UC Berkeley professors deliver eulogy for lost treasures of Iraq
BERKELEY - Before a standing-room-only crowd at UC Berkeley’s Archaeological Research Facility on April 16, three professors of Near Eastern Studies lamented the recent staggering losses to the cultural heritage of the region known as 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, "indifference appears to have prevailed," said Near Eastern professor David Stronach.
The professors’ slides and stories revealed the incomparable treasures that are missing in the aftermath of the looting of the Iraqi National Museum and the torching of the National Library.
"We are all so heartbroken by this," said Marian Feldman, an assistant professor of Near Eastern Studies.
The ephemera of civilization
Feldman and Stronach showed slides, while assistant professor Niek Veldhuis talked about the origin of writing, which began with the cuneiform clay tablets of Mesopotamia about 3200 B.C. Written in various languages, the tablets contained letters, dictionaries, hymns, political tracts, sales slips, astronomy, and student notebooks of schoolboys learning to read and write in Sumeria.
'Indifference appears to have prevailed.'
-Near Eastern Studies professor David Stronach, who has worked on many digs in Iraq
From tablet translations, Veldhuis read a debate between a plow and a hoe — a humorous story with the moral of valuing humility over pride. Another tablet told of a man who wanted his master to buy him a two-wheeled chariot.
There were no chariots in the slides, but there was a fluted gold bowl inscribed with the names of Assyrian queens, and a large vessel from 3200 B.C. depicting Inanna (queen of heaven and Earth) and reflecting the social structure and hierarchy of the time. There were slides of clay tablets and elaborately carved cylindrical seals.
Some slides showed items taken from 16 burial tombs at what is called the Royal Cemetery, a site dating back to 2600 B.C. and excavated in the 1920s. The artifacts were divided between 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.
"These are the types of items that when separated from their larger work will lose all meaning because they will just be a single individual little piece of shell, and the task of reconstruction would be enormous," Feldman said.
Going back in time
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. to 3000 B.C. Uruk was the first great city of the world, which stood unrivaled in size for 2,000 years.
On an ominous note, Stronach said that in the immediate aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, nine of 13 provincial museums in Iraq were looted. Of approximately 4,000 objects stolen, he said, only a handful have been recovered.
While the latest losses occurred last Thursday and Friday, Stronach said that by Wednesday some of the items looted were rumored to have already reached Paris.
He warned that not only museums and cultural institutions are at risk from the war and its aftermath. There also are approximately 25,000 mounded archaeological sites in Iraq threatened with physical damage from bombing or heavy artillery, and looting.
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.
One type of object Feldman said she especially fears for is the cylinder seal. The seal runs parallel to the cuneiform tradition, appearing about the same time around 3200 B.C. Their basic function was to seal and document other items — such as legal documents or records — by rolling the seals with their carving on them across a malleable surface and creating a raised impression.
Running from one-half inch in size to a couple of inches, the cylindrical seal "embodies the essence of Mesopotamia," she said. "They give us an unbroken chain of information from the 4th millennium down to the 1st millennium, and this information covers aesthetics, art, imagery, mythology, history, administration."
Veldhuis added that cuneiform tablets are easy to carry and very valuable, thus 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.
Indignation and sadness
In the question-and-answer session that followed the professors' presentations, Laura Nader, a UC Berkeley anthropology professor and a Middle East expert, took exception with what she called the panel’s "absence of any kind of indignation."
She 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 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) meeting this week, which 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 are scanning Iraqi museum catalogs for a Web site that will list stolen items to inform potential buyers of their illegality.
Andrew Stewart, a UC Berkeley professor of art history and classics, is helping lead a petition drive calling for a Senate investigation into the U.S. military action relating to the looting and arson cases. The campaign also seeks Senate ratification of the 1954 Hague Treaty for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.
The timelessness of so many of the Iraqi treasures lost to war was underscored Wednesday night when Veldhuis read one cuneiform text translated from Sumerian and praising a king who rebuilt his city: "The seals are broken. The wealth and the treasures of the temple are scattered on the ground …"
Veldhuis called the piece royal propaganda that refrains from exalting the military.
"It is one of the earliest reflections that I know of the pain and despair of war and destruction," he said. "Such is the miracle of writing, the everlasting gift of Iraq to humanity."
Web sites relating to Iraq’s cultural heritage: