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C u r r e n t A n t h r o p o l o g y Volume 45, Number 3, June 2004

䉷 2004 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved 0011-3204/2004/4503-0003$3.00

The political value of the past is well recognized, and

the politicized use of archaeology in modern contexts
Ancient Mesopotamia now receives serious academic consideration (Gather-
cole and Lowenthal 1989, Kohl and Fawcett 1995a, Dı́az-
and Modern Iraq in Andreu and Champion 1996). In particular, archaeology’s
roles in nationalist and imperialist culture have received
much attention, while the resurgence of sub-state-level
the British Press, nationalist movements in Europe has provoked studies
more concerned with the role of the past in the con-

1980–2003 1 struction of identities in resistance or opposition to the

state. Despite Meskell’s (1998) bold attempt to open up
debate in this field, Iraq, in common with much of the
Middle East, has still not received the same level of at-
by Michael Seymour tention as many European and New World contexts in
this respect. This lack does not reflect a want of subject
matter—as demonstrated below, Iraq’s past has been em-
ployed in a variety of highly politicized forms in recent
years—but perhaps has more to do with the sensitivity
This paper addresses the relationship between the representation of what have generally been very difficult political con-
in British newspapers of Iraq’s present and that of its ancient texts. Disciplinary anxiety is understandable: the polit-
past. Using a database of articles drawn from 23 years of cover-
ical questions concerned lie far beyond the reach of tra-
age, it aims to demonstrate a strong and highly politicized ten-
dency to link the ancient past to the present through metaphor ditional archaeological practice and bring the weight of
and allegory. This connection is discussed in terms of its impli- present-day political responsibility to bear on specialists
cations for the popular representation of ancient Mesopotamia trained primarily to deal with the ancient past. The en-
and for coverage of contemporary politics in three contexts: the gagement may also cost a scholar access to material or
Iran-Iraq War, the 1990–91 Gulf War and associated sanctions,
and the build-up to war in 2001–3. The paper examines the roles even a country and in some cases an entire career (Kohl
of heritage in building perceptions of modern Iraq through the and Fawcett 1995b:16). I agree with Durrans (1989:70),
media and calls for a broader recognition of the dangers and po- however, that the political uses of the past present chal-
tentials of heritage as a tool in the representation of interna- lenges that archaeologists cannot detach from their own
tional conflict.
work. Highly politicized uses of the Mesopotamian past
exist and affect us, and therefore we need to acknowledge
m i c h a e l s e y m o u r is an M. Phil./Ph.D. candidate at the In-
stitute of Archaeology, University College London (31-34 Gordon and address them.
Square, London WC1H 0PY, U.K. [m.seymour@ucl.ac.uk]). Born The aim of this study is to examine the relationships
in 1979, he received his B.A. (2000) and M.A. (2002) from the between cultural heritage and modern identity in British
University of Southhampton. His dissertation is tentatively titled newspaper coverage of Iraq. Following a review of rele-
“Approaches to the Mesopotamian Past in the History of Archae-
vant existing research and a discussion of British news-
ological Thought: Babylon in Modern Representation, Reception,
and Cultural Consumption.” He was published (with Stephanie papers as research material, the article is divided into
Moser and others) “Transforming Archaeology through Practice: three chronological sections: 1980–90, 1990–2001, and
Strategies for Collaborative Archaeology and the Community Ar- 2001–3, corresponding to the Iran-Iraq War and its after-
chaeology Project at Quseir, Egypt” (World Archaeology 34: math, the first Gulf War and sanctions, and Iraq’s re-
220–48). The present paper was submitted 9 vii 03 and accepted
29 x 03. newed position as a U.S. military focus after September
11, 2001, leading eventually to the war of 2003. These
[Supplementary material appears in the electronic edition of this periods will be shown to correspond with three distinct
issue on the journal’s web page (http://www.journals.uchicago. phases in the representation of Iraqi heritage in the Brit-
ish press. The relationships between coverage of the an-
cient past and of current affairs in each period will be
discussed, with a particular focus on the political roles
of cultural heritage.
At the outset, it is worth briefly emphasizing the
unique archaeological and historic wealth of Iraq. An-
cient Mesopotamia (largely ancient Iraq) is of prime im-
1. I thank Stephanie Moser and Yannis Hamilakis of the Depart- portance in studying the origins of farming, writing, and
ment of Archaeology, University of Southampton, Roger Matthews urban society. The ancient cities of Ur, Uruk, Babylon,
and Jack Green of the Institute of Archaeology, University College
London, and John Curtis of the British Museum for a wide range Nineveh, and many more lie here. Iraq can boast the seat
of advice, information, and support. I also thank the six anonymous of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, the Shicite holy
reviewers for their careful attention and useful suggestions. Re- cities of Najaf and Karbala, and some of the world’s most
maining errors and omissions remain entirely my own. For funding important historic monasteries. Despite this, only two
I am grateful to the Arts and Humanities Research Board, U.K.,
whose support of my postgraduate studies at the University of
sites, the Assyrian capital of Ashur and the Nabatean
Southampton and University College London allowed me to con- city of Hatra, are currently inscribed on the United
duct this research. Nations World Heritage list. Perhaps most fundamental
352 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 45, Number 3, June 2004

from the point of view of Western scholarship, the im- solved, remains important for understandings of the rep-
portance of ancient Mesopotamian culture to the history resentation of ancient Mesopotamia in the present.
of modern Western thought, a history once considered Although research into the politicized use of Meso-
to begin only in fourth-century Greece, is increasingly potamian archaeology outside Iraq is a recent develop-
recognized (Parpola 2000:30): ment (Bahrani 1998:161), substantial attention is now
being paid to the role of European imperialism in the
In comparison with Greek and Hellenistic cultures,
early history of Mesopotamian archaeology and Assyri-
Mesopotamian culture at first sight, undeniably,
seems alien and strange. The better one has learned ology (Larsen 1996, Bohrer 1998, McCall 1998), and
to understand it, however, the more it has come to awareness of the historical context of Mesopotamian ar-
resemble our own culture. Its strange and exotic fea- chaeology is now widely recognized as important to its
tures conceal within themselves an invisible world practice today (Matthews 2003a:199; Pollock 1999:27).
of ideas more familiar to us, which resurfaces in It remains true, however, that little work exists on the
new garments but largely identical in content in contemporary political context of the subject. Bahrani
classical antiquity. (1998) has addressed the construction of time and space
in modern treatments of ancient Mesopotamia, while
Britain has a long history of involvement in Iraq, in- others have commented on the representation of Saddam
cluding a leading role in the formation of the state itself. Hussein as an Oriental despot (Pollock and Lutz 1994,
The World War I British occupation of the provinces of Meskell 1998).
Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul, completed in 1918, set the One paper does provide a direct precedent for this
provisional borders of modern Iraq, first as a British Man- study, focusing specifically on the relationship between
date and later as an independent state. As with much of archaeology and modern politics in U.S. newspaper rep-
the Middle East, borders were defined on the basis of resentation of the Gulf War. In “Archaeology Deployed
European tactical and economic concerns, with only for the Gulf War” (1994), Pollock and Lutz form their
minimal reference to the ethnic, religious, and tribal as- database from a selection of American newspapers (the
sociations of the new states’ inhabitants. The develop- New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles
ment of European archaeology in Iraq was not indepen-
Times, and the Chicago Tribune) between August 1990
dent of these factors, and the continued heavy involve-
and February 1992 (p. 264). Their database consists of 22
ment of European archaeologists in studying the region’s
articles “in which archaeology was discussed in connec-
past can be seen in part as a legacy of these political and
tion with the war” (p. 266), material largely concerned
economic ties.
with damage to sites. They note a substantial increase
Many of the most famous archaeologists of the nine-
in coverage during the six weeks of the war itself (7 ar-
teenth and twentieth centuries made their careers at Me-
ticles, as opposed to 5 in the five and a half months before
sopotamian sites or through the decipherment of the
and 10 in the year after) and describe a “dearth of pre-
area’s ancient languages. As a result, the British Museum
war reporting on archaeology,” posing the question
today holds one of the largest and most-studied collec-
tions of Iraqi antiquities in the world, ranging from the “Why did the print media suddenly ‘discover’ the exis-
winged bull colossi of Nimrud to tablets from the library tence of Iraq’s archaeological past?” (p. 267).
of Ashurbanipal that are fundamental to the study of Pollock and Lutz identify a number of parallels in the
ancient Mesopotamian languages. A further legacy is the representation of Iraq’s archaeology. Noting the exclu-
British School of Archaeology in Iraq, developed in close sive focus on famous rulers and elite objects, they ob-
cooperation with the country’s British administration serve a similarity in the reduction of Iraqi identities to
(Lloyd 1982:7; Matthews 1997:59) and still active al- the single personality of Saddam Hussein (1994:268).
though without a permanent presence in Iraq since 1990. They also highlight a parallel with oil in the treatment
From the earliest Assyrian excavations of Paul Emile of archaeological resources as a global commodity (p.
Botta and Austen Henry Layard, who commenced work 270): “Both oil and archaeological artefacts are portrayed
in Iraq in 1842 and 1845 respectively (Larsen 1996:12, as resources with international owners. . . . Neither can
68), antiquarian and archaeological work in the region be the exclusive purview of modern Iraqis. The United
has been influenced by international and imperial com- States has the right to purchase Iraqi oil (the Iraqis may
petition motivated by the desire for a claim to the great not choose to refuse to sell, or try to do so at very high
cultural inheritance that the area’s ancient history rep- prices), just as Western archaeologists have the right
resents in Western thought and culture. The place of (even the duty) to explore and interpret Iraq’s past.”
ancient Mesopotamia in nineteenth-century European Other common themes include the comparison of Amer-
models of the ascent to civilization, however, built on ican and Iraqi attitudes to archaeological sites, repre-
Old Testament and classical sources, is ambiguous (Rus- sented as protective and exploitative, respectively (p.
sell 1997:27). The imperial successes of Assyrian and 278), and the tendency to endow archaeology with an-
Babylonian kings are mixed with notions of “Eastern thropomorphic qualities at the expense of covering ac-
despotism” inspired by biblical allegories and reinforced tual human loss of life (p. 280). Coverage of Islamic ar-
by the rise of Orientalist imagery in romanticist art and chaeology and heritage is, they find, conspicuous by its
literature. This contradiction, never satisfactorily re- absence.
s e y m o u r Mesopotamia and Iraq in the Press F 353

