August 23, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

Biblical History Artifacts Falling Prey to Looters

The plunder of antiquities in Iraq and Israel continues, forever diminishing the ability of archaeologists to recreate the Biblical past, say Newsweek reporters Melinda Liu and Christopher Dickey in MSNBC News.  Neither the new government in Iraq nor coalition troops are able to guard the many sites at which looters, in full daylight, dig up treasures thousands of years old to sell to collectors.  Even if recovered, items have limited value without the context in which they were found.  With no solution in sight, the article ends on an apocalyptic note:

For believers contemplating the rise of the looters, lines from the Revelation of Saint John the Divine may come to mind: “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen.”  For archeologists, for the faithful, for all of us, the loss of this past impoverishes the future.  Ripping artifacts from their contexts takes away the last chance we have to know those civilizations—from the world of Abraham to that of Nebuchadnezzar—that gave us our own.

In Iraq, many of the looters are poor people just trying to support their families.  The little they get is multiplied once the artifacts reach the antiquities market, where some may end up on a collector’s mantle.  In Israel, ongoing violence often makes archaeological work impossible, despite “a rising tide of funds for Bible-related projects.” 

Where is Indiana Jones when we need him?  This article raises awareness of a very real problem that demands action.  But who is at fault?  The political bias of the writers is hardly veiled.  “In Israel, much care is taken to preserve the slightest trace that might reveal literal truths about the mystical teachings of scripture,” they say; much care is taken by whom?  Why not identify the good guys?  It is not the Palestinians who cast precious artifacts down the Kidron Valley and try to destroy evidences that might support Israel’s history in the land (see this Jerusalem Post article, for instance).  What “mystical” teachings of Scripture do they have in mind, as contrasted with “literal truths” that an archaeologist might discover?  An artifact is literal, but its interpretation requires a philosophy of history that can have many political, moral and theological components.  They seem unaware that their philosophy colors their own interpretation of the Genesis account: thus they call the Temptation and the Fall “myths”.
    The authors fail to mention the atrocious acts of the former Iraqi dictator, and only speak of “the fall of Hussein” without mentioning who made him fall, as if he fell over by himself.  If it weren’t for the American coalition toppling him, Hussein would still be in power, flooding dozens of important sites with the Tigris River (see 03/22/2002 headline).  It also gives negative press to coalition forces, saying “coalition forces sometimes make matters worse,” selectively reporting one incident.  They allege an American military base moved earth “potentially rich in relics” at the Babylon site while building protective walls, without giving the officer in charge a chance to respond about what exactly he was doing and why.  The authors say nothing about the many extraordinary efforts the American soldiers have taken to preserve antiquities despite being shot at by anti-democratic Muslim terrorists and Saddam loyalists.
    The authors also fail to point the finger at the real problem in Israel.  Look at this biased sentence: “In Israel, a rising tide of funds for Bible-related projects is flowing into Jerusalem and its environs [from whom?], but archeology is an overlooked casualty of the intifada: the violence has cut down the number of active digs.”  Who is causing the violence but Muslim terrorists?  What is the intifada but Palestinian Arabs intent on the destruction of Israel, the only democratic government in the region that supports archaeology?  Who, on the constructive side, is giving money and promoting the scientific exploration of archaeological sites, but Israeli, British and American archaeologists?  The authors write as if “the violence” is just a fact of life, like rainfall.  If you cannot identify the problem, you cannot begin to identify a solution.
    The authors could have focused on solutions rather than wailing Biblical words out of context.  Why not promote the peace and prosperity of the new democratic government in Iraq, so that the poor have good jobs that can reduce the desperation that makes getting a quick buck in looting attractive?  Why not make sure that programs like “oil for food” actually get to the poor, instead of lining the pockets of dictators and U.N. officials?  Why not promote the free and open access of scientific archaeological teams to the sites that Hussein long kept off limits?  Why not severely punish convicted looters and dealers to set an example?  Blaming the freedom-loving governments who have sacrificed the most blood, given the most money, and taken the most positive action to bring a peaceful environment for archaeologists is not helping find the solution to a very real problem.  We have a suggestion.  Send Newsweek reporters to Iraq to perform an archaeological dig on the mass graves.

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Categories: Bible and Theology

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