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Reclaiming a Plundered Past

Archaeology and Nation Building in Modern Iraq

By Magnus T. Bernhardsson

Publication Year: 2005

The looting of the Iraqi National Museum in April of 2003 provoked a world outcry at the loss of artifacts regarded as part of humanity's shared cultural patrimony. But though the losses were unprecedented in scale, the museum looting was hardly the first time that Iraqi heirlooms had been plundered or put to political uses. From the beginning of archaeology as a modern science in the nineteenth century, Europeans excavated and appropriated Iraqi antiquities as relics of the birth of Western civilization. Since Iraq was created in 1921, the modern state has used archaeology to forge a connection to the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and/or Islamic empires and so build a sense of nationhood among Iraqis of differing religious traditions and ethnicities. This book delves into the ways that archaeology and politics intertwined in Iraq during the British Mandate and the first years of nationhood before World War II. Magnus Bernhardsson begins with the work of British archaeologists who conducted extensive excavations in Iraq and sent their finds to the museums of Europe. He then traces how Iraqis' growing sense of nationhood led them to confront the British over antiquities law and the division of archaeological finds between Iraq and foreign excavators. He shows how Iraq's control over its archaeological patrimony was directly tied to the balance of political power and how it increased as power shifted to the Iraqi government. Finally he examines how Iraqi leaders, including Saddam Hussein, have used archaeology and history to legitimize the state and its political actions.

Published by: University of Texas Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. iii-iv


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pp. vii


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pp. ix-xi

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pp. 1-18

During most of 2002 and 2003, Iraq was at the center of world attention and at the heart of an unprecedented international debate. Much of the discussion, prior to the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003, focused on whether or not military action against Iraq was justified. Once the war started the focus shifted toward...

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pp. 19-56

With its ties to biblical history and the absence of an authority protecting its archaeological sites, the area we now know as Iraq was an attractive destination for European and American archaeologists. The region then called Mesopotamia, a Greek word meaning the land between the two rivers, offered boundless opportunities for the burgeoning new science of...

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pp. 57-92

At the beginning of the twentieth century, German excavations dominated the archaeological scene in Mesopotamia. The Germans had several extensive archaeological missions at work in Babylon, Assur, and Samarra. In contrast, the Americans had by this time discontinued their excavations at Nippur, and the British...

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pp. 93-129

The adage “to the victors belong the spoils” proved its aptness at the conclusion of World War I. For one of the victors, the British, the downfall of the Ottoman Empire meant that now the British had a chance to acquire precious Mesopotamian antiquities along with assuming political control of the country itself. The citizens of the future state of Iraq essentially became British spoils of war and...

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4. MANDATED ARCHAEOLOGY: The Creation of the Museum and the Vibrant Archaeological Scene (1921–1932)

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pp. 130-163

The new political reality in Iraq was a boom for archaeologists. With sympathetic British administrators overseeing archaeological matters, the conditions were ripe for productive and fruitful research. During the years between 1921 and 1932 all major archaeological excavations were foreign, though antiquities were becoming more institutionalized on the Iraqi political and cultural...

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pp. 164-210

The 1920s had witnessed considerable changes in the Iraqi political landscape and significant institution-building. At the same time, a nascent Iraqi identity was in the early stages of its development. The end of the Mandate era, though, foreshadowed a time of political independence that would place a greater responsibility on Iraqi politicians. In the 1930s, archaeology increasingly entered the...

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pp. 211-221

The decades after 1941 witnessed a tremendous degree of archaeological activity in Iraq. Iraqi archaeology, like so many features of Iraqi political life, was under the close control of the central government. During these years, the thrust of Iraqi national identity was in flux, in that different historical paradigms and periods were emphasized to legitimize the state and the nation and took their...


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pp. 222-284


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pp. 285-311


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pp. 313-327

E-ISBN-13: 9780292796294
E-ISBN-10: 0292796293
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292709478
Print-ISBN-10: 0292709471

Page Count: 348
Illustrations: 15 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2005