Data The database is intended to include a broader range of

material than that of Pollock and Lutz. While the latter
The database employed here consists of all articles re- concentrated on discussion of archaeology in direct re-
lating to Iraqi heritage, broadly conceived, between Jan- lation to the 1990–91 war, this study is concerned with
uary 1980 and March 2003 in U.K. national newspapers. the relationships between archaeology, current affairs,
Tabloid coverage of ancient Mesopotamia is virtually and political comment in the press. In addition to articles
nonexistent prior to 2003, and therefore the database can- that directly relate Mesopotamian archaeology to current
not reflect the full social or political spectrum of the affairs, therefore, the database also includes uses of his-
British press. Because of limitations in indexing, only torical and biblical references in discussion of current
articles from the Times and the Guardian are available affairs, articles in which heritage and archaeology are
for the first two years of the database. After this, all included but are not primary themes, and coverage of
national newspapers are included.2 The database consists archaeology and cultural heritage not explicitly related
of 605 articles, distributed unevenly from 1980 to 2003. to modern politics.
These are supplemented by further collections relating
to political context and to coverage of Iranian heritage
during the Iran-Iraq War. the newspapers
Several catalogues and databases were used to collect “British political journalism,” according to Turnstall
and check the data used in this project. The Times Index, (1996:234) “shares many common characteristics with
the Guardian Editor’s Index, the Clover Newspaper In- other democratic countries, but also has its full share of
dex (later the Newspaper Index), and Lexis Nexis Pro- national idiosyncrasies. Not least of these are the ex-
fessional were all essential tools. In all cases, including treme age and continuity of highly competitive political
paper and microfilm forms (the Guardian Editor’s Index journalism in London. No other city in the world has
consists of a card-file scanned onto microfilm and can such a long and uninterrupted history of such compet-
be consulted at the British Newspaper Library, Colindale, itive political journalism.” The press’s long and auspi-
London), searches were term-based, but the results re- cious history is often cited in support of the quality of
turned were not automatically included in the database. today’s British media. U.K. media legislation is among
Not all terms searched for were relevant to all three pe- the least restrictive in the world, and many cases can be
riods covered in the newspaper (e.g., “Canford,” as ex- cited in support of a governmental commitment to rel-
pected, returned relevant results only for 1994, while ative press independence (Lawrenson and Barber 1985:6;
references to the Iraq Museum are extremely scarce prior Brown 1985). The mechanics of this freedom, however,
to 2003). Where possible, searches were repeated using are often poorly understood. British newspapers are free
at least two databases (in most cases the Clover News- in a classically liberal sense: they are free to publish,
paper Index and Lexis Nexis Professional). Articles
within fairly unobjectionable legal limits, whatever ma-
which had used the terms in contexts unrelated to Iraq
terial they see fit. They are free to use this right to com-
(references to Babel and Babylon in particular often occur
pete for readers and advertising revenue. In fact, they
without any intentional reference to Iraq, ancient or
have to, as their freedom is inspired by the very same
modern—the currency of this ancient name in so many
political and economic principles that lie behind argu-
modern contexts is interesting in itself but far beyond
ments for free-market economics. For this reason, the
the remit of this article), and television listings (except-
substantial constraints of commercial operation have
ing relevant substantial reviews) were then excluded to
rarely been considered an infringement on the freedom
give the totals used here. Although the data are generally
of the press, despite their phenomenal effectiveness in
treated as qualitative for the purposes of this article, the
eliminating the left-wing radical press during the late
large number of articles does allow some crude quanti-
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Curran 1991:
tative analysis. [Tables and charts illustrating some
35). Today it is no longer possible to cover broadsheet
broad trends in the data and supporting some general
production costs from the cover price alone or to start
statements in my argument appear in the electronic edi-
up a new publication without substantial financial back-
tion of this issue on the journal’s web page.]
ing. In short, a British broadsheet newspaper needs to be
compatible with the interests of large advertisers to sur-
2. U.K. national newspapers included in this study are as follows:
the Daily Mail, the Daily Star,∗ the Daily Telegraph, the Express,
vive (Murdock 1982:142). The current political spectrum
the Financial Times, the Guardian, the Independent, the Indepen- of Britain’s broadsheet press ranges from the relatively
dent on Sunday, the Mail on Sunday, the Mirror, the Morning Star, liberal, centre-left Guardian to the more conservative
the News of the World,∗ the Observer, People, the Sun, the Sunday Daily Telegraph. The London Times, first published in
Express, the Sunday Mirror, the Sunday Telegraph, the Sunday
Times, and the Times. Not all of these newspapers run throughout
1785, is the world’s oldest surviving daily newspaper.
the 23 years of the database, and those marked ∗ contributed no Tabloids, with higher circulation and less reliance on
articles to the database. The vast majority of articles included in advertising revenue, tend strongly toward the political
the database come from the major broadsheet (quality) newspapers: right, with more explicitly nationalist content than the
the Times and Sunday Times, the Daily Telegraph and Telegraph
on Sunday, the Independent and Independent on Sunday, the
broadsheets. They are far less likely than the broadsheets
Guardian, the Observer (the Sunday newspaper of Guardian News- to cover archaeology or history and as a result are un-
papers Limited), and the Financial Times. derrepresented in this project.
354 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 45, Number 3, June 2004

production and consumption of news sale of arms to either country. In the face of Iranian hos-
tility to the West, however, and particularly the United
Communications research is complicated by the ephem-
States, Britain’s channels of communication with Tehran
erality not only of media coverage itself but also of the
broke down. The failure of diplomacy was uncomforta-
processes of media production and consumption. To an-
bly public, accompanied by the expulsion of many Brit-
alyse the production of news in the present is no simple
ish diplomats from Iran and Iranian students and activ-
matter, and much work has been devoted to developing
ists from the U.K. The 1980 embassy siege was
effective participant-observer methodologies for re-
particularly significant as a media event, bringing home
searchers working in newsrooms (e.g., Hallin 1986, Er-
as it did the extent to which a conflict in the Middle
icson, Baranek, and Chan 1989). To analyse consumption
East could resonate in London (Guardian, May 1, 1980).
of news is more difficult still. The readers’ role in ne-
Ultimately, a lack of confidence in predicting the be-
gotiating and eventually consenting to the validity of
haviours of the combatants, and particularly of Iran
British news is vital, however. Not only does it check
(Abrahamian 1993), hindered the development of a co-
some of the more obvious excesses evident in central-
herent foreign policy. In practice British approaches, like
ized, restricted state media around the world but also it
those of other European states, developed on an ad hoc
lends the news that is produced a legitimacy that can
basis and in general can be better understood as a series
only come with the belief in a free press and one which
of pragmatic responses to events than as adherence to a
can be called to account for misinforming the public.
single “British position” on the war (Chipman 1989:216).
The paradoxical result, however, is that when readers As the war progressed and the possibility of an Iranian
disagree with the content of a British newspaper they victory became increasingly real, the attitudes of outside
find themselves opposing not only the expertise and re- powers began to focus on the prevention, primarily
search of a very large media organization but also what through provision of resources to Iraq, of an outright vic-
would appear to be public consensus. This process is not tory for either side (Rubin 1983, Wright 1983). This goal
one of irresistible, unconstrained indoctrination, how- was rooted in fears of regional instability, whether
ever. Coverage must remain plausible for consumers, as brought about through the spread of revolutionary fun-
must the impression of consensus they are presented damentalist Islam beyond Iran or by the action of an
with. If the public substantially and vocally resists, the aggressively hegemonic secular Iraqi state employing the
impression of consensus—and by extension the legiti- powerful rhetoric of pan-Arabism. Moreover, the oil price
macy of coverage—is quickly undermined. incentive for ending the conflict had, by 1983, all but
vanished (Long 1984:39): “Almost immediately after the
war broke out, the spot market began to rise. Oil traders
1980–90: The Iran-Iraq War and Its Aftermath prepared for the worst. Yet the worst never happened.
Almost three years passed and, far from having an ad-
political context: the iran-iraq war and verse effect on the oil market, the war was actually seen
british interests by some as a godsend, easing what has become one of
the greatest international oil gluts in recent years.”
British commitments and concerns during the early Although this assessment is cruel, giving no consid-
stages of the Iran-Iraq War were unique among the major eration to the massive human cost of continued violence
external powers. While less directly affected by the in- or to the economic ruin of both Iran and Iraq and even
stability with which the conflict threatened global oil going so far as to refer to these disasters as a “godsend,”
markets than the United States (because of the U.K.’s it does reflect the position oil traders during the early
lower rate of consumption and the ownership of signif- 1980s were employed to hold and to base their decisions
icant North Sea oil reserves) or by the financial concerns on. A Western government position, while not as exclu-
which led France to support Iraq (whose huge debts to sively based on economics, could not afford to treat the
the former made its survival essential), the British po- oil markets as less than a major factor in policy making.
sition was arguably as tightly constrained diplomatically Oil was of particular importance to the United States,
as those of either of these powers or that of the U.S.S.R. its biggest consumer. The Reagan government could ill
On the one hand, close relations with the United States afford to repeat the Johnson and Carter administrations’
meant that, while British Foreign and Commonwealth disastrous relations with the Organisation of Petroleum
Office (FCO) statements were careful to emphasize the Exporting Countries (OPEC) and Organisation of Arab
autonomy of British policy on the war, this policy could Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) during the
in reality deviate significantly from that of the United 1970s.
States only with difficulty. On the other, a legacy of co-
lonial rule in the Middle East meant that intervention
iranian and iraqi perspectives on ancient
from the far less powerful British government of the
mesopotamian and persian heritage
1980s “would be at best embarrassing and at worst coun-
terproductive” (Chipman 1989:219). The FCO’s initial Since achieving formal independence with the signing of
priority, therefore, became the maintenance of diplo- the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty in June 1930, Iraq has struggled to
matic relations, insofar as was possible, with both bel- gain a sense of national identity. The alien political form
ligerents. Britain declared neutrality and prohibited the of the nation-state was imposed, largely by foreign powers,
s e y m o u r Mesopotamia and Iraq in the Press F 355

