A handful of dust from Babylon

The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad: The Lost Legacy of Ancient Mesopotamia

August 19, 2005

Eleanor Robson surveys an angry, articulate eulogy for Iraq's pillaged past

Imagine the British Museum, not as the universal museum aspired to by its current director, but as a Museum of Britain, tracing the history of these islands since the first human habitation. Imagine, too, that the vast majority of the museum's collections are from scientifically excavated archaeological sites, so that each object on display could be understood not simply as a beautiful artwork or an ancient curiosity but as a contextualised memento of our predecessors' lives and societies. This was the museum that Iraq had, or at least had the potential to create, until the war of two years ago led to looting and damage to the building and its long-term closure. The Iraq Museum has had to shut for long periods before, especially during the Iran-Iraq War and in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, but never before had it been ransacked. Current estimates are that some 5,000 items have now been recovered, but more than 15,000 objects are still missing.

Worse than this, the archaeological sites of Iraq's desert countryside - its Stonehenges, its Vindolandas, its Sutton Hoos - have been pillaged continually since April 2003 with no security force willing or able to stop the destruction. Sites have been looted in the past, particularly before the creation of the Iraqi nation-state in the 1930s and since the first Gulf War, but never has there been the wholesale eradication of entire ancient cities that we see today. For every attractive, saleable artefact illicitly removed, an unknown number of more fragile or humble objects are discarded or destroyed.

This book catalogues the wholesale destruction of Iraq's cultural heritage and describes that country's place in world history, illustrating some of the more spectacular and important evidence in attractive colour photographs. About 15 short chapters, each written by world-renowned experts from Iraq and elsewhere, document the history of the Iraq Museum and the country itself. For the past half-century, Iraqi women have played a particularly prominent role in the recovery of their country's ancient history. Here Lamia al-Gailani reminisces about working in the museum in the 1960s, and Selma al-Radi mourns its current fate, while Zainab Bahrani's first-hand report on the damaging US occupation of Babylon is reprinted from The Guardian . Before the embargo of the 1990s, the museum drew researchers from around the world, who made their names and reputations based on excavations supported by the museum or on the study of its collections.

Many contributors write most captivatingly when shaking off the impersonal academic style. Ralph Solecki relives the seminal discovery of Neanderthal skeletons in Shanidar Cave. Harriet Crawford gives an absorbing insight into the lives of prehistoric Iraqis through vivid discussion of the style and aesthetic of their cult objects. Robert Biggs recalls his decipherment of the world's earliest known literature, written in cuneiform script some 4,500 years ago and excavated from the central Iraqi city of Abu Salabikh in the 1960s. Alastair Northedge traces Iraq's urban history since the rise of Islam. Micah Garen and Marie-Helene Carleton, who were kidnapped and released in Iraq last year, document the postwar looting of archaeological sites. Chapters by Paul Collins and Julian Reade cover Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian history in a more traditional manner, Elisabetta Valtz Fino writes engagingly on post-cuneiform, pre-Islamic Iraq, and there is an excellent bibliography by Barbara Porter.

Tighter editing could have reduced duplication of descriptions and photos, especially in Diana McDonald's dull double-page spreads on key objects, but this is probably an irritation only to the expert reader (who is not the book's target audience). Fiorella Ippolitoni Strika's chapter on small objects in the museum, and Vincenzo Strika's on the history of Baghdad, are to a large extent less successful duplicates of Crawford and Northedge's contributions. Similarly, Usam Ghaidan and Anna Paolini, in their history of the museum, cover much the same ground as Al-Gailani and Al-Radi. There are a bewildering number of prefaces, forewords and introductions. But overall this is an attractive and compelling introduction to the history of Iraq that explains why its destruction and neglect should matter to all of us, not simply to archaeologists and historians.

Since June 2003, it has been illegal to own or deal in illicitly exported historical artefacts from Iraq. There are so few legally owned objects in circulation that any potential buyer must assume illegality unless a cast-iron provenance history can be provided (although these are easily forged). Meanwhile, there is a major problem for archaeologists and historians: we must urgently photograph and document all archaeological artefacts leaving Iraq, before dispersal or disintegration, but must do so legally and without lining the pockets or encouraging the activities of the collectors and dealers in this pernicious trade.

Although the Iraq Museum is now safe, if not open, and its staff is being retrained by teams of international experts - proceeds from the sale of this book will also contribute to its rehabilitation - theft continues unabated. In May 2003, Ayatollah Sistani issued a fatwa against all looting, but rumour has it that he was soon countermanded by Moqtada al-Sadr, who deemed it acceptable to pillage pre-Islamic sites as long as a fifth of the profits went to the anti-occupation insurgency. Thus the destruction of archaeological sites is not simply a matter for academics to wring their hands over. Every single day innocent Iraqis are bombed in Baghdad, often as many as those who died in London on July 7; every illegal sale of a cuneiform tablet in Baghdad, Beirut or Berlin may be contributing to the death of a police recruit or a child playing in the street.

Archaeological looting will not stop in Iraq until three conditions are met. First, the country must be economically and politically stable enough for the diggers to earn a legal living without risking their lives in collapsing tunnels under archaeological sites. Secondly, the antiquities authority, police and judiciary must be well enough equipped to protect sites and prosecute thieves. Lastly, the private ownership of ancient art objects in the rest of the world must become as distasteful to mainstream society as the wearing of furs from endangered animals.

Eleanor Robson is a council member, British School of Archaeology in Iraq.

The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad: The Lost Legacy of Ancient Mesopotamia

Editor - Angela H. Schuster and Milbry Polk Abrams
Pages - 242
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 8109 5872 4

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