In The Field

SAA: Stacking the deck to save world heritage

playingcard.jpgIt’s a little hard to figure out how to think about last night’s session on ‘consideration for archaeological property during military conflict’. In essence, we heard Army archaeologist Laurie Rush talking about how she tries to train US soldiers not to destroy significant archaeological sites in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is of course a noble goal, but one cannot help but wonder whether, as her colleague James Zeidler of Colorado State University quoted the critics, this is too little, too late. The US invasion of Iraq in March 2003 led to the looting of innumerable artifacts from the Iraqi national museum and elsewhere, though many were later recovered under the guidance of Col. Matthew Bogdanos and others.

But Bogdanos has a master’s degree in classics. What to make of the 18-year-old recruit who knows little of the rich history of Mesopotamia? How do you tell him that the rubble underfoot might just be a world-class archaeological site that needs to be preserved?

Rush’s solution: give them playing cards. With input from academics and many others, the Department of Defense has crafted a deck of cards featuring the archaeology of Iraq and Afghanistan. Try not to think immediately of the ‘most wanted’ playing cards that circulated around the time of the invasion, with Saddam Hussein as the ace of spades and his most-wanted lieutenants as the other cards. Zeidler swears their inspiration was far more mundane – a set of environmental awareness playing cards also put out by the defense department.


Each archaeology card features an artifact or other piece of information about archaeological awareness (mostly whatever the organizers could find free high-resolution pictures of, says Zeidler). For instance, the seven of clubs pictures Iraq’s Ctesiphon Arch with the caption: “This site has survived 17 centuries. Will it and the others survive you?” The four of hearts exhorts that “Protecting art and archaeology is the responsibility of all ranks within the unit.” And there’s always room for a 9/11 reference; the jack of diamonds has the Statue of Liberty captioned “How would you feel if someone stole her torch?” The cards also remind soldiers of ‘ROE first!’ – Rules of Engagement, or go ahead and defend yourself if under attack, take precedence in all cases.

Each suit has a theme: diamonds are for precious artifacts, hearts to win the hearts and minds of the local people, spades to remind soldiers not to dig, and clubs to raise cultural awareness. More than 60,000 decks have already been distributed, and the National Guard has just ordered another 50,000, says Rush, of Fort Drum in upstate New York.

Sadly, the cards are not for sale to the general public. The only way you can get a deck is if you’re already enlisted…and on your way to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Image courtesy of US Army

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