on an ethnically, religiously, and culturally very diverse iraq and the antiquation of iran
population in the wake of the disintegration of the Ot-
One striking characteristic of Western coverage of the
toman Empire. Since that time the government of Iraq has
Middle East generally has been a tendency for war to
been subject to many episodes of violent upheaval, not
draw attention to religious extremism in the hostile ar-
least in the rise of the Bacth party, coming to power
eas/groups (Said 1997 [1981]:65). In the case of early
through a military coup in 1968. For Saddam Hussein,
1980s Iran, whose cultural shift away from Westerni-
whose own rise to power was marked by terror, coercion,
zation was sudden, extreme, and very recent and whose
and purges of Bacth party members, ancient history pro-
own government had set out to eliminate what it saw
vided a cultural resource emphasizing unity, continuity,
as an unacceptable secularization of Iranian life (Wright
and stability (Tripp 2000:225). In a state whose ethnically,
1990), this phenomenon was inevitably acute and be-
religiously, and linguistically diverse population was
came a dominant force in coverage of the Iran-Iraq War.
united by British mandate rather than any cultural affin-
ity, the assertion of ancient Mesopotamia as a common Just as Saddam Hussein aimed to promote a secular na-
Iraqi heritage is an obvious and essential tool in the con- tional identity distinct from that of Iran, so in order to
struction of Iraqi national identity. Mesopotamian-in- render the conflict intelligible the Western media needed
spired festivals, art, theatre, and poetry all received en- something more familiar against which to depict an Ira-
couragement under the Bacth party’s rule, and cultural and nian Other whose difference was epitomized in the im-
religious differences were to a large extent transcended by age of Ayatollah Khomeini. Coverage of alien or extreme
placing an emphasis on ancient Assyria and Babylon behaviour in the name of Islam took Iran or Iranians as
(Baram 1991:55). Ancient Mesopotamia also provides a their examples in the vast majority of stories throughout
rich visual resource, the importance of which cannot be the 1980s. In emphasizing cultural difference such cov-
overemphasized (Wallis 1994:266): “Visual representa- erage serves to alienate and reduce empathy—how can
tions are a key element in symbolising and sustaining the readers sympathize with people whose behaviour
national communal bonds. Such representations are not they simply do not understand? Occasional articles even
just reactive (that is, depicting an existing state of being), reflected on this alienation: “To much of the Western
they are also purposefully creative and they can generate public . . . it is all simply another senseless episode be-
new social and political formations.” tween strange and no doubt irrational peoples from
In Iran the iconography of ancient Persia had long been whom the West’s civilising hand was lifted prematurely”
part of the shah’s political repertoire. Emphasizing a break (Bushkoff 1984).
not so much from the ancient past (although, as a pre- Coverage regularly came close to explicit ridicule. Jux-
Islamic past, this was also significant) as from the recently taposition, for example, with banal, familiar London set-
ousted regime, Khomeini’s Iran focused only on Islamic tings, most obviously in the case of a goat sacrificed in
history, itself rich with material for a Shicite theocratic a London street (Guardian, September 25, 1984; Clough
state opposed to a Sunni Muslim aggressor (this being the 1984), was one important method through which this
case in effect, despite Iraq’s large Shicite population). In was achieved. The meaning of such representations had
particular, the very beginning of Shicite history saw the much to do with historical illegitimacy. Shown to appear
murder of cAli at Kufa and the martyrdom of Husayn ibn strange and awkward in a Western (i.e., de facto modern)
Ali and his followers at Karbala, both in what is now Iraq. setting, it was not only Iran but Islam as a (much reduced,
Here, the conscious effort to eschew the ancient past in monolithic, caricatured) whole that was presented as an
favour of Muslim history is significant. From the point of aberration and, through its difference in light of the leg-
view of Islamic history, Iran certainly aimed to garner acy of Orientalist literature, art, and thought (Said 1978,
international attention, infamously through causing dis- 1993; Rodinson 1988), as antiquated.
turbances at Mecca (Taheri 1982). All of this affected Iraq, All this left a contradiction, however. On the one hand,
heightening the need for its national identity, in opposi- readers were asked to see the Iranian theocracy as stuck
tion, to appear relatively secular. Clearly there was an in the past (articles frequently cite “Islamic tradition”
incentive to avoid emphasizing the conflict of interests as a cover-all explanation when describing alien customs
between faith and state produced by the war for Iraqi Shi- or laws in Iran; after 1988, a similar treatment is applied
ites. During the Iran-Iraq War, therefore, Iraqi propaganda to Iraq). On the other, they were asked to believe that it
emphasized continuity with the ancient past and not least was a historically illegitimate aberration of the present.
the reputed military prowess of Assyrian kings. Despite To reconcile the conflict of antiquation and illegitimacy,
the economic pressures of a decade of war, efforts to re- the reader must employ the logic of Victorian progress
build Babylon continued. Only in later years did Saddam narratives and, more specifically, of the idea that history
Hussein publicly embrace religion in government, a shift (in the “rise of civilization” sense) in the Middle East
well illustrated by the redirection of resources into con- “progressed” to a certain point before stopping dead, at
struction of the world’s largest mosque (Cockburn 1995).3 which point the West took up the “torch of civilization”
(Childe 1925) and progressed far more (Trigger 1996:625).
3. Although by 1989 Saddam Hussein was already claiming descent The implication was that Khomeini’s Iran represented
from the Hashemite dynasty and by extension the Prophet, this
assertion had as much to do with the Iraqi leader’s rehabilitation
a way of life that not only was backward but had failed
of the once-disgraced Hashemite monarchy as with nationalist he- in history and was simply unable to grasp the advances
roes in Iraqi culture (Thurgood 1989, Walker 1989). of modernity. A striking example can be seen in a story
356 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 45, Number 3, June 2004

showing a new Iranian machine for performing a tradi- lowed Iraq to declare victory. In reality neither regime
tional punishment (“New Machine Used for Cutting Off was victorious beyond its own survival, itself more than
Thieves’ Fingers,” Times, February 8, 1985). We are was expected of Khomeini’s regime in 1980 or of Saddam
shown that backward Eastern despots, even when pre- Hussein’s in 1986 (Hirst 1986). The human costs were
sented with all the advantages of “our” technology, can- staggering, including large numbers of civilians from
not rise above their cruel, brutal “nature”—in the sim- both sides (Herzog 1989:255), and exacerbated by eco-
plest terms, the colonialist notion that it may be nomic disaster. Lost oil revenues and the costs of actu-
impossible to “reform the savages.” Social evolution be- ally waging the long war left both countries financially
ing the unstated mainstay of such thinking, we should drained and economically isolated. On top of this, the
not be surprised when some political commentators, ideological zeal of the Iranian government had been seen
even after the 1979 revolution, predicted that religious to be blunted by pragmatism (Wright 1990:186), while
fundamentalism of all kinds (at a time when the Shicite Iraq had lost its leverage with Western governments that
Islamic fundamentalism of Iran was the only kind high- no longer feared the spread of Khomeini’s revolution
lighted in the media) would eventually be completely (Karsh 1989:5). The real victors were those outside the
displaced by more “modern” values—specifically, free- war, Gulf states whose economic and military stability
market capitalism and democracy. had been maintained to a remarkable degree throughout
For an observer following the line of thinking de- and countries outside the Middle East, simply relieved
scribed above, the Iran-Iraq War comes to have every- that the feared escalation of the conflict into superpower
thing to do with the past. If Iran is the antiquated Other, confrontation which apparently threatened during the
Bacthist Iraq’s explicitly territorial concerns are far more early years of the war (Sabin 1989:293) had not materi-
familiar to us, even on occasion embodying “our” resis- alized.
tance to Khomeini’s revolution and the attack on “our” With Iraq no longer as important to Western security,
historical narratives that it comes to represent. Even the relatively scant coverage Iraqi human rights abuses
without the knowledge that the Shatt al-Arab border was had received prior to 1988 (usually limited to coverage
originally set up (in Iraq’s favour) by the British, it is easy of annual pleas from Amnesty International, often not
to see how Iraq’s state territorialism, consistent, at least included in the database of this study because they rarely
in appearance, with the classical European forms of na- contained the antiquating references more commonly in-
tion-state nationalism described by Kedourie (1961), cluded in coverage of torture in Iran) began to swell.
Gellner (1983), or Smith (1986),4 lends itself well to read- Given the scale and extreme severity of Saddam Hus-
ings opposed to the new and alien theocratic model of sein’s repression of Shicite and Kurdish uprisings within
revolutionary Iran. As a battle of competing ideologies Iraq at this time, including the 1988 gassing of thousands
the story is made all the more compelling by the idea of Kurdish civilians at Halabja, there was no shortage of
that the reader has something, however slight, in com- atrocities to report as coverage turned against him. As a
mon with the Iraqi attitude to the war, as well as some- weakened Iran faded from view in the U.K. newspapers,
thing to fear from the Iranians and their implied ability Iraq’s prominence began to increase. In March 1990 the
to “plunge us back into the dark ages” (home, in English execution in Baghdad of the Iranian-born Observer jour-
popular history, to the Iranian torture devices high- nalist Farzad Bazoft on charges of spying prompted out-
lighted by the newspapers). rage in the U.K. media (Mallet 1990; Sunday Times,
March 18, 1990). The real turning point, however, did
not come until July 1990, as Iraq began to threaten neigh-
1990–2001: The Gulf War and Sanctions bouring Kuwait, accusing the latter of oil theft to the
value of US$2.4 billion from the Rumayla oil fields early
political context: build-up to the 1990–91 in the Iran-Iraq War and demanding reparations. By ef-
gulf war fectively threatening force to influence Arab oil produc-
tion quotas, Saddam Hussein put external and particularly
By late August 1988, with both belligerents exhausted, U.S. economic interests in the Middle East at risk. With
the Iran-Iraq War had effectively come to a close. UN the invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, Iraq contra-
monitors began observing what was to be a lasting vened international law in the abrogation of existing bor-
ceasefire on August 20, with peace talks in Geneva be- ders and in the denial of Kuwait’s sovereign status—a
ginning five days later. Iran gained the important border status that the UN exists to defend (Matthews 1993:132).
agreements it had originally sought, but Ayatollah Kho- The invasion rapidly led to war, and Iraq subsequently
meini’s public regret at his inability to depose Saddam dominated the British press for several months.
Hussein’s regime, combined with the string of Iraqi mil-
itary victories which preceded the peace settlement, al-
from orientalism to new militarism
4. The similarity would not bear close scrutiny, however. The Ba th- Coverage of the 1990–91 war bore little obvious relation
ists had from the start employed pan-Arabism as a unifying concept, to that of its predecessor. Keeble (1997:8) argues that the
more reliant on familial and kinship bonds than on the investment
of identity in territory (i.e., the creation of a “motherland”) and presentation of a short, “clean” war allows states to en-
certainly not wholly secular in its driving forces or cultural potency gage the public “in a form of glamorised, substitute war-
(Makiya 1998:198). fare . . . [in which] . . . people are mobilised through their
s e y m o u r Mesopotamia and Iraq in the Press F 357

