Lunch over antiquities


Swift Hall's common room was packed for last Wednesday's Divinity School Lunch, where diners feasted on walnut- and orange–topped salad, baked potatoes with chili, and pear cobbler with ice cream for dessert. "This is like the best lunch I've had in years," declared Divinity School communications director Terren Wein before introducing the day's speaker, Oriental Institute and Near Eastern languages and civilizations professor McGuire Gibson, AM'64, PhD'68.

"You might say this food was divine, or at least the divines can cook," Gibson joked. Then he turned to more serious matters: the plunder of antiquities in Iraq. A leading authority on ancient Mesopotamia, Gibson and colleague Augusta McMahon, AM'86, PhD'93, published "Lost Heritage: Antiquities Stolen from Iraq's Regional Museums" (pdf) in 1992, part of a series by the American Academic Research Institute in Iraq and the first academic article to bring attention to losses after the 1990 Gulf War.

"When you have looting," Gibson told the audience, "you have lost the respect of the people." He described what he called the U.S. government's mishandling of the April 2003 ransacking of the Iraqi National Museum. "I started sending e-mails to the Pentagon when I heard about the looting," he recalled, waiting and hoping that he would see "the photo-op on TV where the general says, 'We've saved the antiquities.'"

"The Iraqis tried," Gibson said, by placing as many objects as they could in secret storage, "but the occupying power did not do its duty." The United States was at fault, he said, for "not having enough troops to do the job right."

Worse than the museum break-ins, Gibson said, were the people foraging through Iraqi archaeological sites, a problem he said is still going on today. "Some of the most important ancient Sumerian cities are now destroyed." The Iraqis, he said, "are digging up their own heritage and their own future," because the vandalism prevents future excavations that could stimulate the economy and bolster tourism. Excavating a looted site is "like digging in lace," he said with frustration. "There's holes here and there's holes there."

Gibson then took questions from the audience. "What can we do to prevent this current catastrophe from happening in the rest of the Middle East?" asked one woman. His answer came too quickly: "You can't."

Jenny Fisher, '07

Photos: Audience members listen to Gibson after lunch (top); Gibson describes the looting (bottom).

January 31, 2007