Antiques are today flooding out of Iraq. Anyone interested may visit the antiques mall off London's Bond Street, where a number of shops display cuneiform tablets and other archaeological artefacts from Iraq in their windows. These objects have nearly all been dug up illicitly and quite recently and have been smuggled out of the country. Large collections of often completely unique material, whole archives of literary or administrative texts, hundreds of 5,000-year-old pictographic tablets recording the very first written messages in the world may be bought by those who have some thousands of pounds to invest.
This book describes in detail one of the saddest examples of this ongoing calamity, the plunder of the throne room of the palace of King Sennacherib at Nineveh, the king who ruled the vast Assyrian empire around 700 BC. Excavated originally by the English adventurer Austen Henry Layard in the mid-19th century, this central part of one of the most gigantic and innovative palatial buildings ever constructed became a museum after the re-excavation by the Iraqi archaeologist Tariq Madhloom in the 1960s. A metal roof was erected over the throne room and adjoining suites, and the sculptured slabs that had once covered the entire facade of every room in the palace were reinstalled.
A considerable number of the reliefs from this palace are now in the British Museum, brought there at great expense after the Layard excavations. But by far the majority of the sculptured slabs in the palace were left in place by Layard and subsequent excavators, and sadly they have provided us with only scanty information about what they found. Drawings exist of only a tiny fraction of the reliefs, and in several instances we do not even have verbal descriptions of the decoration of individual rooms.
Sennacherib's throne room is a case in point. This was a hall 50m long and 10m wide, with a throne on a pedestal at one end and with walls covered with reliefs that depicted the main military events in the king's reign. The first excavator, Layard, made drawings of only a few of the slabs found in this section of the palace, and these are not, in fact, entirely accurate in all respects. Around 1900, L. W. King re-excavated part of the palace and had some slabs photographed, but the results are extremely poor. Madhloom's efforts were
primarily designed to make the Iraqi authorities aware of the problem that the modern city of Mosul is spreading like a skin disease over the ancient site, threatening the ruins themselves.
John Malcolm Russell was a member of the American team that began a new archaeological investigation of Nineveh in 1987-90, and he decided then to make a complete photographic record of the sculptures. This is the basis of his book, which is now the only available evidence for the ruins as they had been left by the ravages of history around 1990. In 1995 he was shown photographs of pieces of these reliefs, which had then been broken into smaller, manageable pieces and were available for purchase on the international antiquities market. Slab after slab had been smashed and the pieces carried away, and today the throne room suite has been gutted. Some of the photographs provided by the Iraqi antiquities service of the plundered room, reproduced here together with Russell's pictures taken before the disaster, are almost unbearable to look at.
The book is primarily a scholarly effort to provide the best possible record of the remains he saw and photographed. He never had a chance to finish the work, since excavations had to be cancelled in 1991 because of the Gulf war. But Russell's documentation is inscribed in a passionate argument that is concerned especially with United States policy towards Iraq in this matter, and on that basis his book becomes relevant to anyone interested in the question of the preservation of what is called "world heritage". The US has consistently refused to consider making special rules with respect to cultural heritage under the international sanctions imposed on Iraq. "Using its veto on the Security Council, the United States has repeatedly denied permission for international teams to assess damage and threats
to the cultural patrimony of Iraq in the wake of the Gulf war," writes Russell. In that way the US "holds heritage hostage to a political objective, while facilitating its exploitation by outside market forces". The embargo prevents scholars in the West from helping their desperate colleagues in Iraq with the simple task of recording the threatened monuments: film for the cameras of Iraqi archaeologists is under sanction and cannot be sent legally.
In Russell's view, the current disaster "highlights the role of the West as a myopic consumer of heritage, rather than cherishing it as a vanishing,irreplaceable shared resource". It is hard to disagree, faced with the elaborate documentation provided by this work. And it is obvious that although Iraq is a particularly blatant example, exposing the double standards of western governments in this matter, it is in fact only an example of a much more widespread phenomenon that threatens to destroy our past. The illicit excavations carried out by Iraqis are a deplorable consequence of a combination of factors, chief among which is the policy of international sanctions. This policy prepares the ground for the commercialisation of heritage, the destructive view of archaeological artefacts as "interesting" in themselves, deprived of their historical context, as objets d'art to be appreciated in isolation by wealthy collectors. Even when such objects are in some instances handed over to scholars to be studied and published, a vast part of their potential as sources for an understanding of the past has been lost.
Russell ends his argument with a pathetic cry: "The permanent legacy of the sanctions is the destruction of a fundamental part of our common heritage and once this is gone, it is gone forever. To the age-old question 'Where do we come from?' we will at last be able to provide a final answer: 'I don't know - we burned the library.'"
Mogens Trolle Larsen is at the Carsten Niebuhr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark.
The Final Sack of Nineveh: The Discovery Documentation and Destruction of Sennacherib's Throne Room at Nineveh, Iraq
Author - John Malcolm Russell
ISBN - 0 300 07418 2
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 248