- As the full extent of the looting of Iraq's National
Museum in Baghdad emerges, it becomes clear that there was nothing accidental
about it. Rather it was the result of a long planned project to plunder
the artistic and historical treasures that are held in the museums of Iraq.
- Had the National Museum of Iraq been looted by poor slum
dwellers it would have been crime enough, and the responsibility would
have rested with the American administration that refused, despite repeated
warnings, to provide for the security of Baghdad's cultural buildings.
- Once the museum staff were able to communicate with the
outside world, however, it became apparent that the looting was not random.
It was the work of people who knew what they were looking for and came
specially equipped for the job.
- Dr. Dony George, head of the Baghdad Museum, said, "I
believe they were people who knew what they wanted. They had passed by
the gypsum copy of the Black Obelisk. This means that they must have been
specialists. They did not touch those copies."
- Speaking on Britain's Channel 4 News, he told Dr. John
Curtis of the British Museum that among the artifacts that have been stolen
are the sacred vase of Warka, a 5,000-year-old golden vessel found at Ur,
an Akkadian statue base, and an Assyrian statue. It was, said Dr. Curtis,
"Like stealing the Mona Lisa."
- It was only almost a week after the museum was originally
looted that Dr. George was able to alert archaeologists worldwide to what
had been stolen. The American military authorities had made no effort to
prevent the objects leaving Baghdad or to put in process an international
search for the stolen artifacts.
- The US reluctance to act cannot be explained by any lack
of warning. Professional archaeologists and art historians had told the
Pentagon of the danger of looting beforehand. Dr. Irving Finkel of the
British Museum told Channel 4 that the looting was "entirely predictable
and could easily have been stopped."
- The museum was the victim of a carefully planned assault.
The thieves who took the most valuable material came prepared with equipment
to lift the heaviest objects, which the staff could not move from the galleries,
and had keys to the vaults where the most valuable items were stored. Not
since the Nazis systematically stripped the museums of Europe has such
a crime been committed.
- The US online publication of BusinessWeek magazine reiterated
the theme of premeditation and conspiracy in the looting of Iraq's museums
in an April 17 article headlined "Were Baghdad's Antiquity Thieves
Ready?" The article carries the subtitle: "They may have known
just what they were looking for because dealers ordered the most important
pieces well in advance."
- BusinessWeek writes: "It was almost as if the perpetrators
were waiting for Baghdad to fall to make their move. Gil J. Stein, a professor
of archaeology at the University of Chicago, which has been conducting
digs in Iraq for 80 years, believes that dealers ordered the most important
pieces well in advance. 'They were looking for very specific artifacts,'
he says. 'They knew where to look.'"
- Since the last Gulf War in 1991 Iraqi antiquities have
flooded onto the market from the museums that were looted then and from
archaeological sites that have been attacked with bulldozers. At such locations
ancient statues have been sawed apart so they could be exported.
- This plundering of Iraq's cultural heritage has only
whetted the appetite of collectors who are already responsible for looting
Far Eastern, Latin American and Italian archaeological sites. With the
collapse of global stock markets, works of art and antiquities have come
to be regarded even more highly as a secure investment, fuelling an already
huge underground market.
- The illegal trade in antiquities is thought to be as
lucrative as drugs trafficking, to which it is often linked. According
to a report by the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, "The
Trade in illicit Antiquities: the Destruction of the World's Archaeological
Heritage," produced in 2001, London and New York are the main markets
for this trade. Switzerland, which allows an art work that has been in
the country for five years to be granted a legal title, is a key trans-shipment
- Professor Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, director of the
McDonald Institute at Cambridge, told a press conference at the report's
launch that the trade continued because "The government is in the
pocket of the art market, which wants to keep the flow of antiquities."
He added, "It's a scandal."
- As news of the latest looting broke, the Labour government
of British Prime Minister Tony Blair organised a hasty press conference
in the British Museum, at which Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell promised
official support to protect Iraqi antiquities.
- Even as she spoke, the National Library of Iraq was being
looted. Home to rare, centuries-old illuminated copies of the Koran and
other examples of Islamic calligraphy, as well as irreplaceable historical
documents from the Ottoman Empire, the building was set on fire, destroying
an untold number of texts.
- Reporter Robert Fisk, who saw the flames, ran to get
US marines in an attempt to save some of the collection, but they refused
to help. Fisk wrote in the Independent, "I gave the map location,
the precise name in Arabic and English. I said the smoke could be seen
from three miles away and it would take only five minutes to drive there.
Half an hour later, there wasn't an American at the scene and the flames
were shooting 200 feet into the air."