consumption of heavily censored media (much of the Kuwait and Saudi Arabia on that of right. The shift would
censorship being self-imposed by journalists) whose job appear to contradict the traditions of representation of
is to manufacture the spectacle of warfare.” Gone was the past decade, and, insofar as Saddam Hussein is rap-
Saddam Hussein, necessary evil and sometime ally idly transformed from the lesser to the greater of two
against the dangers of Iran. In his place had arisen a global evils, it does. Such a contradiction is not as unusual as
threat of demonic proportions. Gone, too, were the might be assumed, however, and once again precedent
bloodbaths and chemical-weapons horrors of Iran-Iraq. can be found in Victorian attitudes to race and social
Instead, on-board cameras tracked smart bombs through evolution. Specifically, representations of the noble and
the doors of carefully selected military targets. The ter- barbaric savage in ethnography and prehistory show a
minology, too, had been suitably adjusted. “Deterrence,” similar contradiction. With little more dignity or respect,
“surgical strikes,” and the notion of a “clean war” arose Arab Muslim leaders criticizing Saddam Hussein are cast
to describe this very different conflict. To many, the war in the “noble savage” role. Their judgment is seen as
appeared to exist primarily as a media event detached impeccable through their agreement with Western pow-
from (a) the “series of massacres” of which the conflict ers, yet the logic behind it is represented as simple fear,
consisted (Keeble 1997:5), (b) civilian casualties, reduced in contrast with the measured strategies and noble aims
in coverage to the status of rare accidents, and (c) the of the United States and Britain (Keeble 1997, Hassan
specific tactical reasons for the war, political and eco- 1999). Moreover, their diplomatic and military roles are
nomic (Wilcken 1994:33). So apparent was the influence played down; Middle Eastern leaders are represented as
of media coverage on our understanding of the conflict unable to bring about change in the same way as their
that Baudrillard (1991) questioned the very reality of the Western allies.
war, provoking, unsurprisingly, passionate responses Saddam Hussein, meanwhile, becomes a “barbaric sav-
(Adair 1991, Jarrett 1991). age” (or, in a parallel schema, a cruel, selfish Eastern
In the years since the Gulf War, many writers respon- despot)—a savage, moreover, who has found a white
sible for this coverage have substantially changed their man’s rifle. He can be presented as a threat to the West
attitudes. Military leaders have been accused of supply- but with the caveat that his weapons are not of his own
ing misinformation to the media and of taking pains to making. They, along with his costume, are presented in
withhold information that did not fit with the war’s pos- a manner not dissimilar to the Iranian finger-cutting ma-
itive public image (Henderson 1992, Lubow 1992), most chine, as “gifts” of Western modernity that he knew no
significantly the Iraqi death toll (Norris 1991). These cri- better than to abuse.5 This in turn helps support claims
tiques, however, appeared in academic books after the that he does not understand his own destructive power
war’s disappearance from the public eye (coverage of the and that his military decisions are therefore inherently
large continued and active military presence in Iraq dur- irrational.
ing the 1990s was, by comparison with coverage of op- The changing attitude of the British press is easily dis-
erations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, extremely low- cernible in the database. Prior to 1988, all references to
key), and the image of a just, clean, and mercifully short “Islamic tradition” (a term almost exclusively invoked
conflict has stuck until recently, with the less popular in negative or alienating contexts) and to “barbarism,”
2003 war provoking a major public reassessment of “savagery,” and “despotism” refer to Iran. Between 1988
1990–91. and 2001 all such references refer to Iraq. Acceptance of
The image of this war was of extreme importance to the revised identity of Saddam Hussein was not univer-
its Western belligerents. For the U.S. Bush administra- sal, and a positive identity for the Iraqi leader, primarily
tion, keen to redress the loss of face the American mil- representing Muslim resistance to a bullying West, found
itary still felt over Vietnam, the objective was to be seen support in a variety of communities worldwide and even
as ready and able to put down foreign opposition swiftly in Britain, where “British Pakistanis, a small, socially
and effectively. Britain, America’s closest ally in the han- vulnerable and relatively new ethnic minority, chose to
dling of a UN response to the invasion of Kuwait, could cast Saddam Hussein in a hero’s role against the over-
also benefit from appearing efficient and able, as well as whelming British interpretive consensus” (Werbner
from nurturing the much-lauded “special relationship” 1994:214). This resistance, however, did not translate
with the United States and a commitment to security into any national debate, was not recognized in press or
with more friendly powers in the Gulf. television coverage, and in short was given no oppor-
tunity to undermine the dominant construction of Sad-
dam Hussein’s identity as a despot. Although a pro-Sad-
arab despots and heritage
dam view could not have been expected to win
Many trends in coverage are conspicuously reversed in
1989–90 as attention shifts from Iran’s Ayatollah Kho- 5. This is not to deny or to play down the role of Western powers
meini to Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. In the build- in arming Saddam Hussein covered in depth by Timmerman (1992).
up to the Gulf War opposition to Saddam Hussein from The Iraqi leader’s decision to build up this military capability and
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states received a great deal of his success in doing so, however, were obviously his own. While
guilt certainly does lie with those who supplied arms to Iraq, to
coverage and was unsurprisingly portrayed positively. remove culpability from Saddam Hussein himself on this basis,
The military regalia of Saddam Hussein was now placed regarding him simply as the helpless tool of larger powers, would
on the side of wrong, the less Westernized fashions of clearly be absurd.
358 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 45, Number 3, June 2004

substantial support in a hypothetical open public forum, by a rapid deterioration in Iraq’s relations with the West,
the important point is that this stage was never and attitudes toward Babylon quickly altered. At a tech-
reached—the pro-Saddam position was effectively stifled nical level, the rebuilding project was accused of being
by total media consensus. archaeologically unsound, damaging the original site
(Vallely 1989). These claims proved greatly exaggerated
(John Curtis, personal communication, 2003) but meshed
saddam hussein and nebuchadnezzar
well with the main criticism levelled in articles: the idea
The use in British newspapers of an analogy between of the project as a reflection of Saddam Hussein’s self-
Saddam Hussein and the Babylonian king Nebuchad- ishness, showing disregard for the ancient site and for
nezzar6 is complicated by the Iraqi president’s own con- the economic plight of his people.
stant use of the ancient past and, specifically, the mili- By 1988 the treatment is already sceptical (Boseley
tant kings of the Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian empires 1998). The cultural aims of the project are still noted but
in legitimating his rule.7 Nonetheless, in the Western are overshadowed by comments on Saddam Hussein’s
context it is now Nebuchadnezzar’s position as a clas- self-aggrandisement and criticisms of the half-built Bab-
sically styled “Eastern despot” that is used repeatedly ylon (Vallely 1988). With the build-up to the Gulf War
against Saddam Hussein, and it is this element of rep- Babylon became a symbol for vanity and the decadence
resentation that has received comment from Meskell of a despotic leader. The biblical morality lessons of the
(1998:3) and Bahrani (1998). Early articles use the analogy ancient city were resurrected, leading eventually to ref-
in producing arguments for Western intervention in the erences to modern Baghdad as a “city of sin” (Daily Tel-
Gulf (Guardian, August 7, 1990; Adams and Ellis 1990), egraph, November 28, 1990). Articles mention the bricks
while material from the late 1990s focuses on the arro- bearing Saddam Hussein’s name included in the struc-
gance of Hussein in playing up to the analogy (Guardian, ture, continuing the tradition of earlier builders at Bab-
January 4, 1999). Nebuchadnezzar the despot is still Neb- ylon of including dedications, naming themselves and
uchadnezzar the ruler of an empire; more important, that honouring gods, on bricks at regular intervals (Miller and
empire does have a place, if an early one, in the classical Mylroie 1991). The wider context of this coverage af-
metanarrative of Western civilization’s development. fected its message significantly. At this time Iraq was
Conversely, Bahrani (1998) has argued that the concept synonymous in the Western media with the identity of
of “despotism” has been a vital element in the Western Saddam Hussein—a consequence of legitimating the
construction of an Oriental Other—that setting present- bombing of Iraq through the demonization of the Iraqi
day rulers up as throwbacks to a past Western politics president. As a result, stories such as these appeared to
has long since succeeded. Indeed, this may be a causal question not only the legitimacy and worth of their in-
element in Hassan’s (1999) frustration about American tended target Saddam Hussein, who was literally rep-
assumptions of “irrational” decision-making processes resented as a pretender to the throne of Nebuchadnezzar
in Middle Eastern politics. and Hammurabi, but of modern Iraq as a state and Iraqis
as its inhabitants. In the context of war coverage that
rendered ordinary Iraqis virtually invisible, articles un-
rebuilding babylon dermining their cultural worth in history now appear
Babylon is by far the most commonly mentioned site/ disturbingly complicit.
ancient city in the database. A story covered regularly is Following the 1990–91 war, Babylon continues to be
Saddam Hussein’s attempt to rebuild Babylon as a centre represented primarily as a monument to Saddam Hus-
for culture and, at least initially, for tourism. Earlier ar- sein’s vanity and to his neglect of the basic needs of his
ticles, few as they are, show admiration for the attempt population under sanctions (Barkho 1994; Times, March
(Guardian, October 6, 1986), as well as an awareness of 13, 1995). Finally, the unfinished site serves as testimony
the symbolic value of rebuilding a famous city once to the poverty of Iraq after a decade of sanctions (O’Kane
sacked by Persian invaders, albeit in 539 b.c. (Guardian, 1998). The message conveyed—arrogance and decadence
August 3, 1987). The project is described as aiming to leading to self-destruction—is reminiscent of the biblical
bolster national pride in the war effort against Iran but destruction of Babylon or Nineveh or of nineteenth-cen-
also as an attempt to create a major city for tourism (and tury romanticist treatments of the same subject matter.
particularly Western tourism) once the Iran-Iraq War was The implication of the message is that, as did the ancient
over. In the event the end of the war was accompanied cities, Iraq has brought suffering upon itself through ar-
rogance and decadence. In the place of God in the anal-
ogy, this suffering is administered by more powerful
6. The Anglicized version of the real name, used by Mesopotamian
nations. The sensitive politics of economic sanctions
archaeologists and Assyriologists, is Nebuchadrezzar (itself short-
hand for the more accurate Nabu-Kudurri-usur). Popular writing make an explicit statement along these lines unaccept-
and all articles in the database use the Anglicized biblical form able, yet through the analogy of Babylon it is almost
Nebuchadnezzar, however, and the latter is therefore used in this possible to assert that Iraq’s poverty-stricken population
article. are being punished for the war in a way which is some-
7. The key role of heritage for the Iraqi Bacthists in consolidating
political authority and legitimacy is well demonstrated by Baram how just and preordained. Such an uncritical use of the
(1991). The 1990s saw a further escalation of Saddam Hussein’s analogy on issues as politically sensitive as the economic
attempts to associate himself with the ancient past. sanctions against Iraq is dangerous. While making for
s e y m o u r Mesopotamia and Iraq in the Press F 359

