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Reclaiming a Plundered Past. Archaeology and Nation Building in Modern Iraq

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Reclaiming a Plundered Past: Archaeology and Nation Building in Modern Iraq
By Magnus T. Bernhardsson. (University of Texas Press, Austin: 2005. Pg. xi, 327. Illustrations.) ISBN: 0-292-70947-1.

Reviewed by Simone Bonim - January 30, 2006

The history of archaeology in Iraq is a meld of nationalistic endeavors and colonial ambitions. In this groundbreaking work, Magnus T. Bernhardsson, provides a through survey of Iraqi archaeology up through 1940, and he provides a general overview of the state of archaeology in Iraq from the end of World War II up until the looting of the Iraqi National Museum and other cultural and research institutions in 2003. In this seminal book, Reclaiming a Plundered Past. Archaeology and Nation Building in Modern Iraq Bernhardsson examines the role that archaeology has played in the development of Iraqi nationalism. He also shows how Archaeology has been used to create the cultural ideal of an Iraqi people from such diverse groups as Iraqi Kurds, Shi'is, Sunnis, Jews, and Christians.

In this text, Bernhardsson explores the historical background of the three phases of Iraqi archaeology. While all stages of Iraqi archaeology are touched upon, the main emphasis of this text is on the two earliest stages, with the period from 1921-1941 receiving the bulk of attention. Throughout, Bernhardsson provides a succinct address on the role that politics has played in the scope and growth of Iraqi archaeology, and on the role that politics has played in manipulating the data and artifacts recovered to meet specific political goals. Bernhardsson shows how the selection of sites to study, the types of information that archeologist search for, and how the data is interpreted is all influenced by political and nationalistic goals. Most intriguing of all, he illustrates how the various Iraqi governments used archaeology and a connection between modern Iraqis and their Mesopotamia ancestors as a tool to eliminate Western control of the country. Reclaiming a Plundered Past. Archaeology and Nation Building in Modern Iraq also provides keen insights into Iraqi nationalism and cultural identity.

Bernhardsson is currently the Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern History at Williams College in Massachusetts. He brings years of experience to this text, and is a respected authority in the field of Modern Iraqi cultural, religious, and political history. The text begins with an informative introduction that examines the horrific destruction caused when the various cultural institutions in Bagdad were looted and burned after the American troops entered Bagdad in 2003. This introduction also provides an overview of the history of Iraqi archaeology and some of the key players, such as Gertrude Bell. The text then spins off into five thematic chapters:
  1. Early Excavations in Mesopotamia
  2. World War I and the British Occupation (1900-1921)
  3. From Mesopotamia to Iraq: Politics during the (British) Mandate 1921-1932
  4. Mandated Archaeology: The Creation of the Museum and the Vibrant Archaeological Scene (1921-1932)
  5. Independent Nation - Independent Archaeology (1932-1941)
The main body of the text ends with a summary of the state of Iraqi archaeology since 1941, the uses to which it has been put, and the impact of the looting of the Iraqi National Museum. Supplemental materials include extensive endnotes and a list of works consulted that does double duty as an invaluable reading list on the subject. This book is essential reading for students, scholars, and lay readers alike with an interest in Iraqi history and culture, and Middle Eastern archaeology.

Related Reviews:

The Archaeology of Mesopotamia: Theories and Approaches, by Roger Matthews.
A survey of the theories, methods, approaches, and history of Mesopotamian archaeology.

The Last Jews in Baghdad: Remembering a Lost Homeland, by Nissim Rejwan.
The author's memoir of growing up Jewish in Baghdad in the first half of the 20th century. His story is entwined with insights into the history and culture of the Jews of Iraq.

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