- After the fate of Baghdad museum, it can only be concluded
that the generalised looting and arson at the library served to cover up
a more systematic crime, in which select manuscripts were stolen for wealthy
collectors. In the process they connived in the burning of books-another
- The role of the ACCP
- In the aftermath of these two devastating attacks on
culture, attention has focused on the activities of the American Council
for Cultural Policy. Even the British press that works under some of the
toughest libel laws in the world has been willing to suggest that the ACCP
may have influenced US government policy on Iraqi cultural artifacts.
- The ACCP was formed in 2001 by a group of wealthy art
collectors to lobby against the Cultural Property Implementation Act, which
attempts to regulate the art market and stop the flow of stolen goods into
the US. It has defended New York art dealer Frederick Schultz, who was
convicted under the National Stolen Property Act, and opposes the use of
the 1977 US v. McClain decision as a legal precedent in cases concerning
the handling of stolen art objects.
- In the McClain case a US judge accepted that all pre-Columbian
art or jewellery brought into the US without the express consent of the
Mexican government was stolen property. Mexican law regards all archaeological
artifacts as state property and bans their export. Mexico is one of a number
of countries that has such legislation.
- Ashton Hawkins, a leading art lawyer and founder of the
ACCP, regards such legislation as "retentionist". He has condemned
the archaeologically rich "source" countries for attempting to
protect their archaeological sites and museums by such measures, and has
argued that under the Clinton administration such "retentionist"
policies came to dominate US government policy.
- Hawkins has his sights set on the great Middle Eastern
museums. He has called for the Egyptian antiquities that are held in the
Cairo Museum to be dispersed. "I would like to propose," he said,
"that the Cairo Museum offer museums around the world the opportunity
to acquire up to 50 objects for their collections. In return, the museums
would make a very substantial contribution for the construction of the
new museum under the Giza plateau-$1 million each, for example."
- The ACCP's inaugural meeting took place at the Fifth
Avenue apartment of Guido Goldman, a collector of Uzbek textiles. Among
those present were Arthur Houghton, the former curator of the Getty Museum
at Malibu in California, which is notorious for displaying works of suspicious
provenance. Hawkins himself retired in 2000 as vice president of the trustees
of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, an institution that, according
to its own former director, Thomas Hoving, holds many artifacts looted
from Etruscan tombs.
- Before the war began, the ACCP met with Pentagon officials,
declaring their great concern for Iraqi antiquities. What that concern
means is evident from the remarks of William Pearlstein, the group's treasurer,
who also describes Iraqi laws on antiquities as "retentionist".
The ACCP deny that they want Iraqi laws changed, but the looting of the
museum and library will effectively circumvent that problem if US law on
stolen art objects and archaeological material can be changed.
- Professor John Merryman of Stanford Law School and a
member of the ACCP has called for a "selective international enforcement
of export controls" in US courts. In other words, it should be perfectly
legitimate to import the objects looted from Baghdad if a US court chooses
not to recognise Iraqi legislation.
- Merryman set out the organisation's principles in a 1998
paper in which he argued that the fact that an art object had been stolen
did not in itself bar it from lawful importation into the US.
- He went on to claim, "The existence of a market
preserves cultural objects that might otherwise be destroyed or neglected
by providing them with a market value. In an open, legitimate trade cultural
objects can move to the people and institutions that value them most and
are therefore most likely to care for them" ( International Law and
Politics, vol. 31: 1).
- This is a self-justifying argument that reeks of hypocrisy.
Wealthy collectors can now point to the chaos on the streets of Baghdad,
the looting of the museum and the burning of the library as evidence that
the Iraqis are unable or unwilling-too poor or too ignorant-to look after
their treasures, which would be better housed in American museums or private
- The ACCP's ideas represent the interests of particularly
rapacious sections of the US ruling class, who operate on the principle
that everything-even an object of priceless artistic or scientific value-is
defined by its "market value".
- What they mean is price, since the real value of the
objects stolen from the Museum of Baghdad and the Iraqi National Library
is incalculable. These are quite literally people who understand the price
of everything and the value of nothing.
- The prescription for the market to determine possession
of and access to works of art and archaeological material would place these
artifacts in the hands of a rich minority and make public access to them
depend on the good will of their wealthy owners. Despite the fact that
many of the ACCP members have been associated with major public institutions,
their agenda is profoundly opposed to the public dissemination of art and
archaeology. They are not only trying to change the law in other countries,
but are working against the most progressive traditions of American society,
which has always prized its public museums.
- A scientific tradition
- The development of public museums went hand in hand with
the development of a scientific understanding of archaeological artifacts
and the societies that produced them. Publicly funded museums represented
a break with the tradition of private treasure hunting. Their exhibits
aimed to display the material artifacts of the past in a rational and scientific
- The accumulation of archaeological artifacts in private
hands tends to disrupt scientific work, since material becomes scattered,
is difficult to catalogue and much of it remains unknown to scholars working
in the field. Public museums are public not only in their funding and because
they open their galleries to visitors, but in the sense that they make
knowledge available to all-something that has been recognised as a primary
requisite of the scientific process since the scientific revolution of
the seventeenth century.