engaging copy, its reductionism, as well as the inappro- 8, 1994) does cover the Iraqi government’s attempt to
priate and insensitive use of a moralizing biblical anal- block the sale. This is countered, however, by a far more
ogy, represent an irresponsible treatment of the sanctions upbeat article one day later celebrating the “discovery”
question. of a document establishing Layard and England as the
relief’s rightful owners (Kennedy 1994). It would be hard
to imagine such a positive take on a failed repatriation
destruction of archaeology in iraq under
claim in a less mutually aggressive political context.
Moreover, the negligible legality of Layard’s work in Iraq,
One of the great tragedies for world heritage in the 1990s which eventually led Sir Stratford Canning, then British
was the rapid destruction of Iraq’s ancient sites and mu- ambassador to Constantinople, to beg the Ottoman Sul-
seums through robbery, theft, and looting (Russell 1998). tan for a retroactive permission for Layard’s excavation
This loss, however, was greatly overshadowed by the hu- (Bohrer 1998:342) (the legal proof cited in the article), is
man tragedy that precipitated the destruction. Iraq’s her- not mentioned.
itage was being lost through poverty and desperation, as
ordinary Iraqis risked hand amputation and, from 1994,
forehead branding for theft (Makiya 1998:ix) in their at- 2001–3
tempts to make relatively small amounts of money
through the vast sums that Assyrian, Sumerian, and Bab- The past two years have seen many changes. The World
ylonian artefacts could eventually command on illegal Trade Centre disaster of September 11, 2001, heralded a
Western art markets. The representation of this problem seismic shift not only in U.S. foreign policy but also in
was relatively sensitive to the situation of the Iraqis in- Western media approaches to the Middle East. In practice
volved in the thefts themselves, acknowledging the hard- the two are difficult to disentangle, the consequences of
ship that led to the destruction of sites and looting of the first phenomenon being the prime subject matter of
artefacts. Beyond this the apportioning of blame varied the second. Beyond the unique nature of coverage of Sep-
considerably. Although Western art collectors received tember 11 itself, coverage of U.S. international conflict
partial or full blame in almost all coverage, partly as a (in Afghanistan and Iraq) since this event has set many
result of the campaigning of Renfrew (2000) and the precedents.
McDonald Institute, Cambridge, responsibility is also at One surprising feature of this great upheaval is the
times attributed to Western governments and the UN speed with which international sympathy for the U.S.
(Daily Telegraph, October 17, 1995) or to Saddam Hus- position, global and unequivocal in the immediate af-
sein in his disregard for the welfare of his population termath of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and
(Kiley 1998). Inevitably, each of these positions also con- the Pentagon, dried up. This loss of support was so great
tributed to a far larger argument on the value of the that, by the eve of war in Iraq in March 2003, the global
sanctions themselves. Respected positions in Western popularity of the U.S. government was at a demonstrable
academia and often sensational subject matter afforded low. The failure of the United States and Britain to build
archaeologists a surprisingly significant voice in media consensus on Iraq in the UN left the two countries al-
coverage, despite the very low priority of archaeology as ienated from long-standing European allies and severely
a factor in political discussions of sanctions, and it is for damaged the credibility of the UN itself. Enormous
this reason that archaeologists entering the debate over antiwar protests around the world received substantial
the problem of looted antiquities had also to consider media coverage and, more remarkably, support.8 When
the wider implications of sanctions legislation. compared with the Gulf War of 1990–91, where patriotic
support for a war whose causes were assumed to be just
the canford relief ran through almost all of the national media in Britain,
the situation as of 2003 seems shocking in its difference.
Apparently a far cry from the personalized identity pol- What was the impact of these developments on cov-
itics of the Gulf War, the story of the Canford relief is a erage of Iraqi heritage? The most obvious change has
romantic one of lost treasure recovered in the most un- been in sheer quantity; 252 articles mentioning or fo-
likely place—a school dining room. Articles (Daily Tel- cused on ancient Mesopotamia and/or the archaeology
egraph, July 7, 1994; Shaw and Kennedy 1994) fail to of Iraq appeared in the first six months of 2003, compared
mention that the tuck shop in question is in fact the with 209 articles during the entire 1990s. This increase
Nineveh porch at Canford Manor, built and stocked for does not appear to be purely an artefact of the necessarily
Sir Austen Henry Layard’s patrons Sir John and Lady extensive coverage of the looting of the Iraq Museum in
Charlotte Guest (Russell 1997:53–72). What is invariably Baghdad (although this does account for 108 of the 252
covered is the auction sale price of the relief. articles). Moreover, many of these articles are extended,
The tuck-shop discovery is an obvious hook on which multipage reports (throughout most of the database
to hang the story. Nonetheless, it substantially affects small columns represent the bulk of included articles).
the meaning of articles, as it establishes the point of
origin of the relief in England (specifically upper-class 8. Particularly striking was the almost unprecedented strong
England—what point of origin could be more appropriate antiwar stance of a tabloid, the Daily Mirror. Such a position would
than a public school tuck shop?). One Times article (July almost certainly have been condemned as unpatriotic in 1990.
360 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 45, Number 3, June 2004

Leading archaeologists were interviewed, and the poten- separating iraq and saddam hussein
tial threats to sites were discussed at length. Given what
The first Gulf War saw Saddam Hussein as the person-
we have already seen, an increase in coverage around a
ification not only of tyranny but also of Iraq. Thanks in
war is unsurprising. But why was there so much more
large part to the trend toward showing cultural aware-
material in 2003 than in 1990?
ness described above and following the precedents set in
There appear to have been three factors operating in
coverage of Afghanistan, this is no longer considered ac-
this case: a new onus on news media to appear culturally
ceptable. Public sympathy for the Iraqi people has been
sensitive and aware, the fact that “Iraq” was no longer
substantial and their difference from the person of Sad-
reducible for a Western public to the image of Saddam
dam Hussein recognized. As a result, where previously
Hussein, and the usefulness of Iraqi heritage in lending
the ancient past had been invoked to demonstrate as-
weight to antiwar arguments.
pects of Saddam Hussein’s character, the attempt to
move away from the now unsustainable habit of iden-
cultural specificity in coverage of tifying the country and its inhabitants with its dictator
international affairs has allowed a different reading. That Saddam has usurped
the Iraqi heritage remains a strong message in coverage,
One major effect of September 11, 2001, was a sudden but the very existence and importance of the heritage for
rise in the perceived importance of knowing about the Iraq and for the world has attracted substantial attention
rest of the world. Even in the wake of the disaster, U.S. in its own right.
media joined in the suggestion that America had been
“bombed into the world,” the implication being that ig-
norance of “the Rest” was no longer acceptable. When ancient mesopotamia as antiwar device
news media sought to educate on Afghanistan, the Tal- The third and arguably most important factor in the in-
iban, and Al-Qacida as specific entities, the unspoken creased coverage of Iraqi heritage in the British press is
aim was to present a West defying accusations of igno- the fact that it lent itself well to the questioning of the
rance and stereotyping: knowledge of the specific politics merits of war in Iraq (Jenkins 2003). The threat posed to
of Afghanistan had gained political salience. “Specific sites (usually, and inaccurately, presented prior to the
politics” in this case does not mean an in-depth political war as a threat posed primarily by bombing) was in itself
history of Afghanistan. The knowledge offered mainly used as an argument against war. Now the “barbarians”
consisted of Afghanistan’s place on the map, the name of the piece became those who would bomb the ziggurat
of Osama bin Laden (leading to some public confusion, at Ur (the most popular example chosen, situated next
bin Laden being neither an Afghani nor a member of the to an Iraqi airbase and superficially damaged by bombing
Taliban), and the information that the Taliban regime during the first Gulf War). While it is certainly true that
was oppressive, fundamentalist, and anti-Western, Iraq’s cultural heritage is of unique value, it is disheart-
friendly to the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks ening to see archaeology prove at times the most evoc-
and without a legitimate claim to power. Although this ative tool in antiwar arguments. The priorities implied
may not seem particularly ambitious, the information are reminiscent of Pollock and Lutz’s (1994:280) obser-
was communicated effectively and now constitutes the vation of archaeology’s being valued over human life in
(much increased) bulk of Western common knowledge some 1990–91 U.S. coverage but are much more sur-
of Central Asia. prising in this context, where the danger to Iraqi civilians
In the case of Iraq, public awareness raised during the was a major part of the antiwar case.
1990–91 Gulf War provided a much stronger starting The role of heritage in undermining the legitimacy of
point. Saddam Hussein and Baghdad were both familiar, the war reached its zenith in the culmination and im-
as was Iraq’s oil wealth. As we have seen, the name of mediate wake of the conflict. The looting of the Iraq
Babylon was also familiar to some extent. In the months National Museum in Baghdad represented an enormous
leading up to the 2003 war, the information that Iraq cultural loss for Iraq and the world. The invading forces
contains ancient sites became a key part of an infor- had ignored warnings from several sources, notably the
mation package more ambitious than that constructed International Council of Museums (ICOM), the Inter-
for Afghanistan and extending to the representation of national Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS),
ethnic diversity. The existence of Iraq’s Kurdish and Shi- the U.S. interim civil administration-in-waiting, the Of-
ite populations, if defined only in terms of their oppo- fice for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance
sition to Saddam Hussein, was much more clearly and (ORHA), and individual archaeologists invited to provide
prominently represented than in 1990–91, for example. information on the potential threat the war posed to cul-
The role of archaeology in this context was to verify that tural heritage. Not surprisingly, their failure to act when
Iraq was not the empty desert represented in 1990–91 looting began came to symbolize for critics a broader
and that destruction of its ancient sites would represent ignorance of Iraq’s cultural worth. The failure to heed
an assault on world heritage and culture (Bright 2003). the warnings given was covered (Martin, Vulliamy, and
This paralleled the sentiment of much antiwar writing, Hinsliff 2003) and blame for the cultural tragedy placed
depicting the war as a U.S. assault on world government squarely with the United States. No greater archetype of
and international law. brute ignorance could be imagined than an unashamed
s e y m o u r Mesopotamia and Iraq in the Press F 361

