by Andrew Gumbel in Los Angeles and David Keys, Archaeology Correspondent
The United States was fiercely criticized around the world yesterday for its failure to protect Baghdad’s Iraq National Museum where, under the noses of US troops, looters stole or destroyed priceless artifacts up to 7,000 years old.
Not a single pot or display case remained intact, according to witnesses, after a 48-hour rampage at the museum – perhaps the world’s greatest repository of Mesopotamian culture. US forces intervened only once, for half an hour, before leaving and allowing the looters to continue.
Archaeologists, poets, cultural historians and international legal experts, including many in America itself, accused Washington of violating the 1954 Hague Convention on the protection of artistic treasures in wartime.
British experts were distraught at the loss. “This is a terrible tragedy. Iraq is the cradle of civilization and this was a museum which contained a large portion of the world’s cultural heritage. The British Museum stands ready to help our Iraqi colleagues in whatever way we can,” Dr John Curtis said. He is keeper of the Department of the Ancient Near East at the British Museum, which holds an important collection of Mesopotamian treasures.
Dr Jeremy Black a specialist on ancient Iraq at Oxford University, said: “What has befallen Baghdad and Mosul museums was foreseen by archaeologists worldwide. Meetings were even held with the American military before the war to warn of the extreme likelihood of looting should an invasion occur.
“Sadly, however, the occupying forces failed to implement in practical terms the measures to protect Iraq’s and the world’s cultural heritage. US and British forces must now act immediately to safeguard what remains in the museums and at key archaeological sites.”
A Chicago law professor, Patty Gerstenblith of the DePaul School, said the rampage was “completely inexcusable and avoidable”.
In Iraq itself, art experts and ordinary demonstrators made clear they were far angrier at President George Bush than they were at the looters, noting that the only building US forces seemed genuinely interested in protecting was the Ministry of Oil.
One Iraqi archaeologist, Raid Abdul Ridhar Muhammad, told The New York Times: “If a country’s civilization is looted, as ours has been here, its history ends. Please tell this to President Bush. Please remind him that he promised to liberate the Iraqi people, but that this is not a liberation, this is a humiliation.”
Dr Eleanor Robson, a member of the council of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, said: “The looting of the Iraq Museum is on a par with blowing up Stonehenge or ransacking the Bodleian Library. For world culture, it is a global catastrophe.” Among the many treasures that have vanished, perhaps for ever, are a solid gold harp from the Sumerian era, the sculptured head of a woman from the Sumerian city of Uruk, a Ram in the Thicket statue from Ur, stone carvings, gold jewelry, tapestry fragments, ivory figurines of goddesses, friezes of soldiers, ceramic jars and urns.
The museum held the tablets with Hammurabi’s Code, one of the world’s earliest legal documents, early texts describing the epic of Gilgamesh and mathematical treatises that reveal a knowledge of Pythagorean geometry 1,500 years before Pythagoras.
Some of the treasures might have been removed from the museum before the war for safekeeping, but there is no indication of where they could be. Saddam Hussein may have taken some artifacts for display in his private residences.
Curators said the looters came in two categories – the angry and the poor, most of them Shias, who were bent largely on destruction and grabbing whatever they could to earn some money; and more discriminating, middle-class people who knew exactly what they were looking for. Some of the more famous pieces may be too easily recognizable to be sold on the international market, leading some experts to fear they will be destroyed.
Although the museum is only one of hundreds of buildings to fall prey to looters, its status as one of the most important repositories of ancient civilization is likely to inflame particular resentment towards the Americans, in the Arab world and beyond.
Several commentators are already starting to see more sinister motives in the US troops’ neglect. Professor Giovanni Bergamini, curator of the Egyptian museum in Turin, said: “I don’t know … Perhaps it was only fathomless ignorance.” He added: “But that’s quite bad enough in itself.”
Parts of a beheaded sculpture lies among rubble after a mob of looters ransacked and looted Iraq’s largest archeological museum in Baghdad(AFP/Patrick Baz)
THE LIKELY FATE OF THE STOLEN ANTIQUITIES
The antiquities being looted in Iraq fall into two different categories.
In terms of serious money – up to several million pounds per item – the more internationally famous statues, bas-reliefs, early manuscripts and groups of ivories are the more difficult, though lucrative, items to smuggle. Worldwide there are probably only a few hundred potential buyers for the more well-known material.
Such items might include the celebrated Sumerian stone statue of Dudu, the Prime Minister to the royal court of Lagash, dating back to 2600BC, or the 2300BC image of the god Abu and his consort. These would have to be sold in great secrecy. The larger objects are in danger of being deliberately damaged and then made unrecognizable to make it more difficult for police and others to trace them.
In terms of pure volume of illicit traffic, the smaller, often unpublished items such as coins, cylinder seals, cuneiform tablets, pottery, figurines, flint tools and bronze weapons are likely to dominate sectors of the antiquities market. They will probably end up at the art markets of Paris, via Jordan, Israel, and Switzerland, New York, London and Tokyo.
Their value, in total, could quite conceivably run to billions of pounds – with the profits lining the pockets of the more unscrupulous of the European and North American-based dealers. Somewhere between Switzerland and antique shops in Britain and elsewhere, all knowledge of an object’s Iraqi provenance will be lost.
The museum’s computer system, with the inventory of its contents, is understood to have been smashed – but whether the hard disks have been damaged is not yet known.