Colorado State Researchers Create Archaeological Playing Cards for Troops in Iraq, Afghanistan

Note to Editors: Downloadable, print-quality photos of the playing cards are available with the news release at or contact Kimberly Sorensen.

A Colorado State University researcher and graphic artist have developed playing cards with messages on how American soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan can help preserve precious antiquities. The project with the U.S Department of Defense is part of a cultural heritage awareness program.

The goal of the cards is to prevent any unnecessary damage to ancient sites and to curb the illegal trade of stolen artifacts in Iraq.

Nearly 50,000 decks of cards, weighing more than 10,000 pounds, are stored in a Loveland, Colo., warehouse where they will be shipped to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as training installations around the United States.

"The Defense Department’s concern over the issue of cultural heritage preservation began with the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 when the ancient site of Babylon was inadvertently damaged by the U.S. military and the Iraq Museum in downtown Baghdad was looted," said James Zeidler, senior research scientist in the university’s Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands, or CEMML.

"These cards are part of a larger cultural awareness training package that will help our armed forces avoid inadvertent damage to sensitive archaeological sites and help curb illegal looting and antiquities trafficking in the war zone," he said.

Each card in the deck displays an artifact or site and gives a tip on how to avoid causing damage to historic and archaeological sites.  

The five of clubs, for example, says "Drive around, not over, archaeological sites." Other cards warn against digging if ancient artifacts or architectural remains are encountered.

A message at the top of all cards states "ROE first!" notifying soldiers that the military’s Rules of Engagement – strict operational rules for engaging the enemy and protecting one’s safety and health – precede all other considerations.

Each suit in the deck has a theme for its messages: diamonds for artifacts and treasures, spades for historic sites and archaeological digs, hearts for "winning hearts and minds" and clubs for heritage preservation.

CEMML graphic artist Tracy Wager worked with Zeidler to create all of the graphics for the cards. In addition to displaying images and messages on each playing card, Wager made each card a piece to a puzzle as a way to get the soldiers to look at the messages.

In the background of each card is a piece of a graphic which when placed in the correct formation completes the image. Each suit has its own image. For example, the suit of hearts creates the image of an historic illustration of the Northwest Palace Throne Room at the ancient site of Nimrud, Iraq. The puzzles reinforce the idea that each artifact and each archaeological site forms an important piece of the cultural history puzzle.

This project was sponsored by the U.S. Defense Department’s Legacy Resource Management Program through funding awarded to Laurie Rush, archaeologist-in-residence at Fort Drum, the headquarters for the Army’s 10th Mountain Division in New York. Rush is developing a range of cultural awareness training products for the Department of Defense and asked Zeidler and Wager to be responsible for the design and production of the playing cards. Several CEMML research associates work in the Cultural Resources Program at Fort Drum with Rush and provided assistance, as did Roger Ulrich and students from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

As part of the same project, Zeidler and Wager created soldier pocket cards for American troops, with tips on how to recognize and preserve cultural heritage sites. Another CEMML consultant is developing an informational Web site on cultural heritage preservation for the Department of Defense.

Rush’s project was recently awarded the Chairman’s Award for Federal Achievement in Historic Preservation by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C.

CEMML is a research and service unit within the Warner College of Natural Resources at Colorado State. The center supports the national defense mission by providing professional services and technical support to the U.S. Department of Defense in conservation, environmental planning and natural and cultural resources management.

The playing cards are strictly intended for educational use by the Department of Defense and are not for sale commercially.