MISSOULA — In early 2003, Capt. Thomas Livoti joined the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a member of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. The platoon commander had earned a bachelor’s degree in archaeology from the University of Montana, though his knowledge of Mesopotamia was limited.
Thrust into the cradle of civilization by world events, Livoti’s unit fought north toward Baghdad, giving little thought to the region’s deep cultural history. It was then that orders came to report to Babylon, an ancient Mesopotamian city referred to throughout the Bible.
Livoti thought it was a joke.
“I was thinking they meant Al Hillah, a nearby city,” said Livoti. “But we actually went to Babylon. I thought it was a bad idea. There was no tactical or strategic value in us occupying an archaeological site.”
Eleven years later, with an Iraqi flag on the wall of his Missoula home and a copy of “Cultural Heritage in the Crosshairs” on his desk, Livoti considered the 2003 invasion and the years that have followed.
Now a doctoral candidate at UM, Livoti has emerged as an unlikely expert in the protection of cultural properties and antiquities during counterinsurgency operations. He’s also been tapped by the U.S. Army to help restore the “Monuments Men,” picking up where the fabled World War II unit left off when it disbanded in 1951.
“The military has realized that we need cultural property professionals on the battlefield,” Livoti said. “We’d advise commanders on the ground how to guard cultural property in order to protect the heritage of the host nation, and to keep the terrorists from acquiring antiquities and using them as a cash crop.”
Satellite photos taken before, during after the rule of Saddam Hussein would later reveal that damage to Babylon had occurred during the Iraqi dictator’s reign and before the arrival of U.S. troops.
But the military has received harsh and widespread criticism for its treatment of archaeological sites during its occupation of Iraq. In Babylon, Livoti watched as troops filled sandbags for defensive barriers, digging in soils rich with ancient pot shards.
Searching for an analogy, he compared the activity to placing a satellite dish on George Washington’s head at Mount Rushmore, or conducting a modern military operation on the solemn grounds of Gettysburg Battlefield. The tension between military necessity and military convenience intrigued him.
“I knew right then I wanted to protect antiquities and cultural property during times of war,” Livoti said. “I wanted to make sure this didn’t happen anymore.”
Cultural icons have fallen victim to military conquests throughout history, and the act of looting antiquities for military gain began before the Iraq War.
The Nazis looted cultural treasures across Europe during World War II to help fund their own war effort. More recent reports suggest the Taliban and al-Qaida have turned to the illicit sale of antiquities to pay for their terrorist operations.
A recent National Geographic article recounts how Iraqi intelligence officers recovered 160 flash drives from a dead member of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The drives included the financial records of illegally trafficked antiquities, including more than $36 million reaped through the sale of artifacts plundered from a single region of Syria.
“The reports indicate ISIS is stealing them or looting them and selling them for cash,” Livoti said. “The Free Syrian Army was actually going to the border of Lebanon and trading antiquities for guns and ammo. Some groups have also placed a tax on smuggling, so directly or indirectly, they’re benefiting.”
The problem recently prompted the International Council of Muslims to issue a “Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk.” Artifacts found at the nation’s ancient sites are highly prized on the international market, making them subject to looting and illegal trafficking.
The objects at risk recall Persian merchants, the Ottoman Empire, ancient kingdoms and European crusaders. The list includes votive figurines, alabaster idols and amphorae stemming from the Hellenistic era.
Some of the listed objects date back to the 8th millennium before Christ. All were crafted long before Christopher Columbus sailed for America. The council has cautioned dealers to be aware of looted artifacts, or what Livoti calls “cultural racketeering.”
“Now more than ever, protecting antiquities, monuments and other cultural property is essential for defeating global terrorism and insurgency,” Livoti said. “When you remove cultural property or antiquities as a funding mechanism for terrorists, it can save people’s lives.”
After the invasion of Iraq, Livoti left the Marine Corps and completed an internship with the U.S. Department of State, where he conducted research for the Babylon Site Damage Report. Work as a forensic archaeologist on the Iraq Mass Graves Investigative Team followed.
The team’s work helped seal Saddam Hussein’s fate in the world court for crimes against humanity. Now in the Army Reserve, Livoti’s latest endeavor could help restore the monuments officers and preserve the world’s heritage during times of conflict and disaster.
The 2014 movie “The Monuments Men” depicts a group of Allied soldiers charged with finding and saving priceless art and other cultural artifacts before their destruction by the Nazis in WWII.
While the film takes liberties in telling the story, Livoti said, it does reflect what the monuments officers did during the war. Livoti is eager to see the modern-day unit take shape.
But time isn’t going to wait, he said, and the world’s cultural treasures remain at risk.
“As terrorists and insurgents continue to benefit from the illicit sale of antiquities by looting archaeological sites and museums, saving and protecting cultural property on the battlefield will translate into saving lives,” he said. “That’s the overall objective of my research.”