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Photograph (right) by Erik Trinkaus    
By Jeanne E. PetersPhotographs by Lynn Abercrombie

Looting of the Iraq Museum

The looting of Baghdad's Iraq Museum in April alerted the world to the illegal trade in stolen artifacts. Police departments and customs agents from Europe to South America are now on the lookout for any item bearing one of the museum's catalog numbers, particularly numbers changed or chiseled off by thieves to disguise the object's origin. Each identifier starts with the museum's initials (IM) followed by the item's inventory number. For example, IM.51059 refers to a cuneiform tablet.  Officials are just beginning to construct a post-looting list of what is safe and what was damaged or taken from the museum's storerooms or displays. Many objects had been packed up and cached in a secret Baghdad location before the war began and are just now being brought back and counted. Out of the 170,000 artifacts in the collection, about 3,000 remain missing according to recent estimates.

The 14 objects described in the July issue of National Geographic magazine represent significant treasures that are known to be stolen or damaged or whose status is questionable. After that list went to press, archaeologist Henry Wright of the Society's Committee for Research and Exploration traveled to Iraq with a team of colleagues to assess how ancient sites around the country fared during the recent war. After stopping at the Iraq Museum, he sent back good news about a few of the objects we published. The cuneiform tablets, which were located on the second floor away from the riot of destruction, for the most part appear to be intact, their record of the world's earliest written history still preserved. Safe, too, are the skulls and bones from Shanidar Cave in the mountains of northern Iraq. These Neandertal remains represent some of the earliest human ancestors found in the Middle East. Museum curators also reported that the lizard-faced terra-cotta figurine and the 4,500-year-old boat model described in the article—both of the Ubaid culture—escaped the pillage. Wright recounted that a providential electricity failure may have saved a collection of cylinder seals about to be looted. The darkness hid what would-be thieves were after.

And more good news: On June 12, three Iraqis drove up to the museum, opened their trunk, and handed over the famous Warka vase, looted in April and feared lost forever by Iraqi officials and archaeologists around the world. A policy of amnesty for the safe return of any missing artifact may have been key in saving this priceless 5,000-year-old piece of Mesopotamian history. 

The status of thousands of other treasures—large and small, royal and
humble—remains unknown, including the objects pictured at left. If you have
information about any of these items,  click on the Baghdad Museum Project website link below.

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VIDEO Expedition leader Henry Wright and photographers Steve McCurry and Randy Olson returned from Iraq in late May. In these video clips they describe some of their experiences. Get the full story in our October issue.

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How to Help

The devastating loss of Iraq's historic treasures isn't an isolated event. As part of a commitment to maintain our shared cultural past, we have created the World Cultures Fund for members to support the physical, spiritual, and intellectual conservation of cultures around the globe. Click here to donate online.


Read NG News for more updates on this fluid situation.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Related Links
Ancient Sites  
Find out more about where the Iraq Museum's artifacts came from. This list of ancient places in the Middle East includes a brief description of the major cities of Mesopotamia.

Database of Artifacts  
View some of the treasures from the Iraq Museum that have been lost or may be missing. This list is intended to help recover missing items by publishing a photographic identity kit.

Discover why Iraq is called the cradle of civilization through a series of essays on its early history.

The Baghdad Museum Project
This site lists artifacts stolen from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad and offers an online form to report thefts to the FBI.

The 2003 Iraq War & Archaeology
Read this site for background information on Iraq's tumultuous history and the impact on the country's antiquities.

The Threat to World Heritage in Iraq
A comprehensive site about Iraq's culture and history, and the threat that its heritage faces as a result of recent world events.

The University of Chicago News Office
This site is a reference tool for Iraqi artifacts that could appear on the antiquities market. It contains images of objects from the Iraq Museum, sorted by categories.


Black, Jeremy, and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. University of Texas Press, 1992.

Moorey, P. R. S. Ur of the Chaldees. Cornell University Press, 1982.

Roaf, Michael. Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia. Equinox, 1990.

Sumer, Cities of Eden. Time-Life Books, 1993.


NGS Resources
Edwards, Mike. "Eyewitness Iraq," National Geographic (November 1999), 2-27.

Severy, Merle. "Iraq: Crucible of Civilization," National Geographic (May 1991), 102-115.

Ellis, William S. "New Face of Baghdad: Iraq at War,"  National Geographic (January 1985), 80-109.


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