The Soldier Archeologist
Doctoral student envisions Monuments Men group to protect antiquities and save lives
By Cary Shimek
Walking the ancient streets of Babylon allowed Tommy Livoti to find his path in life.
It happened like this: In 2003, the Missoula native and UM grad was a Marine Corps platoon commander with the 1st Force Reconnaissance Company in Iraq. He and the 21 Marines and sailors under his charge spent several weeks behind enemy lines, scouting and providing intelligence for advancing coalition forces during the first phase of the Iraq War. Despite engaging elements of the Fedayeen and Iraqi Army, his platoon made it out safely and even took some prisoners.
Livoti majored in anthropology at UM, and as the invasion force pushed toward Baghdad, he saw things that fired his imagination.
“There were ancient Persian forts and scenes right out of ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’” he says. “Then I learned we were going to occupy Babylon.”
Once the seat of power for Hammurabi, Nebuchadnezzar II and Alexander the Great, Babylon now contained a palace built by Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi Army had brusquely occupied this archeological treasure trove, and now U.S. forces did the same. Livoti saw a water-treatment system and military headquarters added, and he watched queasily as sandbags were filled with dirt and huge potsherds. (Livoti is quick to inform that “shards refer to glass, sherds to pottery.”) He later learned that a helicopter pad was built on the site and heavy equipment cracked the grand processional way.
It all felt so wrong.
“I knew from my undergraduate training and just reading up that we really shouldn’t be doing this,” Livoti says. “There was no reason for us to be there. We could have set up someplace else. If we were there to protect from looters, we could have used a smaller footprint.”
When he voiced his concerns to a superior, he was colorfully informed he was there as an officer, not an archeologist. But why couldn’t he be both? It was then that Livoti became powerfully interested in protecting cultural properties during warfare.
Babylon inspired him to start graduate school at UM and return to Iraq twice, making life choices that have uniquely prepared him to help the military integrate cultural property management into its wartime decision-making. He also has been asked to provide input into a possible new version of the Monuments Men, the famed group of experts (including women) who saved tens of thousands of priceless works of art during World War II.
“This is kind of a dream opportunity for me right now,” Livoti says. “I’ve always wanted to combine my military and archeology background into one, and now I’m doing research that has the ultimate goal of saving lives – including those of the enemy – and saving precious cultural property at the same time.”
How does protecting the world’s archeological heritage save lives? As Livoti details in his work-in-progress doctoral thesis, smugglers and terrorists often fund their activities by selling looted antiquities. Al-Qaeda did it in Iraq when Livoti was there, and now ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is accused of the same activity.
“They also have been documented destroying antiquities for psychological warfare and demoralizing local populations – the same playbook the Nazis used during World War II,” he says.
The direction of Livoti’s research was guided by what happened to him after he left Iraq in 2003. He returned to Montana, started taking a few UM grad school classes and then landed a State Department internship regarding the Babylon site in 2005. For a summer and fall, he worked with talented experts trying to assess the damage done by recent military occupations. Livoti said his greatest contribution to the 600-page document was to suggest using satellite images to view Babylon from pre-Saddam, during Saddam and the time of the U.S. occupation. The results were a mixed bag.
“Saddam did the most damage before we got there,” he says, “but the bottom line is his bad behavior shouldn’t excuse ours. People in Iraq are proud of their Babylonian heritage, and putting an army on the site didn’t help our cause. How would we feel if the Canadians invaded and put a satellite dish on George Washington’s forehead at Mount Rushmore?”
His State Department connections helped him land a return trip to Iraq in 2006 as part of a team investigating a mass grave from the Saddam era. The Army Corps of Engineers wanted him there as an archeologist, so he took UM electives on osteology and forensic science. But when he arrived in Baghdad, the head of the expedition informed Livoti there had been a misunderstanding, and that he actually had been hired to be the team’s security liaison. “I was bummed; I had my [digging] kit and everything,” Livoti says. But in the end he was allowed to do both archeology and security work.
“It hands--down turned out to be the best job I’ve ever had,” he says. “I had my weapon and my trowel, and I was walking security perimeters. I was coordinating security of our site with military contractors, as well as soldiers from a nearby forward operating base in case something happened out in the middle of the desert. I gave classes on situational awareness, and I got to excavate mass graves and become part of history.”
The site was used as evidence in the trial of Saddam, and Livoti remembers the prosecutor from the trial visiting the excavation site. Livoti helped move the bodies to an intake lab in Baghdad, and he became proficient at skills such as separating bloody clothes from a dry human skeleton – basically separating the biological from the cultural material. Sometimes he would find identification cards and family pictures.
“A few times I would look at a guy and think, ‘If he was alive, he would be about my age right now,’” he says. “It screws with your head a little bit.”
That expedition lasted three months. Upon returning to the States, he rejoined the military with the Marine Corps Reserves and went back to Iraq for the third time during the Surge in 2008. It basically was an ongoing counterinsurgency mission in the western Anbar province. Livoti interacted much of the time with everyday Iraqis.
Though mostly a positive experience, one day some 5- or 6-year-old Iraqi boys tried selling the Marines trinkets they had looted from a nearby cemetery. They wanted $1 for their illicit finds.
“My language professor at UM says I speak an awful redneck dialect of Arabic, but I basically told them, ‘You can’t dig this stuff up’ and ‘What would your mom and dad say?’” he says. “‘This is somebody’s ancestor.’”
Livoti’s research and experiences have revealed that most looters in Iraq are poor farmers who make about $1,200 a year. These guys can find an ancient cuneiform tablet or cylinder seal over the weekend and sell it for $100 to a smuggler, who then makes the real money.
He also learned that the U.S. supplied so much food during the Iraq War that farmers often couldn’t sell their products. So, while they were well fed, the farmers would loot sites to earn some spendable income.
“This is a socioeconomic dislocation model that I talk about in my dissertation,” he says. “If we could facilitate a farmer’s ability to sell his food, then he’s out at the market and not looting antiquities, which eventually fund the terrorists.”
With the advantages becoming more evident, the military seems more willing to consider protecting antiquities during wartime. In 2010, Livoti joined the Army National Guard to become a Civil Affairs officer so he could apply his archaeological skill sets in a military setting. Now a member of the Army Reserve, Livoti recently was given the opportunity to complete a one-year command of a military history detachment. He received training in military history operations, museum curation management and conducting oral histories.
Now he hopes to finish his doctoral thesis and graduate from UM in May, but that may be delayed by Livoti’s latest assignment: He is the cultural heritage adviser to the Army’s Institute for Military Support for Governance, a directorate under the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Training Center at Fort Bragg, N.C. One of his many new responsibilities is working with the U.S. Army on protecting antiquities in wartime.
Livoti envisions a group of archeologists trained as soldiers. Possibly a joint asset shared by various military branches, the group would have the ability to work closely with special forces and conventional units to advise commanders on the ground how to best protect cultural property during military engagements. The unit also would advise foreign governments how to set up cultural resource management plans at the national and regional levels. The group could forensically investigate looted archeological sites and help track down smugglers.
“I’m humbled to even be asked to participate in this,” Livoti says. “I envision a group ready to go overseas at a moment’s notice. And if they called me right now, I would be on the first plane.”
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