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After the fall, a cultural calamity
With slides and sorrow, scholars show SRO crowd a glimpse of the archaeological treasures lost to Baghdad’s looters

| 23 April 2003


Before a standing-room-only audience at Berkeley’s Archaeological Research Facility on April 16, three professors of Near Eastern Studies lamented recent staggering losses to the cultural heritage of the region often called the birthplace of civilization.

Although archaeologists around the world urged the U.S. Defense Department to protect Iraq’s cultural heritage and to place a premium on guarding the National Museum in Baghdad, “indifference appears to have prevailed,” said Near Eastern Studies Professor David Stronach.

The professors’ slides and stories showcased some of the incomparable treasures that are confirmed as or believed to be missing in the aftermath of the looting of the Iraqi National Museum and the torching of the National Library that took place after the U.S. military occupied Baghdad.

“We are all so heartbroken by this,” said Marian Feldman, an assistant professor of Near Eastern Studies, who joined with Stronach in presenting slides of key artifacts: a fluted gold bowl inscribed with the names of Assyrian queens; a large vessel from 3200 B.C. depicting Inanna (queen of heaven and Earth) and reflecting the social structure and hierarchy of the time.

Some slides showed items taken from 16 burial tombs at what is called the Royal Cemetery, a site dating back to 2600 B.C. that was excavated in the 1920s. The artifacts were divided among three museums, with the National Museum in Baghdad keeping more than half. One such item was the solid-gold ceremonial helmet of Meskalamdug, an early ruler of Ur. A bull-headed lyre with inlaid shell, shown in a slide by Feldman, is rumored to have been smashed at the museum and the gold removed from it during the recent war.

Stronach showed slides of items that he helped excavate on several pre-1990 digs in Iraq, some of which were known to have been in the National Museum. He also talked about pictographs from a major temple site in the city of Uruk, where writing is believed to have been invented between 3500 B.C. and 3000 B.C. Uruk was the first great city of the world, standing unrivaled in size for 2,000 years.

Bombs and budget cuts take their toll
Stronach warned that not only museums and cultural institutions are at risk from the recent war and its aftermath. There also are approximately 25,000 mounded archaeological sites in Iraq threatened with physical damage not only from looting, but from bombing or heavy artillery.

Over the last 13 years, Stronach said, Iraq’s once-exemplary Department of Antiquities has suffered from the United Nations-sanctioned economic embargo, undergoing staffing and budget cuts as a result. Archaeological sites were no longer adequately protected and illicit digging “mushroomed into an industry,” he said. He noted that in the immediate aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, 9 of 13 provincial museums in Iraq were looted. Of approximately 4,000 objects stolen, he said, only a handful have been recovered.

One type of object Feldman said she especially fears for is the cylindrical seal, which appeared around 3200 B.C. Its basic function was to seal and document other items — such as legal documents or records — by being rolled across a malleable surface, thereby creating a raised impression.

Ranging from one-half inch to a couple of inches in size, the cylindrical seal “embodies the essence of Mesopotamia,” she said. “They give us an unbroken chain of information from the Fourth Millennium down to the First, and this information covers aesthetics, art, imagery, mythology, history, administration.”

Assistant Professor Niek Veldhuis, who spoke about the history of writing, added that cuneiform tablets — which also appeared circa 3200 B.C. — are easy to carry and very valuable, so that a lively trade has occurred in the items over the last decade. He said the National Museum was known to have a large number of the tablets, which he expects are now missing.

Did indignation go AWOL?
In the question-and-answer session that followed, Laura Nader, an anthropology professor and Middle East expert, took exception to what she called the panel’s “absence of any kind of indignation.” She also criticized the U.S. command for its failure to protect the museum. “All they needed to do was place a tank in front of the museum, and a few soldiers. You don’t need a thousand soldiers, so that suggests a purposefulness of this action,” she said.

Because U.S. troops destroyed Iraqi authority, the American government is responsible for what happened at the National Museum and National Library, she said, and should pay for the return of the stolen goods.

Stronach replied that several efforts are underway to try to determine just what is missing from the Iraqi institutions and get the materials returned. He mentioned a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) meeting that had called for a ban on Iraqi antiquities trading, and a University of Pisa book drive to replace some of the items lost in the fire at the National Library. University of Chicago archaeology students, he added, are scanning Iraqi museum catalogs for a website that will list stolen items in an effort to inform potential buyers of their illegality.