Who Gets to Own Iraq’s Religious Heritage?

tags: Iraq, religion, Archeology

Sigal Samuel is an associate editor at The Atlantic, covering religion and global affairs.

The revelation that Hobby Lobby bought thousands of ancient artifacts smuggled out of Iraq provoked astonishment and anger. The craft-supply chain has agreed to pay a $3 million settlement and forfeit the cuneiform tablets and clay bullae to the U.S. government. But the story doesn’t end there. “The government will post a notice online giving the artifacts’ owners 60 days to submit claims,” The New York Times reported. “After that, the Iraqi government can submit its own claim. The Justice Department will ultimately decide where the items go.”

Beneath this sensational story lies a deeper question about ownership. Although Hobby Lobby’s purchase of the artifacts predates the rise of the Islamic State, a fascination with Iraqi antiquities has been thrown into sharp relief by the battle against ISIS, which profits off the black market in pillaged goods. And now that the Iraqi prime minister has declared Mosul recaptured, the question arises: How will the ancient heritage sites in and around the city get rebuilt—and who gets to make those decisions?

Complicating America’s involvement in the process is its record when it comes to protecting Iraqi heritage and keeping it in Iraq. Aside from the “collect to protect” mentality that drives some private collectors, there’s the fact that U.S. forces helped create the unstable conditions that led to the looting of Baghdad’s National Museum during the 2003 invasion, and failed to protect the antiquities there from plunder. Institutions in the U.S. also took troves of documents—including Ba’ath Party records, which were moved to Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and the priceless artifacts collectively known as the Iraqi Jewish Archive, which toured the U.S. on exhibit. These moves incited intense debate about where such items belong, with some arguing that the U.S. is better poised to care for them given the unsafe conditions in Iraq, and others arguing that Iraqis are the only rightful owners and decision-makers.  

Katharyn Hanson, an archeologist and fellow at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conversation Institute, works on the preservation of damaged sites in Iraq. “For issues of ownership, the movable stuff gets discussed the most,” she told me. “Theft is sexy. Museum theft is really sexy. You know, museum heist movies are a big deal, and looting usually catches the headlines. [But with] immovable sites … there’s a unique responsibility for occupying powers, or even for powers who are in an advise-and-assist role.” Our conversation about that responsibility, which follows below, has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Sigal Samuel: You train Iraqis in Erbil to do preservation work, through the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage. Can you tell me a bit about the program?

Katharyn Hanson: The Iraqi Institute has been around since 2009. Through its various programs, international and American, 500 cultural heritage practitioners have come through. They’ve done everything from stone conservation to how to package artifacts to how to repair manuscripts. Almost all of our classes have a diversity that reflects the diverse population of Iraq. … We have men and women, Christians, Sunnis, Shia, Kurds, and Arabs all working together to help recover the sites. ...

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