The Antiquities of Iraq: History for the TakingSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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It has been several months since we first learned about the looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad and of the ransacking and destruction of many of Iraq‘s other depositories of cultural knowledge such as libraries, schools, and universities. The world press reacted with alarm and for a short time public attention was focused on these terrible events. As was to be expected, the mass media soon grew tired of the tale. The Museum story was also unwelcome in some quarters, and soon editorials began to appear that attempted to downplay the whole affair, ascribing ideological and political motivations to the alarmed reactions of scholars and journalists. Pundits and opinion makers managed to convince many people that little of significance had actually been taken from the Museum and that most of what was lost had been recovered.
In the U.S., this campaign attained its goals and the story was soon forgotten, driven from the first pages by such claims and, more legitimately, by more urgent stories of death and disorder in Iraq. Scholars who had reacted emotionally to the initial reports about the looting of antiquities were ridiculed, accused of ideological bias, and even subjected to offensive email campaigns.
Sad to say, the stories that downplayed the museum tragedy were terribly off the mark. Throughout the summer American and Iraqi officials were at work in the vaults, making inventories and repairing damage, while investigative authorities all over the globe searched for missing objects and cooperated with archaeologists and historians, compiling information and educating their investigators. Photographs of missing items or of similar objects have been disseminated to police offices and customs officials all over the world, with some success, as we now learn that 750 items were seized in four countries. As I write this, news has arrived that the famous Uruk “mask” from the fourth millennium B.C., perhaps the most famous object housed in the Museum, has just been recovered. The numbers of missing antiquities reported in the press has fluctuated wildly, like the numbers of Communists in the Manchurian Candidate, but reliable figures are now at hand. Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, who in April was put in charge of a 13-person task force to investigate the plundering of the Museum reported on September 10 that approximately 10,000 objects are still missing; just last week Donny George upped the number to 14,000. Many of the smaller, more portable items such as precious stone cylinder seals, pots, beads, and other stolen artifacts came from stores of recently excavated materials that had not yet been inventoried, and there are few realistic hopes that they will be recovered.
It is obvious that this was a complicated affair, and that the plunder and random destruction of Iraqi cultural sites was motivated by multiple impulses as people driven by opportunistic greed worked side by side with professional thieves. None of this can explain the ransacking of the all the museum offices and the seemingly wanton smashing and destruction in the public spaces of the building, which can only be ascribed to a backlash against the regime of Saddam Hussein, which had done so much to appropriate the ancient past of Iraq for its own legitimation purposes, and thus had created an impression that the Museum was nothing but another arm of the repressive state apparatus.
Many people were touched by this story and for a short time the great civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia, which constitute more than half of human history—if by that we mean the experience recorded in writing—were once again in the limelight. Those of us who spend most of our days studying the hundreds of thousands of preserved archaeological and inscriptional remains of these civilizations felt not only shock, but also a terrible sense of helplessness, as we learned that earlier appeals had been for naught. And the Museum had not been protected in time. Archaeologists from Iraq as well as from the U.S. had expressed worry about possible looting of museums as the war was being planned, and warnings as well as appeals were sent to the proper government authorities. Many of us had worried about potential damage to archaeological sites from bombs, mines, trenching, and machinery, but as the war developed, those fears proved to be unfounded. But then came the looting and by the time demands for protection could be mounted it was all over and we have to live with the consequences. For some this was simply a public relations debacle, for others it was a cultural tragedy that transcended ideological, national, or even disciplinary boundaries.
The museum rampage naturally received much of the attention, but we now know that the real damage to the antiquities of Iraq was taking place elsewhere and continues to this day. The plundering of archaeological sites, so intense in the nineteenth century, resumed once again after the first Gulf War. Until then a strong Department of Antiquities and harsh punishment for offenders kept such looting to a minimum and ancient Iraqi items were not commonly encountered on the antiquities market. Poverty and corruption ended all that in the era of sanctions, and during the last decade professional thieves and local villagers ransacked a number of sites, digging deep into the ancient mounds and unearthing thousands of artifacts, including whole archives of inscribed cuneiform tablets. Iraqi archaeologists tried to protect these sites by initiating new archaeological excavations, but as soon as the last war started the looters returned in force and have been at work ever since. As a result, the remains of ancient towns and cities are being devastated; thousands of cuneiform tablets, sculptures, figurines and other objects are being removed from the sites, but thousands more are being destroyed in the process as the architectural features that housed them are pulverized and erased from the archaeological record.
