Who Gets to Own Iraq’s Religious Heritage?

An archeologist on cultural preservation in the shadow of ISIS

A technician at the British Museum casts a shadow over carved ivory artifacts from Nimrud, Iraq.
A technician at the British Museum casts a shadow over carved ivory artifacts from Nimrud, Iraq. (Oli Scarff / Getty)

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.

Samuel: Why is it important to train local Iraqis to preserve artifacts there, rather than shipping artifacts to the U.S.?

Hanson: It is very unlikely that anything will be shipped out of Iraq for treatment. … Iraqi museum conservators and archaeologists are the first line of defense for these artifacts. They know the context the best, and they are the caretakers and stewards of these remains. … We have a saying at the Iraqi Institute—it’s about doing work to international standards but making sure that the equipment and techniques are locally available.

Samuel: What are people working on preserving right now?

Hanson: Back in January, Smithsonian met with Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. They asked us to work on Nimrud, about 25 kilometers south of Mosul, liberated [from ISIS] in November. We’ve been working pretty closely with a team of archeologists from Nineveh province, archeologists employed by the government there. We’ve been giving them equipment and skill-sets, and teaching a lot about how to take care of the site.

Samuel: At some sites, the destruction looks pretty total. How much is left to preserve?

Hanson: For an archeologist, even damaged things, even the fragments of the fragments, are still important artifacts. And that’s really crucial when you think about Nimrud and most of the Neo-Assyrian sites. A lot of the sculptures are made out of Mosul marble, which is water soluble. The big goal before this next winter is to get the sculpture fragments left onsite under some sort of roofing so they don’t melt. And there’s still the vast majority of the site which is underground and hasn’t been excavated yet.

Samuel: What’s going to happen to the destroyed mosques, churches, and shrines?

Hanson: Religious sites are still considered sacred even if the visible structure has been demolished. The videos and photos I’ve seen suggest that there’s a foundation left for a lot of these shrines. But even for the shrines where there’s literally nothing physical left, that negative space is still important, it’s still speaking to what was in a landscape. We’ve seen this repeatedly, that ISIS has destroyed a shrine and the community still reveres that specific location. It’s part of the resilience of religious identity there. I don’t think they’re going to pave it into a parking lot and put a falafel truck there.

Samuel: What role should Americans play when it comes to rebuilding Iraqi sites?

Hanson: Because of the invasion, America has a very unique relationship with Iraq. An easy fix where you come in from on high and say “This is how it’s going to be rebuilt and fixed”—that can’t happen.

Should any work be taking place on archeological sites, it has to be permitted and approved by Iraq’s governmental authorities. Officially, all ancient cultural sites are owned by the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, and all religious sites are owned by the Religious Ministry.

I think it’s important for American organizations that are coming in to be very deliberate about offering the local government assistance, not telling them what should be done on these sites.

Samuel: Has that been an issue so far?

Hanson: That’s becoming increasingly an issue with American or other international NGOs coming in wanting to work with religious or historic cultural sites, and not getting the buy-in of the entire community as well. Most cultural sites have a lot of different communities that claim them as part of their context. So, the Christian community in Nineveh plain will have a relationship to the synagogue, but so will the Jewish Iraqi population that now lives elsewhere.

Samuel: Do you think it’s important to get buy-in even from a population that’s no longer there, like the Iraqi Jews?

Hanson: Yes. Stakeholder communities that are able to be represented in the minority religious divisions within the Religious Ministry should be. I know that for the Kurdistan Regional Government, for example, there is an Iraqi Jewish representative for that. I do think it’s really important that all the communities that have a relationship with these sites are not only consulted, but allowed to basically control the direction in which these projects are going. … Competing community claims are going to have to be resolved by those stakeholders.

Samuel: Is there already tension around that?

Hanson: Not yet. But it’ll be interesting to see what happens. I think—I hope—there will be a lot of interest in rebuilding, a sudden upswing in sending money to help rebuild cultural sites now that Mosul’s liberated. So I really hope this is a problem we’ll have.

Samuel: How much would you say Iraqis trust or distrust the U.S.?

