Saving Iraq's Treasures

As archaeologists worldwide help recover looted artifacts, they worry for the safety of the great sites of early civilization.

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“Oh your city! Oh your house! Oh your people!” wrote a scribe of ancient Sumer, portraying a dark time in the land that would become Iraq. That 4,000-year-old lament sounded all too contemporary in April as Baghdad mobs stormed Iraq’s National Museum, broke heads off ancient statues, ransacked files and made off with an unknown number of priceless artifacts. Despite pleas from Iraqi curators, U.S. forces had no orders to intervene. “Turmoil descended upon the land,” mourned the Sumerian scribe. “The statues that were in the treasury were cut down . . . there were corpses floating in the Euphrates; brigands roamed the roads.”

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For eight decades, archaeologists had deposited thousands of artifacts and manuscripts at the museum, documenting 10,000 years of civilization that gave the world writing, mathematics and a host of technologies—from paved roads and the wheels that ran on them to astronomical observatories. Despite 20 years of war, repression and economic sanctions in Iraq, archaeologists have continued to work the plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It was in such fabled cities as Uruk, Ashur, Babylon, Hatra and Samarra that complex agriculture, literacy and organized international trade originated. “It is a most remarkable place,” says archaeologist John Russell of the Massachusetts College of Art. “The people there put together all the pieces of civilization. And it looks like us.”


In March, fearing that the museum might be damaged by Coalition bombing, curators moved many of its 170,000 objects to basement storerooms and vaults. But within hours of the arrival of U.S. troops, looters and skilled thieves overwhelmed the few Iraqi guards at the museum and headed for the storerooms. Since then, several important objects have been brought back to the museum thanks to radio broadcasts urging their return, but Iraq’s newly opened borders will make it easy for thieves to feed artifacts to the international antiquities market. Among the most-prized missing objects: the Warka Vase, a sacred limestone piece from Uruk; a marble head of Poseidon; and an Assyrian ivory carving. Scholars initially compared the losses to the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. On April 29, Donny George, director of research for the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities, called the looting “the crime of the century. And it’s not just a loss for the Iraqi people, but a loss for all mankind.”



In late April, amid reports that the losses may not be as numerous as first feared, archaeologists, conservation experts and museum representatives—working with Interpol, the FBI and Unesco—announced a plan to embargo sales of Iraqi cultural artifacts and encourage their return, and to help Iraq inventory losses, locate the stolen objects and repair damaged ones. “We have to do a lot of things simultaneously,” said Unesco Director-General Koichiro Matsuura. “We have to make these efforts.”




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