September 2007

Lost in the Shuffle

In 2003 the Pentagon issued troops in Iraq playing cards featuring the faces of fugitive Saddam Hussein loyalists. These days, the decks being distributed to army personnel focus on a different type of most-wanted list: antiquities.

Aimed at protecting ancient treasures, the cards carry messages promoting awareness of Iraq’s cultural heritage. Diamonds identify famous sites — Babylon; the spiraling minaret of Samarra; Nimrud, an Assyrian city mentioned in the Bible — and categories of artifacts such as cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals, to help soldiers recognize them in markets or raids. (If found, such artifacts are to be turned over to Iraqi authorities.) Clubs offer tips on preservation; hearts bear exhortations to win the confidence of Iraqis by showing respect for historic sites. Cards marked with spades, appropriately, warn against digging at archaeological sites or damaging them with vehicles or military hardware.

“The idea is to spread ideas and awareness, not just ‘These are 52 things that you might encounter,'” says the cards’ cocreator, Laurie Rush, an archaeologist at Fort Drum, New York. Some 40,000 decks of cards have been sent to Iraq, says Rush, who wrote their text with archaeologist James Zeidler of Colorado State University.

After the widely publicized thefts at Baghdad’s Iraq National Museum in the first weeks of the U.S. invasion, followed by looting at ancient sites all over the country, a deck of cards might seem a trivial gesture. Rush says she has no illusions: “We’re not naive. We know we’re not going to save every archaeological place with this effort.” Additional measures include the construction of mock-historic sites at Fort Drum, where soldiers learn to carry out combat operations without harming structures.

–Roger Atwood