Paradise Lost

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Posted by Tiglath from ( on Friday, June 27, 2003 at 2:24AM :

WORLD VIEW: Paradise Lost
Will a cultural Garden of Eden vanish in the fog of war?
By Matthew Rose. Photography by James Hill.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: When reporters first began covering the looting of the Iraq Museum, curators there insisted that its entire collection had been carted away. But on June 5, some of these same officials revealed that thousands of pieces from the museum’s main exhibit had been stored in five secure rooms and in various secret vaults. According to some reports, several thousand pieces are still missing, yet only about three dozen are of exhibition quality. Scholars and investigators continue their efforts to accurately quantify the destruction. The museum is set to reopen on July 3. ]

The wholesale pillaging of Iraq’s museums began on the same day President Bush told the Iraqi people they are “the heirs of a great civilization that contributes to all humanity.” The televised address, translated into Arabic, was both ironic and tragic, with much of the Iraq Museum’s priceless collection of Mesopotamian, Assyrian and Babylonian artifacts stolen or destroyed--along with its catalog--and a large percentage of the National Library’s collection of ancient texts and cherished Korans apparently in ashes. When the looting stopped, a part of the record of human civilization extending back some 5,000 years had been erased or was on its way to antiques shops, auction houses and clandestine private collections across the globe.

Scholars, curators, UNESCO, Interpol and U.S. investigators, among others, immediately scrambled to launch perhaps the largest treasure hunt the world has ever known. The scope of the looting remains undetermined, but tens of thousands of missing items already have been recovered, including cuneiform tablets, ancient manuscripts and cylinder seals, royal statuettes and an important bronze relief of a bull. Many of these pieces reportedly were found in unopened vaults within the museum complex or had been spirited to safer ground elsewhere in Baghdad. The New York Times, quoting American investigators, reports that thieves unlocked and emptied some of these same museum vaults, prompting suspicions of an “inside job.” According to witnesses, some of the looters carried glass-cutters and keys to the museum.

“It was absolutely organized by a local mafia,” says Jean-Marie Durand, France’s leading Assyrologist at the Collège de France in Paris. “Donny George, one of Iraq’s leading archaeologists, said the looters left reproductions and carted off the originals.”

To aid in the hunt for missing pieces, the U.S. government extended an offer of amnesty to Iraqis who return looted archaeological objects. Meanwhile, scholars at the University of Chicago are scanning hundreds of known pieces from the Iraq Museum’s collection and posting them on the Internet in an effort to create a permanent online catalog. Scholars at UC Berkeley are working on a similar project.

Iraq’s antiquities, the remains of a culture born in 4000 B.C. in the fertile river valley of the Tigris and Euphrates, is arguably both the most powerful of archeological attractions and its least understood. Mesopotamia was home to famous cultures, such as the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians. Fast forward to Saddam Hussein’s rule, when during the years following the 1991 Gulf War many of the 10,000 known archeological sites were looted for artifacts, including cuneiform tablets, by an economically deprived rural population. Via dealers in Baghdad, these items found their way through Jordan, Syria and Turkey to international buyers. The economic hardship created by war and embargo took its toll on site conservation; Iraq’s museums suffered as staffers were let go and archiving put on hold. Yet throughout these years the collection of the Iraq Museum itself had largely remained intact.

Clemens Daniel Reichel, research associate at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, declines to estimate the value of the looted artifacts. Press reports place it at about $2 billion, but Reichel says many of the pieces known to have been part of the Iraq Museum’s collection--such as the gold treasures of the Royal Tombs of Ur and the famous “Warka vase”--are “utterly priceless.”
The latter would be impossible to sell on the public antiquities market. Produced in Mesopotamia around 3000 B.C., the vase is made of alabaster and features “the four spheres of life: plants, animals, humans and the spirit world,” Reichel explains. “It is Sumerian, from the Uruk Culture, which produced the city of Uruk on the Eastern banks of the Euphrates; at about 250 hectares it was then the largest city on the planet.”

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The Warka Vase was returned to officials on June 12 after three unidentified Iraqis drove up to the museum and pulled it, wrapped in a blanket, from the trunk of their car. The men, who were not interrogated, were thanked and allowed to leave. Reports vary as to whether the vase was returned unharmed. The "Warka Face," which may be one of the oldest representations of a woman’s face, is still missing...]

Near Ur--birthplace of Abraham, where the roots of monotheism first took hold--the city of Uruk also produced cuneiform, a pictorial language considered to be the earliest form of writing. Those who ransacked the museum stole or destroyed nearly 80,000 baked-clay cuneiform tablets featuring texts from history’s earliest scribblers: accountants listing what animals had been sacrificed, sold or bought. Cuneiform is the written language of the world’s first literary text, Gilgamesh, fragments of which also vanished.

“The loss and destruction of the cuneiform tablets from the Sumerian, Akkadian and Assyrian periods and from Babylon constitutes a real tragedy,” says Jean-François Breton, director of research at Paris’ Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique. The tablets, he notes, “are fairly small, easy to put in your pocket and hide. The largest ones are built up from smaller ones and can sell for between a few hundred dollars to several thousand.” Breton foresees these and other items eventually reaching the antiquities markets, whether in auction houses or via online sites such as eBay. “There is too much money involved and too many private collectors who will buy them--regardless of what dealers say in print,” he says. “Interpol may find some pieces and stop some traders, but I’m not sure they’ll stop the whole system.”

A March auction in Paris by Piasa at the Hôtel Drouot offered a half-dozen cuneiform tablets for prices ranging from $500 to $32,500. Its organizer, Jean-Philippe Mariaud de Serres, an antiquities expert at the Paris-based Cabinet de Serres, says the antiquities market is much smaller than people think. “There are 1,000 collectors worldwide for these items and about 100 serious dealers,” he maintains. Prices for cuneiform tablets are based upon the content of the text, the state of the object and its provenance. While it is possible to create a fake provenance, doing so convincingly is not easy, the dealer says.

Yet a recent search on eBay for “cuneiform” showed a dozen auctions ongoing. Dealers claimed to offer certificates of authenticity, but they also issued disclaimers about fakes. Indeed, it takes an expert archaeologist to translate ancient texts, describe the artifacts in proper context and authenticate their origins.

What’s an honest collector to do? Those who seek archaeologists’ help often face scholarly disdain for private ownership of rare antiquities. “Archaeologists and collectors will never be part of the same interest groups,” laments Reichel. “In the eyes of archaeologists, the absolute number of traded antiquities should grow no more.”

Major auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s represent another part of the equation. Most have pledged to avoid suspect Iraqi antiquities. Nonetheless, dealers expect looted objects will show up on the market. “I have not seen objects coming from Iraq thus far, but surely objects will come,” Serres says. “But they won’t come to countries where the specialists are … because the sellers will be afraid.” Exit routes for such antiquities would likely be through Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. “My guess,” he continues, “is that the first objects to appear will be the tablets as a test of the market.”

Stolen Iraqi treasures could conceivably sell for a few dollars to traders in and around Iraq for years. The illicit trade could depress the market for antiquities from private collections. Serres believes it could also lead to greater cultural loss: “When the thieves see that they can’t sell them, I have a great fear the objects will be destroyed.”

-- Tiglath
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