"Historians pool resources about Iraq&qu

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Posted by Sadie from ? ( on Wednesday, April 23, 2003 at 6:45PM :

Nature 422, 789 (24 April 2003)

Historians pool resources to halt trade in Iraq's stolen treasures


[WASHINGTON] Archaeologists are rallying in an international effort to create a catalogue of the objects stolen from the National Archaeological Museum in Baghdad earlier this month. Images and descriptions of the artefacts will be entered into a database to help law-enforcement agents crack down on illegal trafficking.

Within days of US forces entering Baghdad, looters ransacked the museum in what many archaeologists suspect was an organized raid. The museum held some 180,000 artefacts including cuneiform tablets, statues, pottery and jewellery.

McGuire Gibson, an archaeologist at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, is spearheading production of the catalogue. Graduate students at the institute are scanning images and extracting detailed information about each object from archived expedition records, manuscripts, books and catalogues. The effort is being supported by universities and institutions in the United States, Britain, Germany, France and Japan.

"Everything that was excavated in Iraq since the 1970s was in the museum," says Elizabeth Stone, an archaeologist at the State University of New York in Stony Brook.

Gibson was one of 30 international experts who last week convened at the Paris headquarters of UNESCO, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, to coordinate efforts to compile information on the lost collection. UNESCO director-general Koïchiro Matsuura told the meeting that he would seek a UN resolution to impose an embargo on the acquisition of all Iraqi cultural objects, and demand the return of those already exported.

Many archaeologists are pushing for a more extensive embargo that would temporarily ban the trade of all Middle Eastern antiquities, and for amnesty and rewards for Iraqis who return stolen goods. The latter proposal is "controversial, but we have to be pragmatic", says archaeologist Tony Wilkinson of the University of Chicago.

The fast reaction of the archaeologists is an attempt to salvage a situation they originally sought to prevent. Gibson visited the Pentagon in January, when he stressed the importance of the Baghdad museum. "I told them that it was likely to be looted and that the army would have to move in fast if the guards ran," he says. He says that Pentagon officials assured him that the museum would be protected.

Last week, three members of President Bush's Cultural Property Advisory Committee, which advises the White House on measures to prevent the illicit trade in cultural property, resigned in response to the looting. In his letter of resignation, chairman Martin Sullivan cited the failure of the US military forces "to plan for and to try to prevent indiscriminate looting and destruction" of the museum.

Nature © Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2003 Registered No. 785998 England.

-- Sadie
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