- One of the effects of the looting of the Baghdad museum
has been to destroy the card catalogue and computer records of the museum's
holdings. This has not only made tracking down its treasures more difficult,
but has also undermined generations of patient archaeological work. To
destroy such a catalogue is, both in a symbolic and practical sense, to
make a collection private, because its contents become unknown to the outside
- While the major objects are well known internationally,
a museum's records goes far beyond these spectacular works of art. It includes
all the minor finds of archaeological excavations that, in themselves,
are not eye-catching, but when studied together produce a picture of a
society that cannot be gained from its art alone.
- Archaeologists spend their time sifting the detritus
of past civilisations, often literally. They may sieve tons of earth looking
for beetle wing cases or seeds. Cess pits and rubbish heaps produce a wealth
of knowledge. What is thrown away and discarded provides a context for
the relics of great temples and palaces, or royal tombs.
- Petr Charvat's recent book Mesopotamia before History
 contains lovingly photographed images of pieces of mud impressed with
rush matting. This is not the stuff to grace a collector's cabinet, but
reveals vital information about the craft skills and way of life of ancient
- A blow to world scholarship
- The Baghdad museum was more than a place to display artifacts.
All excavations carried out in Iraq by international teams of archaeologists
were reported to it. The museum therefore possessed a database of knowledge
that was accessible to researchers internationally, and was the hub of
a vast cooperative endeavour. Its looting and the destruction of its records
are a blow to world scholarship. It threatens to turn the clock back more
than 150 years to the period before scientific archaeology in Mesopotamia.
- Early excavations were by modern standards unscientific,
as excavators were still learning their discipline by a process of trial
and error. One of the most elementary lessons of that learning process
was that context is everything in archaeology. An artifact can only tell
its full story if its context is known.
- By context, an archaeologist means the physical position
of an artifact in the ground, its relationship to other artifacts and to
the layers of earth around it. From this information it is possible to
determine an artifact's relative date and considerable information about
its practical use and social significance. Ripped out of this context,
it loses much of its meaning. Even the finest work of art can be better
appreciated when its context and the social conditions of its creators
- In its widest sense, understanding an artifact's context
means understanding its relationship to the entire archaeological site
at which it was found, to other sites round about it, and to the historic
landscape in which it belongs. While national feelings are often evoked
to justify keeping archaeological artifacts in their country of origin,
the more important scientific reason for doing so is that the context of
the artifact is preserved by keeping it close to where it was found.
- It is still possible to see in modern Iraq houses built
by similar methods to those employed by ancient builders and to see boats
built to similar designs. The full significance of Mesopotamian artifacts
can only be appreciated by seeing them in the context of the extraordinary
landscape of modern Iraq-a country where every hill that rises above the
plain has been built up from layers of mud brick representing generations
- The American colonial administrator, retired general
Jay Garner, tried to co-opt the emotional impact of that landscape for
his own political purposes by holding his big tent meeting within view
of the 4,000-year-old ziggurat of Ur, which was the temple platform for
the moon god Nanna. But by allowing the museum of Baghdad to be looted,
the US authorities have shown they have no regard for the real importance
of Iraq to human history.
- When the medieval European cartographers who drew the
thirteenth century Hereford map of the world set out to represent the planet
on which they lived, they put Asia at the top because to them it was the
most important continent. There lay the lands of the Bible. Jerusalem was
at the very centre of their world view, and beyond it lay Babylon, the
scene of the Jewish captivity, the Tower of Babel and Abraham's home in
the city of Ur.
- So deeply impressed on the European mind was the Biblical
image of the world that the first excavators of ancient sites in this region
were looking for confirmation of the Bible. Even in the twentieth century,
Leonard Woolley referred to his excavations at Warka by the Biblical name
of Ur of the Chaldees.
- Yet the material that came out the excavations carried
out by Woolley, and others such as Layard, Botta and Hormuzd Rassam, shook
the Biblical view of the world. Not the least important discovery was that
familiar Bible stories such as Noah and the Flood had their origin in Mesopotamia
long before the Bible was written. As the cuneiform writing of thousands
of clay tablets was deciphered, it was realised that numerous complex and
highly developed civilisations had existed in Mesopotamia of an antiquity
never before guessed.
- The full extent of this history only became apparent
as the technique of Carbon 14 dating and other scientific methods were
refined. Only in the second half of the twentieth century was it realised
that settled farming could be traced back to the mid-eleventh millennium
BC in the Middle East.
- The cradle of civilization
- The earliest farming communities do not occur in the
area that is present-day Iraq, but in the better watered highlands of the
Zagros Mountains, Anatolia, the Levant and the Deh Luran Plain. Nevertheless,
Iraq was the centre of the second phase of the protracted Neolithic Revolution
that began with the domestication of animals and cereal crops.
