soldiers receive,” says Rose. He wants to make cultural lectures a mandatory part of basic training and expand the program to other countries. “A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive,” says Rose, “It’s not about the politics. It’s all about the archeology.”

One Response to Archeology and War

  1. Catarin Smith

    March 22, 2010 at 8:59 pm

    Before the Iraq war I remember President Bush and other US administrators were approached by researchers, scholars, and archaeologists who asked him to protect museums, Babylon and other Iraqi archaeological sites from the war. Bush forgot. I guess someone who can lose a billion dollars in cash in Iraq wasn't too smart in the first place.

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