apathy with regard to the loss of the most important

resource for studying the “birthplace of civilization.”9 Suc-
To unify power, economic or cultural, at the top, in
cessive ill-judged comments from high-ranking coalition
the hands of the few, it is necessary to fragment
officials, most famously the U.S. Defense Secretary Don-
power at the bottom. “Divide and rule” is the old
ald Rumsfeld’s offhand dismissal of the looting (“Stuff
adage. To break down resistance, a monopoly on cul-
happens,” quoted in Fiddler 2003; “Think of all the looting
ture is necessary. A people’s culture, which would
that took place after the earthquake in Turkey. Remember
cross over borders between people, which is human
what happened after the riots in Los Angeles. . . . We know and universal despite differences, . . . signifies the
what happens at a football game, a soccer game, in Eng- possibility of resisting global economic and cultural
land,” quoted in Bone 2003) allowed an already hostile hegemony. To maintain the global economy and the
British press to demonstrate the coalition’s failure to un- global culture, unification must exist at the top
derstand the scale of the loss and, by extension, its failure among the few, the very few. It must not take place
to understand Iraq and its needs. In a war so explicitly at the bottom among the many, the very many.
concerned with “hearts and minds”—those of American,
European, and Middle Eastern governments and publics Hetata discusses the power of states in the “North” over
as well as of Iraqis—this disaster became perhaps the most those in the “South” and, more specifically, those of the
damaging public relations failure in the U.S.-led coali- G7 (now G8) over the rest of the world. Perhaps, however,
tion’s campaign. the “very few” are fewer still. Just as the producers of
culture can exacerbate and maintain divisions in the
non-Western world, so too (with the caveats of resistance
outlined above) they can exercise this control over con-
Conclusion sumers of culture in the West, preventing empathy (in
the case of the Iran-Iraq War) and even inciting hostility
I have discussed the use of heritage and archaeology in (in the Gulf War). It is difficult to avoid the use of the
relation to three different conflicts covered in very dif- past as moral allegory in such cases—much of the ma-
ferent ways and representing three distinct approaches terial in my database was made relevant to the readers
of British newspapers by the tendency of writers to draw
to Iraq and its cultural heritage. During the 1980s we see
parallels between the past and the present or to contrast
an Iraq that is modern, secular, and, if not accepted as a
the two. The relation of coverage of heritage to that of
signifier of Self in coverage, then certainly an effective
current affairs is not necessarily harmful, but in the case
tool in creating and antiquating an Iranian Other. From
of British coverage of the Iran-Iraq and Gulf Wars much
1990 we see Iraq re-created and reduced to the single
negative potential has been realized. If coverage of her-
identity of Saddam Hussein. With this change Iraq’s past
itage is intended to be understood by consumers as re-
becomes damning biblical allegory, its surviving remains lated to the present, the angles taken by writers on the
testimony to the greed and vanity of an Eastern despot. past are to some extent dictated by the stories of the
Most recently we have seen ancient Mesopotamia mo- present. Once established, however, divisive and alien-
bilized as part of a move to separate the identity of Iraq ating stereotypes can be difficult to displace, and the
from that of Saddam Hussein and to reduce the Other- problems created by using such links must be recog-
ness of the former and its people. What does this fluidity nized.
in identity and meaning imply for the politicized rep- All this, however, does not negate the scope that exists
resentation of the past more generally? for a more sensitive and even constructive use of heritage
I have focused my criticism on conventions, stereo- in the media. As a cultural resource, heritage is variously
types, and relationships between heritage and current used to build, support, or oppress cultural identities
affairs in coverage not only to address popular miscon- through difference. By the same token, however, our
ceptions regarding Iraqi history and archaeology for their pasts, for all their diversity, have the power to unite and
own sake but also to attack some of the prejudices which to perform a very basic and very positive function of mass
stand in the way of our understanding people, events, culture—to remind us of our common humanity. I agree
and views in more recent history and even in the present. with Hassan (1998:202) that “it is erroneous to discon-
The power of the media to divide has alarming impli- tinue the search for universals and transcultural com-
cations at a time of rapid globalization (Hetata 1998:283): monalities because it allegedly spreads within an intel-
lectual scheme that subverted it for the glorification of
9. “Birthplace” and “cradle of civilization” are phrases now avoided a hegemonic West.” Recent generations of scholars have
by most scholars, as they deceptively suggest a single point of origin worked to show the value of difference of all kinds and
for and imply a simple linear development of what is, in any case,
a very problematic term, privileging sedentism, urbanism, the state, to establish that the world cannot be reduced to a bland
and writing as markers of “civilization” in human society. The homogeny, far less one whose agenda is determined by
phrase is often used by journalists during 2003, however, as a mem- the world’s tiny socioeconomic elite. They have been
orable way of emphasizing the importance of Mesopotamian his- right to do so: our world histories have been guilty of
tory and archaeology for the public. There was certainly a need to prejudice on the basis of sex, gender, ethnicity, nation-
highlight the importance of this heritage. Whether the benefits of
using such slogans to raise awareness in popular discourse outweigh ality, class, religion, and language. But life is not only
the cost of continuing to propagate such loaded terminology, how- difference. It is one thing to be forced into a totalitarian
ever, is a difficult question. homogenizing schema and quite another to celebrate
362 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 45, Number 3, June 2004

common ground; the latter act holds the same liberating substantially influenced media coverage and public per-
potential as the affirmation of self that is the core of ception and were taken by some commentators as a bril-
theories of difference. The search for such similarities is liant exposé of collusion and media deception by leading
as dangerous as any potentially divisive objective, yet figures at the Iraq National Museum (Steyn 2003). Sev-
both are well worth pursuing and need not leave us de- eral assertions, however, quickly proved ill-informed. Ar-
fenceless. To return to Hassan (1998:202): chaeologists immediately made public responses casting
doubt on the claims (Crawford and Robson 2003, Robson
Although the theoretical and methodological founda-
2003) and to some extent succeeded in reopening the
tions of science may not answer ethical questions,
debate. This effort was reinforced at a July 7 session of
and they may even serve criminal and evil causes,
the 49e Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, held in
scholarly knowledge (science in the broad sense of
London, at which the staff of the Iraq National Museum
the word), as a mode of enquiry that in principle re-
received support from colleagues at the British Museum
jects dogmatism and endorses critical thinking, es-
and elsewhere in refuting suggestions that it should have
chews pre-judicial claims in favour of collective, re-
been possible to produce an instant list of missing ar-
flective judgement, subjects individual observations
tefacts from the museum’s enormous and only partially
and statements to cross-examination and scrutiny,
catalogued collection and that a military planning po-
and offers a guarantee against fascist regimes, reli-
sition existed at the museum (the misidentified building
gious fanatics, intellectual tyranny and solipsistic
was a police station) and in emphasizing that the removal
of all portable objects to secure locations prior to the war
Our ability to sympathize, to understand, to reason, and had always been well known and that the presence of
to negotiate rely on feelings of identification and em- empty, undamaged cases in the museum galleries there-
pathy which are all too easily lost. Heritage is often com- fore did not suggest deception as the Cruikshank and
plicit in the loss of empathy, but it also holds the po- Aaranovitch reports implied. The impact of Cruik-
tential to rebuild it. The potential is obvious in the case shank’s documentary and Aaranovitch’s article seems
of Iran-Iraq, where the two states’ populations shared an more likely to be remembered than the results of further
enormous amount culturally and historically, however investigations,10 however, as these latter will inevitably
opposed the outlooks of their respective governments in be published less prominently and long after the events
the 1980s. in question. They will also be remembered, at least in
In 2003, appeals for protection of Iraq’s sites, muse- the short term, more clearly than the current unprece-
ums, and artefacts have necessarily centred on interna- dented level of destruction of Iraq’s ancient cities
tional legislation such as the World Heritage Convention through looting, which continues unreported and
(Hassall 2003), but the language of shared pasts is of real unchecked.
importance beyond this. In terms of inheritance and of Ultimately, the success of these sceptical reports could
responsibility, the balance between local and global in- be seen as part of a more general frustration at an ap-
volvement in heritage is a difficult one. “World heritage” parent lack of progress in the early stages of Iraqi recon-
should not mean dispossessed heritage, robbed of its struction and a lessening of Western media and public
value for cultural identity and resistance at a local level. sympathy for Iraq’s problems as a result of the increasing
This is by no means a necessary consequence of the con- hostility of Iraqis to the coalition presence and partic-
cept of a shared global inheritance, however, and in the ularly the now-frequent attacks on coalition soldiers.
representation of Iraq we have already seen more than They need to be understood as both part-cause and effect
enough of that which is divisive and alienating. of this growing antipathy. Given the symbolic role cov-
erage of looting attached to the museum as representing
coalition handling of the conflict and its aftermath in
microcosm, the revelations of minimal loss and damage,
Postscript the representation of the museum’s empty cases and
staff’s inability to produce statistics on demand as evi-
At the time of writing (July 9, 2003), media coverage of dence of an “inside job,” and the suggestion of senior
the Iraq National Museum’s looting has become a highly museum staff’s implication in Bacath party tyranny have
contentious issue in its own right. The architectural his- had a strong impact on more general perceptions of Iraq’s
torian Dan Cruikshank’s Raiders of the Lost Art, a BBC postwar state. The allegations have dried up public con-
documentary reporting on the aftermath of the looting, cern over the looting of museums and set an agenda
questioned the extent of the looting and the honesty of effectively precluding coverage of the looting of sites.
senior museum staff and supported early coalition mil- Beyond this, however, they have also contributed to an
itary claims that the museum had been prepared in ad-
vance as an Iraqi military stronghold and not simply 10. Speaking at the 49e Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale,
taken over by Fedayeen when museum staff fled. Al- Col. Matthew Bogdanos, leading the investigation into the looting,
though an accompanying report by Cruikshank later ap- gave a report on his team’s early findings. This report represented
the extent of knowledge on the looting as of July 2003 and contra-
peared in the Times (Cruikshank 2003), the questions dicted many of the media claims that preceded it. Details of this
raised by the documentary were first taken up in the report can be viewed through “British Museum and the Iraq Crisis,”
press by Aaranovitch in the Guardian (2003). The reports http://www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk/iraqcrisis/.
s e y m o u r Mesopotamia and Iraq in the Press F 363