- In Iraq that revolution went a significant step further
with the development of irrigation, a technique that vastly increased agricultural
productivity. The surplus produced by irrigation allowed the first urban
civilisation on the planet to emerge in the very region that the combined
military forces of the US and the UK are reducing to a wasteland.
- By 5800 BC, small farming communities were appearing
along the Euphrates. Within a few centuries they had coalesced into dense
urban settlements, each of several thousand people centred on a temple
which was largely responsible for managing the irrigation system, distributing
food, and importing stone, minerals and timber from the neighbouring highlands.
- Over two millennia these Mesopotamian cities developed
the art of copper smelting, alloying bronze and, most importantly, writing.
Writing was essential to the administration of cities that depended on
a largely artificial ecosystem created by irrigation, and which needed
to import even the most vital raw materials.
- Writing enabled a dramatic intellectual development to
take place. What began as a method of recording stores and deliveries became
a medium for writing poetry, stories and history. Science and mathematics
- Modern research has revealed evidence of multiplication
tables, tables of reciprocals, squares, square roots, cubes and logarithms
to bases 2 and 16. Other texts show volumes and areas, linear and quadratic
equations. Babylonian mathematicians calculated the value of pi to 3.125,
close to its true value. Astronomy was highly developed and if it was understood
in terms of omens and prophecy, its predictions of eclipses and the movement
of the planets were nonetheless accurate.
- The social and political structure of Mesopotamian society
cannot be traced directly from its material remains, and archaeologists
differ about its character and the course of its development, but Petr
Charvat finds in Mesopotamian society to 3000 BC that "in all spheres
of society the principle of universality and equality comes to the fore
... the material standard of living is equalised by redistribution ...
people meet in assemblies to discuss and decide matters of common interest....
All receive the same treatment in life and death" ( Mesopotamia Before
History, pp. 158-59).
- >From 3000 BC there is some evidence of social stratification
and the emergence of a political elite or ruling class in the "royal
burials" of Ur, but some archaeologists dispute this characterisation
of those burials.
- In this period two great civilisations emerge: in the
south of present-day Iraq is the Sumerian civilization, and in the north
the Akkadian, which are both based on a collection of city states that
preserve many of the cultural traditions of the earlier period. Not until
2334 BC does the first empire appear under the rule of Sargon of Agade,
who unites these two confederations.
- Sargon's short-lived empire was replaced by that of Ur
Nammu in 2112 BC. The thousands of clay tablets that survive from this
period testify to the careful management of resources that kept this empire
alive until 1990 BC, when it was replaced by the Babylonian empire, which
reached its high point under Hammurabi in 1792 BC.
- The mid-fourteenth century BC saw the rise of the first
Assyrian empire. The Assyrians were to dominate Mesopotamia again, and
the whole region from the Gulf to the Mediterranean in the ninth century
BC. In 612 BC the Babylonian empire was established. It most outstanding
ruler, Nebuchadnezzar, built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the double
walls of the city, the great ziggurat and the processional way. He was
responsible for sacking Jerusalem and taking many of the Jews into captivity.
- This succession of empires and the Persian empire that
followed were sustained by the immense productivity of the irrigation system
and the complex system of administration that maintained it. The sophisticated
concepts that had been developed in the process fed into the intellectual
systems of later societies. Even the Greeks, from whom we derive the name
for the land between the rivers, stood in awe of Mesopotamia's achievements.
- One of the ministries that has been systematically destroyed
in the recent days of looting is the Ministry of Irrigation. We might say
that by this act the US administration seeks to drive Iraq back to the
dark ages, except that Iraq has never known a dark age in the sense that
Europe has. Empires might rise and fall, but as long as the irrigation
system continued to function the land between the rivers could produce
more food than it needed. By attacking the irrigation system, the US administration
is causing more damage in a few weeks than any other previous invader.
- Iraq's cultural significance did not end with the close
of the Persian empire. Throughout the European dark ages it remained a
haven of learning, preserving under the Caliphs of Baghdad classical texts
lost in the West. Islamic scholarship was to prove vital to the re-emergence
of Aristotelian philosophy in thirteenth century Europe and to the Renaissance.
- The full extent of the losses in this respect will only
become apparent when the looting at the National Library is itemised. That
account is yet to come.
- What is already clear is that a great crime has been
committed against not only the Iraqi people, but against the whole of humanity,
since it is the history of humanity that has been attacked. For this reason
the sack of Baghdad marks a significant point on the trajectory of the
Bush administration as it attempts to plunge the world into a new barbarism
that would outstrip anything that history can show from the past.
- 1. Petr Charvát, Mesopotamia before History, Routledge,
- 2. Brian M. Fagan, People of the Earth, Prentice Hall,
- 3. Michael Roaf, Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia, Equinox
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