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Ancient Artifacts, Modern War

It was April 2003, just a few weeks into the invasion of Iraq, and C. Brian Rose ’78 watched with dismay as news reports told of the wholesale looting of the National Museum in Baghdad.

In a free-for-all that lasted 36 hours before the building was secured, hundreds of looters, some using carts and wheelbarrows, carried off thousands of artifacts, many of them priceless relics of ancient Mesopotamia.

Rose, an archaeologist who has worked on the excavation of ancient Troy on the northwest coast of Turkey for two decades, was then president-elect of the Archaeological Institute of America. He thought that he and his fellow archaeologists around the world ought to respond in some way to what had turned into the biggest museum theft in history.

“I assumed, a little naively I guess, that there were systems that would come into play in such a situation,” says Rose, who is a professor of classical archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania and deputy director of the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

But Rose soon learned that, since the end of World War II, archaeological organizations had developed no history of collaboration and action when important artifacts were at risk.  “We had no history of working with the military to find the solution to the problem of protecting cultural property in zones of conflict,” he says.

Thanks to Rose and some like-minded colleagues, that has changed.   In 2004, Rose launched a lecture series to provide cultural-heritage training to troops deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan.  “I wanted to help them understand,” he says, “how ancient both of these civilizations are and the level of cultural excellence they had reached, and how important it was to protect the monuments, the archaeological sites, the museums and libraries.”

To date, Rose, has given his lecture more than 50 times, to Marines at Camp Lejeune, to Army soldiers at Fort Bragg, Fort Drum, Fort Dix and Fort Eustis, and to visiting groups of soldiers at the Penn Museum.  But getting the program up and running wasn’t easy.

“I didn’t understand at all how the military worked,” says Rose. “So, initially, I wrote a letter to Donald Rumsfeld because I thought if anyone could green-light a lecture series at military bases, it was the secretary of defense.” When that letter went unanswered, an AIA colleague suggested Rose contact Matthew Bogdanos, the Marine colonel who had been charged with repatriating the looted objects from the Baghdad museum.  As it happened, Rose had gone to graduate school at Columbia University with Bogdanos, a classical-history scholar and attorney who went on to author Thieves of Baghdad, about his investigation into the museum thefts.

“We hadn’t spoken in 25 years, but he wrote back and said, ‘I think this is a good idea, I support it, and I’ll help you do it,’ ” says Rose. “Without his help, I never would have been able to launch this program.” Another key supporter was Laurie Rush, an archaeologist at the Army’s Fort Drum, who developed a deck of playing cards featuring educational messages about protecting sites and preventing plundering, which Rose gives out to the troops at his lectures.

“I cannot tell you how fortunate it was for archaeological preservation in Iraq and Afghanistan that Brian Rose was the President of AIA when the conflicts began,” says Rush, who traveled to Iraq with Rose in 2009 to advise on the preservation and management of cultural sites, including the ancient Sumerian capital of Ur.  The Iraq war in particular became a controversial issue in the profession, Rush says, with many arguing for protest and against playing any role with the military. But Rose stayed above the fray, maintaining that it was the AIA’s role to focus on the antiquities being threatened.  “He is a true gentleman, and he acts on the belief that there is no point criticizing people and situations unless you are willing to be part of a solution,” says Rush.

Rose gave his first lecture to the troops at Camp Lejeune in 2004. Preparing for the visit, he was apprehensive.  “I didn’t know what it would feel like to be on a base. I wasn’t sure how welcoming they would be.” He couldn’t see the military as he would later, as simply “a group of men and women who are doing a job and believe fervently in what they are doing.”

And yet, while the military might have been an alien culture to him in many ways, conflict has preoccupied him all his life. “I turned 18 the year the Vietnam War ended, and I grew up watching the war,” Rose says. “And, in fact, much of my writing as an archaeologist has been about the history of ancient warfare. At Troy, I dig up destruction levels all the time. There is no time when I don’t think about conflict and battle.”

Rose says he’s received a warm welcome at all the bases he has visited, but his original plan to recruit other lecturers didn’t work.  “Academics, when we go on lecture tours, we’re used to being treated almost like royalty,” he says.  “The military doesn’t have time for that. Sometimes you would arrive on a base and they would give you 50 minutes, sometimes 20, and sometimes you had a day. You need to be flexible and be willing to turn on a dime.”

Rose’s PowerPoint-enhanced talks to the troops start off by explaining what archaeologists do and why it’s crucial to look out for plunderers.  “I want them to understand how much history is lost when the looters get there before we do,” he says. “They dig down trying to find something they can sell on the black market, and what gets destroyed are things like human and animal bones, and carbonized seeds, all of which are precious because they tell us something about diet, sacrificial customs, the history of agriculture.” Also lost is information about where the object was found—important context that can reveal much about how it functioned in the society that produced it.

To make ancient Afghanistan and its artifacts and ruins relevant to the troops he lectures to, Rose talks about Alexander the Great’s campaigns there. “I tell them about how they are literally walking in the footsteps of Alexander and that many of the problems [U.S. troops] have moving across the terrain are problems Alexander himself faced,” Rose says.

To help educate them about Iraq and its origins in ancient Mesopotamia, Rose draws on archaeology in the Bible, which tells of the Tower of Babel and Daniel in the lion’s den and places the Garden of Eden in the vicinity of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. “This is all Iraq,” says Rose.

“I also highlight it as a land of so many firsts that they take for granted in their daily life,” he says. “[Mesopotamia] had the first schools, the first dictionary, the first law code, the first attempts at astronomy; they invented soap and coffee.”

“He has a magical way with these individuals,” says Rush, who recalls the day Rose traveled through a snowstorm to Fort Drum to talk to a group of soldiers preparing to leave for Iraq. “He held them spellbound with his images and discussion, patiently answered their questions, and stayed as long as he possibly could without missing his flight home.”

Rush also remembers the soldier she met on a trip to Afghanistan. The young woman, who had attended one of Rose’s lectures, told her about how he had volunteered his Sunday afternoon to meet soldiers at the Penn Museum and give them a personal tour.  As the soldier related the story months later, in the middle of the night in her quarters in Kandahar, “the excitement in her voice was contagious,” says Rush.

“I hear from soldiers all the time,” says Rose, who, as deployments to Iraq wind down, now averages a lecture a month, all at Fort Dix. “They send me pictures.  They say, ‘We found people looting and we stopped them,’ or, ‘We were looking for an area for new construction and we noticed a pile of pottery sherds on the ground. We remembered what you told us, that if you find sherds, it means you are in the vicinity of ancient habitation. So we notified our commanding officer and decided to dig somewhere else.’ ”

“You only need one of those a year to make the whole program worthwhile,” says Rose, who as AIA president has reached out to other archaeological organizations, including groups in Russia, China and Germany, to sign a document vowing to speak with one voice when conflicts threaten sites and artifacts. “Cultural property will always be at risk somewhere,” he says. “We need to be a United Nations of archaeologists if it is going to be protected in the future. “

--Eils Lotozo

The ramp from Magill Library with Ryan Gym and Sharpless Hall in the background.

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