The Latest

Getting Dirty with Larry Rothfield

August 9, 2017

Lawrence Rothfield is associate professor of English and   Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago, where he is currently directing a major three year research initiative on illicit antiquities markets, “The Past for Sale: New Approaches to the Study of Archaeological Looting.”



If you could recommend one thing to better protect heritage, what would it be?

A Pigovian (corrective) tax on antiquities. This would raise funds to support anti-looting efforts, would reduce demand, and would give the antiquities trade an incentive to clean up their act.

If you could have lived in any era in any civilization, when and where would it have been?

Renaissance Florence, the crucible of modern politics, cultural policy, and recognizably modern efforts to unearth and make sense of the ancient past.

What attracted you to your profession? 

My dissertation advisor was the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, who showed me it was possible to use one’s interpretive skills to criticize policies. Protecting heritage and culture is a policy challenge less intractable than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it is one that is both intellectually complex (what exactly is heritage? culture? How do cultural markets work? How do we measure the social costs of losing heritage or culture? What is the relation between knowledge and aesthetic value? Who should pay to protect the past?) and yet has real-world consequences.

What is one piece of advice can you give the next generation who seek to follow in your footsteps?

Heritage policy is not recognized as a subdiscipline in public policy, nor in anthropology or sociology or any other field. That means that even if you are the world’s leading expert on illicit antiquities markets, you may not find it easy to land a tenure-track job, especially in today’s horrible academic job market. Get tenure first by working on a topic that your discipline cares about; post-tenure you are free to shift to studying heritage.

What is something that few people know about you?

In my spare time, I’ve written a fictional thriller screenplay that made it into the semifinals of the Austin Film Festival (the major screenwriters’ festival) drawing on what I learned in writing my book about the looting of the Iraq Museum.

What are you most proud of accomplishing?

In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, I organized a multi-day retreat that for the first time brought together all the stakeholders who collectively failed to secure Iraq’s natinal museum and sites – the Pentagon, State Department, uniformed military, UNESCO, heritage NGOs, archaeologists, etc. – to figure out what went wrong and make recommendations to ensure something like this could never happen again. Many of the attendees had never met each other before, and so in addition to getting a crucial sentence added to the military’s war-planning bible stipulating that cultural sites must be secured during invasions, the retreat helped foster a new network that in the years since has done much to drive heritage protection efforts in the US.