The issue has become more complex with the internationalization of the occupation. At first the country was controlled by the U.S. in the north and center, and the British in the south. Recently, others have joined the coalition and as a result various provinces are under different control. This has consequences for the fate of the more than 10,000 archaeological sites on Iraq, since they are not all in the hands of one army command and there is no uniform policy concerning their protection.
Until now little if any looting has been reported in the north, which is under U.S. control. In the far south ancient cities such as Uruk are located in an area that is generally run by the British, but at the end of July the province of Al-Muthanna was put in the hands of an 1,100 strong Dutch contingent, which includes some trained archaeologists. The ancient city of Uruk, home to the legendary hero Gilgamesh, which was occupied for more than six thousand years and is one of the most important sites in the country. This is where the first cuneiform writings, dated as early as 3200 B.C., were found. Fortunately, Uruk has been under the protection of the local tribal authorities and no looting has been reported to date. Things are much worse in provinces that lie to the north of Al-Muthanna—this is the part of the country where most of the site robberies are taking place. As of this month the central part of Iraq, between Baghdad and the British sector, has been put under the protection of an international force under Polish command. In addition to the 2,350 soldiers from Poland, the contingent numbers 1,650 from the Ukraine, 1,400 from Spain, 500 from Bulgaria as well as a few hundred each from el Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua. Rumania, Mongolia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan and the Philippine Republic have also provided supporting personnel. This force has to protect an area of over 31,000 square miles. The worst looting is taking place in the Dhi Qar province, under U.S. command, and in Al-Qadisiyah, which lies in the Polish sector but is under Spanish control.
Faced with such a situation, those who share a deep concern for one of the richest archaeological lode on the planet feel helpless and despondent. To be sure, we can help preserve and restore ransacked and damaged museums, libraries, and schools in the cities of Iraq, but there seems little that we can do to stop the ravishing of archaeological sites in the countryside. Coalition forces are stretched too thin and simply do not have the resources to permanently protect even the major sites, and the worsening security situation makes such patrols eminently dangerous. The Department of Antiquities and the Ministry of Culture are in disarray; they are in Baghdad, while the various provinces are under the control of disparate national authorities. Scholars and concerned lay persons in the U.S., Britain, the Netherlands, Poland, and Spain have been trying to appeal to their governments to help stop archaeological robbery, with various degrees of access and various results. While it is not at all clear what can be done at present, this is a situation that will probably last for some time, and it is impossible to predict its immediate course.
As we have seen, the looting of sites goes on and no one seems to know how to prevent the destruction. This does not bode well for the future of this past. If some normalcy returns to Iraq we can anticipate massive restructuring that will have a serious effects on the natural environment and on the remains of human history. Publicized reconstruction plans that respect neither local customs nor local conditions, and the scramble for post-war contracts must raise concern for the safety of archaeological remains. For in such a climate, who will protect ancient sites from urban sprawl, from shopping centers and malls, from bowling alleys, chain restaurants, and used car lots? Is it really out of the question that some developer will try to turn Babylon into a theme park, replete with fake palaces, light shows and new age music?
In the meantime we do what we can. The only way in which we will be able to provide uniform information, help, or intervention is if all concerned specialists in the countries occupying Iraq work in tandem and stay in close contact with each other. In August Michael Kennedy of the U-M International Institute met with authorities of the Polish government in Warsaw and discussed issues connected with the preservation and security of Iraqi antiquities; to follow up on this I then went there and discussed the situation with deans, archaeologists, and Arabists at Warsaw University. We are hoping that this is just the beginning of common action and after securing our cooperation will extend to bring in Dutch, Spanish, as well as other foreign colleagues. The constantly shifting international situation and rapidly changing conditions in Iraq preclude any premature statements of intent, but we are optimistic that this kind of transatlantic cooperation, building on the close relations that U-M had developed with scholars, journalists, and political authorities in Poland, will provide the opportunity to develop strategies that will help protect the remains of great civilizations that constitute the common heritage of all humanity.
Errata: The print version of this issue was incorrectly designated as Vol. 10, No. 4.
Piotr Michalowski is George G. Cemeron Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Michigan.