Heritage lost for ever

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Posted by Sadie from ? ( on Tuesday, May 27, 2003 at 3:02PM :

Heritage lost for ever
22 - 28 May 2003
Al-Ahram Weekly Online

As Iraq sinks further into anarchy, the country's most valuable missing archaeological artefacts seem impossible to recover. Michael Jansen writes from Baghdad

Contrary to early reports on the looting and vandalism of the Iraq Museum, most of its treasures were not stolen or smashed. But its three most important and historically valuable pieces were taken. The first two are 5000- year-old Sumerian artefacts, the marble head of a woman from Uruk, possibly the first sculpted portrait of a living person, and a tall vase decorated with votive relief.

Selma Al-Radi, an Iraqi archaeologist conducting a survey of the museum's losses for UNESCO, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the "Warka Head" and the "Warka Vase" are the most significant surviving pieces of their period. The third missing object is the lower portion of a copper figure of a seated youth, an offering to the water god, cast in 2250 BC.

Other significant losses include another Acadian statue in copper and an ivory relief depicting a lion attacking a Nubian dating from 850 BC. Roman-era statues from Hatra were smashed and the heads carried away. The head of one of the red clay Babylonian lions of Harmall was shattered and nesting in bubble wrap, now rests at the feet of the beast. Gold leaf was stripped from the bow of the beautifully reconstructed wooden Lyre of Ur, the city where the Prophet Abraham was born.

Forty-six pieces were stolen from the galleries; a dozen have been recovered so far. But no one knows what was taken from the storerooms or if the vaults of the Central Bank, where the museum's gold artefacts were placed, have been pillaged.

The museum's priceless 100,000 cuneiform tablets are safe, including the "Sippar Library", the oldest library ever found on its original shelves, containing 800 tablets dating from the sixth century BC. The tablets in cuneiform, the first writing, provide a complete record of Mesopotamian daily life, scientific achievement, religious practices and legends. It was reported in the immediate aftermath of the pillage that irreplaceable collections of coins and cylinder seals had gone and the tablets had been either stolen or smashed. Fortunately, these reports were incorrect.

The treasures of the civilisations of Mesopotamia, the land between the two rivers, were saved by the museum staff, who have managed to safeguard the collection through three wars over the past 23 years. Three weeks before the war began, the galleries were cleared of most objects on display. Only the objects too large and heavy or too fragile to move remained.

The bulk of the items were packed in tin trunks and cardboard cartons and stored on shelves in five storerooms. The museum library and the valuable collection of books and manuscripts known as the "Saddam Archive" located nearby were packed into 337 boxes and sent to a bunker in a Shi'ite neighbourhood where they are now being guarded by a local team under the command of a cleric. The magnificent gold jewellery from the royal tombs at Ur (2600 BC) and other items (totalling 6,800-7,500 pieces), placed in the Central Bank ahead of the 1991 war, might be safe but no one could check because the vaults were flooded during the recent war. Although the US army team helping museum staff to recover looted objects has pumped the water from the bank, there is no Iraqi official body authorised to open the vaults.

The museum is today a sad shadow of itself. The domed entrance hall, its walls covered in small rectangular blue tiles, is an echoing shell. Its dusty galleries have been cleared of broken glass and other rubble, but confusion still reigns. In gallery one, from which the "Warka Vase" was taken, there are only half a dozen exhibits where there had been hundreds of objects great and small. Only one of the Assyrian galleries remains almost intact. The massive winged bulls with the heads of bearded men loom over the heads of visitors. Sandbags have been arranged on the floor to catch the stone sculptures if they should fall during a bombing. Statues are protected with thick squares of foam rubber.

Sitting in an office, which had been stripped of everything but a potted plant, Donny George, head of research at the Department of Antiquities, attempted to reconstruct what happened for Dr Al-Radi and the Weekly. George, along with Dr Nuala Mutawali, the curator of Iraq's museums, and Dr Jaber Ibrahim, who heads the department's board, were the last staff members to leave the museum on 8 April. Only a watchman and his sons remained at the compound. The next day, during the fall of Baghdad, eyewitnesses testified that two US armoured vehicles entered the grounds of the museum and spent two hours in the building. They were seen carrying out boxes.

