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Organizing Iraqi History

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Steve Nash

Anthropologist

Field Museum of Natural History

Steve Nash is in charge of the roughly 1,500,000 objects in the Field Museum's anthropology collection, from 40-foot totem poles to bronze bathtubs from Pompeii to rain gear made from sea mammal intestines by arctic natives. His current project is cataloging 32,000 relics excavated in the 1920s and '30s from the 5,000-year-old city of Kish, in southern Iraq.

Harold Henderson: Most of your objects have tracking numbers. Are there a lot that still don't?

Steve Nash: About 1.2 million are cataloged.

HH: That doesn't sound so bad--you're 80 percent done, right?

SN: Maybe. When I first came here eight years ago, I spent two years cataloging the southwestern archaeological collections amassed by Paul Martin, anthropology curator from 1929 to 1972. At that time we had 600,000 objects cataloged in anthropology. It turned out that the uncataloged portions of Martin's collections numbered about 600,000--so the act of cataloging them effectively doubled the size of the collection.

HH: I know it's more fun to go out in the field than to stay home and organize last year's finds, but why did he leave that work undone?

SN: He almost always wrote up his fieldwork within a year. But he only cataloged those items that he wrote about and, for whatever reason, he didn't publish all the sites he excavated. Also, his collecting practices changed as the field of archaeology changed. At first anthropologists only collected exhibition-worthy, intact artifacts. Later they realized fragments and animal bones had informational value as well. By the 60s they were collecting debitage [stone chips left over from toolmaking]. We have 85,000 pieces from one site alone. It takes up space, and will it ever be analyzed?

HH: This isn't the glamour part, is it?

SN: The discipline privileges fieldwork. What we're doing here is making these collections usable after the fieldwork is over, so that people can do new science on old collections.

HH: Well, surely you can't do much with an uncataloged collection.

SN: True. From 1923 to 1933 the Field Museum and the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University collaborated in excavating portions of the ancient city of Kish. They found cuneiform tablets, elegant bronze candlesticks, cylindrical seals for use on documents, the earliest known wheels, and dozens of tiny toy ceramic chariots.

HH: You're telling me that this great stuff wasn't cataloged?

SN: It was partially cataloged. During the expedition they did assign field numbers to track those objects deemed important, but they omitted mundane objects and used a different numbering system every year. Then, at the end of every season of work, the excavation directors divided up the collections. In the end the Iraq Museum took about half and the Field and the Ashmolean each about a quarter. We thought we had about 11,000 items from Kish. Now that we've given them all numbers, it turns out that we have about 32,000. And don't forget that the expedition dug 42 trenches in 15 zones in two different areas. In order to make these objects useful to scholars we have to try to re-create their excavation contexts and associations by matching them with the objects they were found with, whether they're here or at Oxford or in Baghdad.

HH: So an anthropologist who wanted to study one of the first cities on earth, where the wheel was invented, would have had to travel to three museums on three different continents?

SN: In practice they usually went to the closest. And even if we happened to have what they wanted to study, there was no easy way to find similar items. A "pot" uncovered in 1929 and a "vessel" uncovered in 1930 and a "funerary object" uncovered in 1931 might all be the same thing, but without standardized names how would you ever find them in an electronic database?

HH: So numbering each item is only the beginning of a long process.

SN: Our goal is to produce a database that includes standardized names (as well as the various original names), digital images of each object, descriptions of most, and connections to the locations, field notes, photographs, and movie films--all online in English and Arabic, and ultimately connected with the Ashmolean and Iraqi portions of the collection.

HH: That's a lot to do in two years.

SN: It's going well, considering that if it can go wrong with a collection, it went wrong with Kish. The original excavation wasn't state-of-the-art even then. We know a lot more about this collection than before. Now it's time for us to get it on paper and into the computer.

HH: Sounds expensive.

SN: We have a two-year, $99,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

HH: How'd that happen? I thought the feds quit giving museums money for organizing stuff they already own.

SN: The National Science Foundation no longer funds such projects but other agencies do. This was a special case. In August 2003, in the aftermath of the fairly blatant mishandling of Iraqi cultural treasures--

HH: You mean the looting of the museum in Baghdad.

SN: Yes. After that the NEH put together a $500,000 initiative for projects involving Iraqi cultural heritage.

HH: No bungled war, no money? Who says archaeology has nothing to do with current events?

SN: Current events have a huge impact. Since the looting we may now have not one-quarter but half of the world's collection of artifacts from Kish. We won't know until we finish our project, travel to the Ashmolean and compare our collection with theirs, and travel to Baghdad to do the same thing. Given the current situation there, this may not happen for some time.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrance.

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