The looting of the Iraqi National Museum in April of 2003 provoked a world outcry at the loss of artifacts regarded as part of humanity's shared cultural patrimony. But though the losses were unprecedented in scale, the museum looting was hardly the first time that Iraqi heirlooms had been plundered or put to political uses. From the beginning of archaeology as a modern science in the nineteenth century, Europeans excavated and appropriated Iraqi antiquities as relics of the birth of Western civilization. Since Iraq was created in 1921, the modern state has used archaeology to forge a connection to the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and/or Islamic empires and so build a sense of nationhood among Iraqis of differing religious traditions and ethnicities.
This book delves into the ways that archaeology and politics intertwined in Iraq during the British Mandate and the first years of nationhood before World War II. Magnus Bernhardsson begins with the work of British archaeologists who conducted extensive excavations in Iraq and sent their finds to the museums of Europe. He then traces how Iraqis' 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 it increased as power shifted to the Iraqi government. Finally he examines how Iraqi leaders, including Saddam Hussein, have used archaeology and history to legitimize the state and its political actions.