erosion of sympathy for the economic, political, and hu- and anti-Arab sentiment lay behind the American army’s
manitarian problems confronting postwar Iraq. As we refusal to prevent the looting of the Iraq Museum.
wait for further investigation of these claims, therefore, How beliefs of this sort are transmitted by Western
it may already be too late to undo damage far beyond journalists to their readers, however, is an entirely dif-
the traditional sphere of cultural heritage. ferent matter, and it is irrelevant, in one sense, how
Western media attitudes develop. It is clearly not irrel-
evant, as Seymour shows, when those attitudes begin to
shape public opinion on matters of universal cultural
Comments importance. I found it fascinating, therefore, to see how
the media slant on Iraqi heritage in the British press
changed through time, and this I take to be Seymour’s
dan potts main aim in engaging this topic in the first place.
Department of Anthropology, University of Sydney, Where I would have been more cautious, or perhaps
Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia (danpotts@arts.usyd. more diligent in research, is in the earlier part of the
edu.au). 3 ii 04 paper, for I find the discussion of Iran and Iranian atti-
tudes apropos the Iran-Iraq War lacking in depth. Anyone
In May 2003, I travelled to Baghdad on behalf of the who has spent much time in Iran will, I feel sure, agree
Australian government in order to present the Iraq Mu- that the national concern with the martyrdom of cAli
seum with a gift of computer equipment (laptop, scanner, and Husayn is not simply a Khomeini-inspired device to
digital camera, software) and to help the staff there set justify “a Shicite theocratic state opposed to a Sunni Mus-
it up and begin the laborious task of resurrecting the lim aggressor” as Seymour implies. Rather, the entire
registration system of the museum so that they would episode (which long predates the period in which Shicism
be in a position to know what had been looted, what became a “state religion,” as this did not occur until the
remained, what was damaged, etc. This experience was Safavid period) reflects the deep-seated hatred of the Arab
preceded and followed by a large number of media in- conquest by an essentially different (linguistically, cul-
terviews in Australia, Jordan, and Iraq, affording me in- turally) people proud of its Achaemenid and Sasanian
sight into the role of the media and its reporting on the Persian history. Indeed, the roots of this Arab-Iranian
Iraq Museum crisis and the looting of archaeological
enmity are even more ancient. The Elamite predecessors
sites in the countryside. The present study, therefore,
of the Persians bitterly opposed the Babylonians, Assyr-
interests me greatly and prompts me to comment on
ians, and Sumerians. But it is perhaps the memory of the
several points which I think may be worth considering.
defeat and destruction of the Sasanian Empire—itself
When I was asked by a young Jordanian journalist in
bound up mythologically with the pre-modern glory of
Amman whether I believed, as she clearly did, that the
Iran in Ferdowsi’s national epic, the Shahnameh—at the
American forces in Baghdad had allowed the looting of
hands of the Arabs (still referred to colloquially in Iran
the Iraq Museum to occur in order to obliterate the phys-
today as “lizard-eaters”) which, as much as the martyr-
ical evidence of Iraq’s ancient past, I confess that my
mind was less on American realpolitik than it was on dom of cAli and Husayn, evinces this difference. Little
the parallel with ancient Mesopotamian rulers who rou- wonder, then, that Saddam Hussein, when not reviving
tinely looted the statues of deities from defeated enemies memories of Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar, cast the
as a means of driving home their victory over them. struggle with and vainly anticipated victory over Iran
When the deities (i.e., their cult statues), in these cases, during the Imposed War (as it is referred to officially in
abandoned their devotees (with the help of the invading Iran) in terms of the Arab victory over the Sasanian army
enemy), it was a sure sign that the people in question at Qadisiyya, a battle which was to herald the beginning
had committed a sin and fallen out of favour with their of the end for the Sasanian Empire. In recent years I have
god. In many respects, I thought, the looting of the Iraq been told on more than one occasion by both young and
Museum and the removal of so many of its significant older Iranians that they do not regard holidays such as
treasures would strike a Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylo- the celebration of the end of Ramadan as “real,” since
nian, or Assyrian as a similar sign of divine disfavour these are “Arab” (i.e., Islamic) holidays imposed on
visited upon the luckless Iraqi population of our own them, not native “Persian” ones like Now-Ruz, the Ira-
day. nian New Year (March 21). I cannot share Seymour’s
What matters, of course, is not whether the Jordan view, therefore, that Iran and Iraq “shared an enormous
journalist was correct in her assessment of the situa- amount culturally and historically, however opposed the
tion—I for one believe that she was not—any more than outlooks of their respective governments in the 1980s.”
whether ancient victims of similar acts of despoliation A visit to Iran would, I think, dispel any such idea. Be-
were correct in their assessment of the reasons behind neath the thin veneer of a common religion, there is far
the loss of their cult statues. What matters is perception, more that divides these two peoples than that unites
for clearly the ancients considered divine disfavour a them, and differences in Shicite and Sunni doctrine are
“rational” explanation of the looting of their temples, only the latest manifestation of an antagonism that can
just as Arabs living in the region today, like the journalist be followed for the course of at least four and a half
with whom I spoke, believed that American vengeance millennia.
364 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 45, Number 3, June 2004

e l e a n o r ro b s o n product but syndicated in the Guardian newspaper) ran

Department of History and Philosophy of Science, a long story about the adventures of a stolen artefact from
University of Cambridge, Free School Lane, the Iraq Museum, but, bemusingly, it featured a scroll,
Cambridge CB2 3RH, U.K. (er264@cam.ac.uk). 20 i 04 that most atypical of ancient Mesopotamian objects. (Pa-
pyrus, leather, and other organic materials survive only
I welcome Seymour’s timely observations on the im- exceptionally in the archaeological record of Iraq.)
agery of ancient Iraq in British newspaper accounts of But the reportage was not all dismally Orientalist, and
modern conflict in the country. My comments here are the overall outcome was mostly positive. The best of the
those of a participant-observer (albeit trained as neither) journalists listened and discussed and gave us space to
in the international media furore that erupted after the write our own pieces. Donny George Youkhanna, re-
looting of the Iraq Museum in mid-April 2003. They search director of the Iraq Museum, was interviewed at
should be considered an addendum to the article rather length and rightly portrayed as hero rather than villain
than a critique. (Gibbons 2003) (though one suspects that his name,
British archaeologists and historians of ancient Iraq are Christianity, and impressive fluency in English all
not, on the whole, trained to deal with the media, for helped to domesticate him for the British market). The
until this past year we had almost no expectations of British government was embarrassed into tightening up
our scholarly work’s being reported in the mainstream antiquities legislation, first for artefacts of Iraqi prove-
press, where Britain and ancient Egypt have traditionally nance and now for “tainted cultural objects” worldwide
dominated such archaeological headlines as there were. (http://www.hmso.gov.uk/si/si2003/20031519.htm,
Consequently, in the days following April 18, when the http://www.uk-legislation.hmso.gov.uk/acts/ acts2003/
story broke that the Iraq Museum in Baghdad had been 20030027.htm). No government has yet, however, man-
looted, much of its complexity was lost through mis- aged to fund any cultural renewal projects in Iraq, though
communication. The journalists and their academic in- the British heritage sector and associated NGOs have
formants were operating on two different Kuhnian par- been very generous with offers of in-kind support.
adigms: “Practicing in different worlds, the two groups Most heartening, perhaps, there is heightened public
of [specialists] see different things when they look from awareness of Iraq’s extraordinary archaeology, history,
the same point in the same direction” (Kuhn 1962:149). and cultural legacy to the world. Visitor numbers to the
In the first ten days both sides were further hampered Mesopotamia galleries of the British Museum rose sub-
by the fact that each assumed that the other had better stantially last April and appear to have remained high.
access to information in Iraq, but as the phone lines had A recent British School of Archaeology in Iraq study day
been bombed out some time before we were all depen- on the Sumerians was a sellout. Responsible journalists
dent on what reporters in Baghdad chose to cover and in print and broadcast media are now setting out to pro-
how accurately they managed to report it. On the one duce more thoughtful, deliberative pieces on Iraq, its peo-
hand I (and the close colleagues with whom I discussed ple, and its history that set out to understand rather than
the process as it happened) wished to present the im- gawp or condemn. Maybe there will come a time when
possibility of knowing for the moment exactly what had it is as taboo to allow the destruction the cultural her-
happened, the complexity of Iraq’s history and its im- itage of any country in the name of war as it would be
portance to world culture, and why the large-scale theft to sanction the modern pillage of the Pyramids or the
of large numbers of small undocumented finds (whether Parthenon.
from the museums or, worse, straight from archaeolog-
ical sites) was in some ways just as great a loss as the
removal of several dozen well-documented major works neil asher silberman
from the public galleries of the Iraq Museum. Ename Center for Public Archaeology, 13-15
The majority of the journalists, in contrast, focused Abdijstraat, B-9700 Oudenaarde, Belgium (neil.
on “art,” “gold,” and “treasures” from the Iraq Museum silberman@enamecenter.org). 5 ii 04
(to the exclusion of the looted Mosul Museum, standing
monuments, and archaeological sites) and privileged Su- There is a long and enlightening paper to be written
merian and other ancient artefacts over classical and Is- about the complex relationship between perceptions of
lamic objects. Many of the reporters were in fact the the past and modern geopolitics in Iraq. Yet one might
newspapers’ art correspondents, more used to covering question if 605 newspaper stories over 23 years, the “vast
the Venice Biennale than discussing the archaeology of majority” of which, according to the author, come from
brown things. The worst of the journalists typically just five sources (the Times, the Daily Telegraph, the
wanted Oriental glamour, decadence, and opulence: ide- Independent, the Guardian, and the Financial Times),
ally, fabulously valuable golden treasures stolen to order offer a broad enough sample to be revelatory about the
for a shadowy art collector or drugs baron with the aid complex relationship between Iraq’s perceived past and
of corrupt Bacathist museum curators. Around half a its fluid present. Indeed, we do not require a statistical
dozen proposals for television documentaries along such analysis of British press clippings to know that images
lines came my way in the second quarter of 2003, none of the past in Iraq—as well as in Egypt, Israel, Palestine,
of which, I am happy to report, ever got off the ground. Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria—have been deeply entwined
The Doonesbury cartoon strip (admittedly not a British with Western imperialism and local nationalisms since
s e y m o u r Mesopotamia and Iraq in the Press F 365

