NY TIMES - Art Experts Fear Worst in the Plun

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Posted by Jeff from d53-152-230.try.wideopenwest.com ( on Sunday, April 13, 2003 at 2:21PM :

Art Experts Fear Worst in the Plunder of a Museum

The looting of the National Museum of Iraq, a repository of treasures from civilization's first cities and early Islamic culture, could be a catastrophe for world cultural heritage, archaeologists and art experts said on Friday.

"Baghdad is one of the great museums of the world, with irreplaceable material," said Dr. John Malcolm Russell, a specialist in Mesopotamian archaeology at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston.

Though he and other scholars of antiquities were alarmed by the reports of looting, they were not surprised. They said they feared the next cultural target could be the important museum in Mosul, a northern city that is also in turmoil. The Mosul museum holds many Assyrian artifacts from the nearby Nineveh ruins.

Concerned archaeologists urged United States military leaders to take more forceful steps to protect Iraqi's cultural treasures and to restore control of them to the local Department of Antiquities. For weeks before the war, archaeologists and other scholars had alerted military planners to the risks of combat, particularly postwar pillage of the country's antiquities. These include 10,000 sites of ruins with such resonating names as Babylon, Nineveh, Nimrud and Ur.

Experts reminded the Defense Department that after the Persian Gulf war of 1991, 9 of Iraq's 13 regional museums were plundered. The Baghdad museum was spared then because the end of war had left the government still in power and policing the city.

American archaeologists who studied the looting suspected that some of it was driven by the illicit trade in antiquities.

At some remote and poorly guarded dig sites, Dr. McGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago wrote recently that illicit digging in most cases started as attempts simply to find something to sell to put food on the table. "This work soon grew to an industry," he said, "financed from abroad and engaging hundreds of diggers at some sites."

The reported museum looting that began on Friday in Baghdad would be the war's first known plundering of Iraqi antiquities.

Reacting to the report, Dr. Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, said, "We can't conquer and then shirk further responsibility by allowing anarchy in the cities and allowing Iraq's ancient heritage to be pillaged."

Dr. de Montebello complained of the apparent lack of effective policing by American troops. He said that he and other museum officials and archaeologists had already held meetings to explore what must be done "to help the Baghdad museum and Iraqi's antiquities authorities to restore themselves."

By chance, the damage to the Baghdad museum came as the Metropolitan was preparing a major new exhibition, "Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus." It is to open May 8. About 400 rare works of art will be displayed, many of them from Iraq, though no works from the Baghdad museum were available.

More than 230 scholars of ancient Mesopotamian history from 25 countries have signed a petition to be delivered to the United Nations on Monday. Drafted by researchers at Yale and Oxford Universities, the petition urges military leaders and postwar administrators of Iraq to safeguard cultural artifacts "for the future of the Iraqi people and for the world."

American archaeologists said that they had lost contact with their Iraqi colleagues in recent weeks. The last they had heard was that several antiquities officials and researchers had barricaded themselves in the Baghdad museum. They had hidden some of the most precious artifacts elsewhere, and protected others with sandbags.

At last report, just before the outbreak of war on March 21, Dr. Russell said that Dr. Donny George, the research director of antiquities who is known for his heft, was seen to be thin and exhausted from the stress of preparing to defend the museum.

Of the several thousand artifacts at the museum, Dr. Russell said some of his favorites were the stone birds from Nemrik, north of Mosul. The site, investigated in the last decade, is one of the world's first villages, from about 8,000 B.C.

The museum's collection includes a cult vase from Uruk decorated with some of the earliest narrative pictures from the Sumerian culture. The pictures show fields and flocks and people making offerings to the goddess Inanna, the Sumerian version of Ishtar.

"That's a beautiful, important piece," Dr. Russell said.

-- Jeff
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