Review by Archeology News - March 28, 2006
Magnus T. Bernhardsson, professor of Middle Eastern history at Williams College, is the author of Reclaiming a Plundered Past: Archaeology and Nationalism in Modern Iraq.
The book, published by University of Texas Press, chronicles the history of archeology in Iraq and analyzes the strong link that has developed between archaeology and Iraqi nationalism.
The April 2003 looting of the Iraqi National Museum caused a world outcry at the loss of what was perceived as all of humanity's shared historical artifacts. This, however, was not the first time that Iraqi antiquities were plundered; the peoples of the Middle East have watched as time and time again Western archaeologists excavated and appropriated Iraqi antiquities, especially under the British Mandate.
Struggling to find a national identity since Iraq was created in 1921, Iraq has engaged in a battle of political power directly tied to the control of its archaeological patrimony. The modern state used the study of archaeology to forge a contemporary connection to the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Islamic empires to build a sense of nationhood among Iraqis of differing religious traditions and ethnicities.
Bernhardsson explores the political struggle as he traces the transformation of Iraq's archaeology enterprise from its "international" stage to the "national" stage, discussing shifts in power through a theme of removal and return of the artifacts.
The book considers the work of British archaeologists who conducted extensive excavation in Iraq and sent their findings to the museums of Europe; "their attitudes, methods, and ultimate success may help explain why many Iraqis viewed these activities with suspicion; archaeology was not perceived to be a neutral science, but integral part of the imperialist enterprise."
Bernhardsson traces how Iraqi's 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 this increased as power shifted to the Iraqi government. And, he examines how Iraqi leaders, including Saddam Hussein, used archaeology and history to legitimize the state and its political actions.
"Reclaiming a Plundered Past" addresses the controversy of "what makes 'Iraq' Iraq?" and the importance of owning a national narrative that could weave the country together through one commonality.
Before coming to Williams in 2003, Bernhardsson taught modern Islamic and Middle Eastern history at Hofstra University. He has also taught at the University of Rhode Island and the College of Holy Cross.
He graduated from the University of Iceland in Reykjavik in 1990 and received his doctorate in history, with distinction, from Yale University in 1999.
In addition to "Reclaiming a Plundered Past," Bernhardsson is the author of "Píslarvottar Nútímans" (2005) (translates into English as "Modernity's Martyrs") and the co-editor of "Imagining the End: Visions of Apocalypse from the Ancient Middle East to Contemporary America" (2001).