the nineteenth century. Nor is it a great revelation, at

least since the publication of Said’s Orientalism in 1978, Reply
that more pervasive Western antiquarian ideologies of
domination, demonization, and dispossession underlie
and are used to rationalize the ebb and flow of modern michael seymour
political events. London, U.K. 13 ii 04
The 605 examples on which this paper bases its con-
clusions might well be multiplied by the millions in I am grateful to the commentators for their criticisms
television news reports, magazine features, web sites, and insights and for the additional material provided by
cartoons, museum exhibits, and Hollywood films. In Potts and Robson. I will concentrate on answering the
tracing the shifting subtexts of negative historical rep- criticisms here.
resentations of Iraq and Iran through the events of the To begin with Potts’s critique of my discussion of Iran,
past two decades, Seymour has recognized a need for I should first stress that it was not my intention to sug-
greater inclusiveness and understanding about the Mid- gest that hostility toward Iraq and Arabs or the promi-
dle East (and its past) in the British press and, by exten- nence of the martyrdoms of cAli and Husayn in Iranian
sion, all Western mass media. That would certainly be religious life are themselves new or merely a gloss cre-
welcome. But the link between politics and the past is ated by Khomeini, and I apologize for not making this
sufficiently clear. I do maintain, however, that both were
not a simple matter of removing journalistic bias, as if
mobilized politically in the Iran-Iraq War to a clear pur-
it were a diagnosable (and curable!) intellectual disease.
pose and that their conscious promotion by the new gov-
Journalistic reports are the symptoms of a chronic con-
ernment with the intention of undermining secular au-
dition. The modern archaeological and historical inter-
thority in Iraq and harnessing hostility toward an
pretations on which they are based are themselves nar-
aggressive Iraqi government can fairly be called a “Kho-
rative genres that draw power from motifs, analogies, and
meini-inspired device.” Similarly, while the antagonism
familiar story elements that resonate in the contempo-
and its historical justifications are very real, there is
rary cultural and political milieu.
much to support my statement that the populations of
In the case of Iraq, new post-Saddam stories about the Iran and Iraq “shared an enormous amount culturally
past are now being written, emphasizing, as Seymour and historically”: millennia of trade and communica-
does, “the unique archaeological and historic wealth of tion, interacting political formations including empires
Iraq” and “the importance of ancient Mesopotamian cul- spanning both regions and centred in both at different
ture to the history of modern Western thought.” These, times, the past and present of Shicism (surely more than
too, are reified ideological concepts, harking back to the a “veneer”), and large Kurdish populations that often
nineteenth-century image of the “Fertile Crescent” and claim more cultural and political affinity with one an-
the direct connection of the ancient Mesopotamians not other than with the leadership of either state. Equally
to the modern Mesopotamians but primarily to the mod- important, the history of conflict itself is history in com-
ern West. The story may change, but the relationship mon, and it is relevant here that most historians covering
between past and present remains constant. Indeed, wars engage in their subject not with the aim of pro-
Western archaeologists and preservation groups—even moting further hostility but in the belief that greater
some who bitterly protested U.S. and U.K. actions—are mutual understanding can lessen it. In a more explicit
now queuing up in airport check-in lines to Baghdad as use of the same principle, Scham and Yahya (2003) have
consultants and cultural heritage experts, alongside the recently made an innovative attempt to develop a re-
other specialist teams of hydrologists, agronomists, flexive dialogue in the case of Palestinian and Israeli
economists, and city planners, summoned by the Coa- pasts, relying not on the establishment of a “common
lition Provisional Authority to construct a “new” Iraq. narrative” but on the ability to “acknowledge the im-
The new, more inclusive images advocated by Sey- perfections of our own narratives without fully rejecting
mour, along with new historical images produced by Ira- them” (p. 399). Projects of this kind can potentially bring
qis, will, in time, undoubtedly find their way into the both academic and social benefits. I believe that the
popular press. But merely counting or deconstructing shared aspects of Iraqi and Iranian history are significant
them will bring us no closer to understanding the me- and deserve prominence, the more so because I accept
chanics of the manipulation of the past. In the coming Potts’s main point: the existence of substantial and long-
years, whether Iraq’s ancient civilizations are meta- standing public hostility to Arabs and Iraq in Iran.
phorically demonized, universalized, or Disneyfied by I find it harder to accept the points raised by Silberman.
Fleet Street, they will remain politically potent for mo- Starting with the database, it is true that this could be
bilizing resources and swaying public opinion about Brit- multiplied by using material from other countries and
ain’s modern role in the Middle East. And it is that media, but increasing the scale quickly makes it impos-
deeper relationship between past and present—the seem- sible to write anything concrete about the whole, and it
ingly inevitable exploitation of the past as a justification was of prime importance to me in this study to be able
for contemporary actions—that statistics and the dutiful to work through a particular case and to point to spe-
recording of a sequence of shifting scenarios can never cifics. That the newspapers of one country share some
adequately explain. degree of social and political context is a strength in this
366 F c u r r e n t a n t h ro p o l o g y Volume 45, Number 3, June 2004

respect, and I offer my conclusions partly for comparison premise underpinning that notion. The story has
with coverage in other countries and other media. I changed, the relationship has changed, and the similar-
would expect to find some of my observations paralleled ity, though obvious, is in this case superficial. The cur-
in a study of British television coverage and, to a lesser rent involvement of foreign archaeologists in Iraq is a
extent, press coverage in the United States, but I would similar case in point. The handling of aid and reconstruc-
be greatly surprised to find them identical or to find tion issues under the Coalition Provisional Authority
strong parallels between, for example, British and French has been seen by many as reinforcing imbalances of
coverage in 2001–3. My main aim in the article is not power and wealth, at times removing not only control
to make these cross-media or international generaliza- but also direct involvement from Iraqis, and the ethical
tions but to study the mechanics of the relationship be- decisions archaeologists have to take in terms of their
tween coverage of heritage and current affairs in practice, involvement in Iraq at present are very difficult, partic-
and for this a national context is probably the largest ularly for those who strongly opposed the occupation.
useful unit of analysis. Now is not the time for an influx of foreign excavators
Moving to the question of removing bias, Silberman hoping to gain a foothold for future projects in Iraq, and
mistakes my position: I start from the widely accepted such exploitation and abuse of power cannot be con-
premise, on which we agree, that it is impossible to pro- doned. However, when Iraqi archaeologists, curators, and
duce a non-situated, truly objective account of events librarians request international support and aid in a des-
(“eliminating bias” is therefore a misleading phrase, and perate situation, I would be very cautious about laying
one which I avoid) through which reportage can be sep- charges of colonialism on those who were in a position
arated from the “chronic condition” of its social and to help and therefore did so (the essential work described
political context. It does not follow from this, however, by Potts at the beginning of his commentary is a good
that we cannot meaningfully critique media approaches example here). The story has changed; the relationship
or that coverage cannot be improved within a set of com- has changed. The caveat should be added here that I
monly agreed-upon values such as certainly exist, how- would not claim as much for the discipline as a whole:
ever nebulously, for journalistic standards of accuracy Mesopotamian archaeologists have only begun to deal
and cultural sensitivity in the U.K. press (albeit a two- with the implications of their colonial inheritance. The
tier system in which much that is considered acceptable relationship continues to change, and this is a time of
in the tabloids is not in the broadsheet newspapers with great and necessary upheaval in the subject’s old and
which this article is mainly concerned). What I call for often problematic structures and norms (see Matthews
is not the impossible “unbiased” account but self-aware- 2003 for a general discussion of the discipline’s state in
ness and responsibility with regard to the relationship the present and priorities for the future).
between coverage of the past and the present, an aim Silberman’s most fundamental objection is to my ap-
that can be pursued and achieved. The metaphor of me- proach itself, which he finds unhelpful because “merely
dia coverage as “symptom” of a “chronic condition” fails counting or deconstructing [historical images] will bring
here, as media coverage certainly does feed back into the us no closer to understanding the mechanics of the ma-
thinking and views of society: the “symptom” here is nipulation of the past”—a position with which I cannot
equally a cause and is worth addressing for just this agree. The value of this paper lies precisely in that “the
reason. dutiful recording of a sequence of shifting scenarios” can
Where Silberman sees me returning to “reified nine- adequately explain “the seemingly inevitable exploita-
teenth-century concepts” early in the article, these are tion of the past as a justification for contemporary ac-
so broad as to imply that almost any active role per- tions” and, moreover, can weaken it. The power of ac-
formed by Westerners in Iraq or with regard to its past ademic deconstruction and of much good journalism lies
will be inherently colonialist and presumably that this in picking apart and exposing to criticism the “mechan-
should therefore prevent all such action. Our disciplinary ics of the manipulation of the past” (and the present),
structures and the associated massively uneven distri- bringing us closer to understanding and critically engag-
bution of resources are in large part a colonial legacy that ing with them. I would accept that attempts to exploit
we cannot easily escape, but the assertion that “the story the past for all kinds of political ends are inevitable.
may change, but the relationship between past and pre- What is not inevitable is acceptance, and since critique
sent remains constant” is groundless. The “story” is that feeds back to affect the degree to which such exploitation
relationship made manifest. The relationships of the pre- is possible and what forms media representations of the
sent to the past are diverse and fluid and can be seen to past take, the situation is far from hopeless.
change (a point demonstrated throughout this article);
therefore the responsibility that a history of colonialism
actually places upon those in privileged positions today
is not to isolationism but to reform, a process which can
be seen in the cases Silberman points to. I cited Parpola,
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