By Lisa Pevtzow
Photo by Lloyd DeGrane

My grail is to get everyone to agree to a system that harnesses the economic power of the antiquities market to reduce looting.”
—Lawrence Rothfield
Associate Professor of English Language & Literature and Comparative Literature

Lawrence Rothfield opened his morning paper in April 2003 and read, with a mixture of intense frustration and guilt, about the wholesale looting of the Iraq National Museum, a treasure house of some of the oldest artifacts in recorded human history.

At the time, Rothfield, Associate Professor of English Language & Literature and Comparative Literature, was also Director of the University’s Cultural Policy Center, an interdisciplinary research center dedicated to improving public policymaking in the field of culture, the arts, and historic preservation.

So much of what he read was a University of Chicago story, Rothfield says. McGuire Gibson, Professor at the Oriental Institute, for instance, had decried the looting of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad following the U.S.-led military invasion in April 2003. The damage to the world’s largest and most complete collection of ancient Mesopotamian artifacts left many wondering what could have been done to prevent a cultural tragedy.

“I had not foreseen the potential for looting at all,” Rothfield says. “It’s so painful to realize that I just missed it.”

It was out of those feelings that Rothfield began his authoritative autopsy of the tragedy, The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum. The University of Chicago Press released it in April.

Failure At Every Level

Rothfield’s book is an inquest into how 15,000 irreplaceable objects, fashioned out of gold, silver, ivory, stone, and bronze, were looted over a 48-hour period, as the American military literally stood by.

Through interviews with war planners and soldiers, archeologists, and international preservation groups, Rothfield vividly recreates the many failures that enabled the museum theft and the continued looting of Iraq’s archeological sites.

The book uncovers voids at every level, miscommunications, obscurantist bureaucracies, political conflicts, and misplaced priorities. It depicts a United States military in which it was no one’s job to police Iraq’s cultural heritage, an international legal framework that failed to address the issue of protection from civilian looters, and ineffectiveness by preservation organizations and archeologists. It speaks about the structural changes that have and have not been implemented, and the chances of it happening again.

“Globalization has exacerbated the problem of looting,” says Rothfield. “It is now possible for an antiquities seller to go to a site, take pictures of an artifact with a cell phone, get an immediate price from a collector and put it on a plane to New York, London or Dubai, say, within a few hours.”

Trying to Bring Sides Together

In Iraq, the continued looting from archeological sites dwarfs the 2003 plunder of the Iraq museum, says Rothfield, who put the number of stolen artifacts at a half million. Although the most egregious instances of illegal digging ended in 2006, there is still a desperate need for site guards, weapons, communications equipment, and vehicles, particularly for helicopters to conduct flyovers of the remote and poorly protected dig sites, Rothfield says.

“Looters are operating with relative impunity in many areas of the country,” he says.

Recently, the Defense Intelligence Agency has expressed interest in having Rothfield help develop a policy for sharing satellite imagery of archeological sites.

And in the coming months, Rothfield hopes to begin bringing together leading archeologists, collectors, dealers, preservationists, and museum conservators, to persuade them to put aside their feuding and work on developing policies to protect sites from looting, whether in Iraq or other countries plagued by illicit digging.

To fund site protection, Rothfield would like dealers and collectors to support a 5 percent federal sales tax on all artifacts. With the prices of Mesopotamian antiquities reaching into the tens of millions of dollars, the sale of just one piece would significantly augment the annual budget for policing archaeological sites, he says.

“My grail,” Rothfield says, “is to get everyone to agree to a system that harnesses the economic power of the antiquities market to reduce looting.”

Originally published on June 8, 2009.