Mourning the sack of the Iraq Museum, an expert assesses the toll
When bombs started falling on Iraq in March, I had the same first thought that every archaeologist who's ever done fieldwork there must have had: What will happen to the Iraqis who worked with uspeople who welcomed us into their homes? Fortunately that question has been answered: My friends and colleagues survived the war.
But I soon saw my second greatest fear become reality: Much of the unique record of the Mesopotamian civilization that blossomed between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers 6,000 years ago was stolen or irreparably damaged. Tens of thousands of artifacts at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad were lost over the course of three chaotic days in early April. Not all of these treasures were claimed by frenzied mobs of looters. Some were probably stolen in an organized plot by art thieves, a scheme that might have been thwarted had coalition forces heeded pleas from the world's archaeologists to protect the museum.
Among the museum's collections were not only the statues of gods and goddesses, the possessions of kings and queens, law codes and religious texts, but also the mundane items of daily life. There were the 60,000-year-old flint tools and fragmentary skeletons of early humans from Shanidar Cave in the mountains of northern Iraq. There were sickle blades left by some of the world's first farmers 10,000 years ago. And there were tens of thousands of pottery fragments, which not only tell us about everyday activities in the past eight millennia, but also (because their styles change rapidly and these changes have been carefully studied) enable archaeologists to know the age of layers in which they're found.
Perhaps the most valuable artifacts were thousands of clay tablets covered with cuneiform signs, written between 3200 B.C. and A.D. 75. It's unclear how many of these tablets were lost, but each one is a treasure for scholars. All early civilizations kept daily records, but most were on perishable materials that vanished long ago (papyrus in Egypt, palm leaves in India, wood and bamboo in China, cotton and wool twine in Peru). But these clay tablets were different. With careful excavation, cleaning, and baking for preservation, the tablets revealed everything from business accounts to intimate letters between friends. Because lab work is expensive and few specialists can read the long-dead Sumerian and Akkadian languages, the work is slow, and many of the tablets were as yet unbaked and unread.
The looting and damage of the museum may not be the only archaeological tragedy. Innumerable artifacts remain unexcavated across the country. Some 160 years of excavation have taught us much about Iraq's ancient cities, but our understanding of thousands of smaller rural sites is based largely on hasty preliminary surveys. In these surveys we've learned that ancient landscapes are often surprisingly well preserved but fragile, unlikely to survive the passage of heavy armored vehicles. I well remember finding 3,300-year-old plow furrows, with water jars still lying by small feeder canals, near Ur in southern Iraq, an area that this spring saw much conflictand plenty of tank traffic.
We may never know how many unexcavated finds were crushed by tanks, how many fragile objects were shattered by looters, or how many of the museum's artifacts were sold to private collectors or melted down for their gold. As soon as reports of the looting reached us, we begged authorities to inspect vehicles leaving Iraq and to urge citizens to return objects to the museum voluntarily, which some began doing within days. (Apparently some artifacts had been stashed for safekeeping by well-meaning individuals.) Officials and scholars rushed to reconstruct collection records, many of which are duplicated in the records of institutions around the world that sponsor scientific excavation. And teams of museum professionals from several countries have joined Iraqi curators to compile a definitive, illustrated inventory of what's been takena list that's being circulated to Interpol, national police forces, museums, and responsible galleries.
Thanks to these efforts, by the time you read this some of the items may have been found. But I'm not naive: No matter what we do to get these pieces back, we'll never find them all. In my 48 years as an archaeologist I've never felt so angry about the abuse of the past. What has been lost is not only the heritage of a nation; it is the heritage of the world.
NGS Committee for Research and Exploration
For an update on the status of the Iraqi artifacts see Online Extra.