Hanson: I think Iraqis deeply understand the idea that a people are not always their government, and vice versa. So when it comes to people acting out a place of research interest or preservation interest, our colleagues in Iraq understand that we are not the embodiment of past situations.

But anyone doing work in the Middle East is faced with [the fact that] there’s a neocolonial American legacy there. And there’s a colonial legacy there. That’s inescapable. It’s something that you have to be aware of in the work that you’re doing. It doesn’t just impact your perception of how things are going or should go, it impacts your colleagues’ perception … of your goals.

Samuel: Have you noticed any change in the perception over time?

Hanson: It’s been an interesting transition, because when I started doing this in 2004, it was in the aftermath of the looting of the Baghdad museum. It’s weird to say it, but there were a couple of silver linings out of that looting. One of them was that we got a lot of traction with the Department of Defense. The looting and the way the museum was treated was so, so bad, and such an embarrassment. After 2003, there was a big “Oops, that was a huge mistake!” There was a sense that they did not want that sort of headline to ever happen again.

Since then, the U.S. has become a member to the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. There’s now an international treaty obligation that the U.S. has to take into account cultural sites during an armed conflict. In this conflict against ISIS, they’ve been taking into account protecting these sites. They have reached out to experts. They’ve deliberately used [weapons] that would not create extensive destruction.

I’ve watched the conversation shift from “Oh yeah there’s this handful of sites, whatever, whatever” to “We’ve got to make sure we’re not doing something that impacts these sites, even by accident. We have to be proactive.”

Samuel: Did the Hobby Lobby story impact Iraqis’ trust in Americans?

Hanson: Not that I’ve heard. I think most Iraqis were already aware that this stuff was stolen. And we all know this stuff gets stolen because there’s a market. No one is going into the desert in 100-degree heat with a shovel to excavate this for no profit. The U.S. definitely has an art-consuming market that doesn’t care where it came from, and that’s a problem.

Something that really worries me is that, with the Hobby Lobby case [we’re dealing] with cuneiform documents—they have writing on them which usually identifies them as Iraqi and roughly identifies their date. But there’s probably been a lot of [ISIS] theft from religious sites, and for religious objects that don’t have identifying information, they could be purchased and nobody would know. So if collectors aren’t keeping an eye out, who knows what’s going to happen to that material.

The remains of al-Hadba minaret at the Grand al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul
The remains of al-Hadba minaret at the al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul (Erik De Castro / Reuters)

Samuel: How should we balance the competing impulses to, on the one hand, try to keep Iraqi heritage in Iraq, and on the other hand, ensure these items will be in a safe place?

Hanson: We don’t think about our major museums taking on risk, but it’s important to realize that no museum is perfect—there’s always risk and uncertainty. During World War II, the Smithsonian had to move a bunch of its stuff off the Eastern Seaboard. In California, the Getty sits on a pretty major earthquake line. It’s different from ISIS, obviously—ISIS is unique and distinct, particularly when it comes to intentional damage—but there are layers of risk.

Certain people are very much fans of this “collect to protect” mentality, which in my opinion is pretty neocolonial. It’s definitely this approach that’s like “Oh, well, we know better.” It’s refusing to acknowledge that there are different risks where you are. If you think you can take better care of something, it may be because you’re not acknowledging the risks that are at your own place.

Samuel: Can technology play a useful role by making artifacts accessible to everyone without actually moving them offsite?

Hanson: There’s been a whole lot of conversations about how great it would be if everything were 3D-scanned and so forth. But working in Iraq right now, I’m really hesitant to say that we should just throw technology at it and that’s the solution. … They did this big 3D print of one of [Syria’s] Palmyra arches, in London, and it’s toured, and it’s sort of creepily colonial. Because it’s like “Oh yeah, we did these plaster casts back in the 1800s, and now we’re just going to do 3D prints!” It was awareness-raising but simultaneously there was this feeling of “Well, if you’re putting the money toward that, just send the money to the archeologists at Palmyra!” It’s a very interesting question that I don’t have easy answers for—it’s just awkward.