Looting started early on 10 April after the US army had taken up positions not far from the museum. They entered through the back then broke in the wooden door leading to the guards' room near the front entrance and opened the metal outer door to let in their companions. Another team of looters broke through a window of glass bricks, which had been closed but not secured. According to the watchman, thieves initially targeted computers, television sets and other equipment. The watchman called upon the troops in the tanks to protect the museum but they said they had no orders to do so and refused. If the US army had acted then, the galleries and storerooms would not have been breached. The rampaging crowd did not come until late that day and began taking and breaking what was left in the galleries. The storerooms were entered. Looting went on unimpeded from morning to dusk for two days and was only halted when George and other museum officials returned on 13 April. Bold thieves continued to mount sporadic raids until three days later when, at long last, the US military finally deployed four tanks around the building and posted troops at the gates.

In George's view, there were two types of looters. People out to grab anything they could sell for a pittance and professional art thieves who knew precisely what objects they wanted. Dr Al-Radi said the latter must have had a "wish list" of items provided by a dealer or a collector abroad. The theft of the limestone head and vase indicate that this was the case. The vase, a large piece weighing 35 kilogrammes, was taken from the first gallery, while the head was taken from its box in a storeroom. Both Al-Radi, who worked in the museum many years ago, and George agree that the thieves might have had inside information on the whereabouts of the head and other items they wanted to steal. There is some suggestion the professionals may have had a set of keys which were stolen from an office. The copper sculpture, which weighs at least 300 kilogrammes, was apparently dragged down the main staircase from the upper gallery to the lower level, breaking the steps as it was bounced along. A vehicle must have been waiting to carry it away.

Al-Radi, who examined the storerooms, said that three of the five had been broken into and disturbed. "Things were flung about and broken. There's complete confusion. We don't know if the other two were entered," she said. "Every item in the storerooms must be checked against the inventory before we know what is missing. That could take six months if the girls [who work in the storerooms] start with number one and go to half a million." While 170,000 items have been given museum numbers, in many instances there could be several or many separate objects listed under one number. The process of making a fresh inventory of the collection could take longer if the security situation in Baghdad does not improve. Employees come to work late and leave early, putting in only three or four hours a day because they are afraid to leave their homes. They have no incentive to take risks to come to the museum. "So far they have been given a one-off payment of $20. Their regular salaries need to resume," George stated.

Reserve Colonel Matthew Bogdonos, head of the US army recovery team stated that, "one thousand items are missing from boxes in the old magazine, all new material coming into the museum, including gold. Twenty- thirty of these items have been put on the Web sites of the Interpol, the FBI, and US Customs." Since Bogdonos's team began work on 22 April, almost 1,000 pieces have been recovered, including 100-200 items found in the museum's neighbourhood. Some were brought to the local mosque and handed over. "A large number of these items are fakes, confiscated by the department from local dealers," George said. Nine items from the galleries have been returned, half a dozen by a group of young Iraqis who saw what was going on and carried away as many pieces as they could manage so they could be kept safe until order is imposed in this unruly city.

While it will take time to sort out the mess at the museum, the archaeologists who came to assess the situation want the US military and civilian authorities to guard the most important of the country's estimated 10,000 sites. But the Americans have agreed to post troops at only half a dozen. Dr McGuire Gibson of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago said that there has been "massive looting at an increased rate since the war started. Armed men are driving off with guards at antiquities sites in the same pattern established over the past 12 years. Looting is especially prevalent at the heart of Sumer, south of Baghdad."

Pieces from these systematically stripped sites are turning up in the antiquities black markets in the US and Europe. This tide cannot be stemmed until the occupying forces impose law and order and provide employment for the people. This is not happening. Every day the country sinks into further anarchy. Iraq's great past is being destroyed by its chaotic present.

Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

-- Sadie
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