Archeologists Publicize Stolen Iraqi Artifacts to Thwart Theives - 2003-05-07

In the days and weeks since the looting of the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, archeologists all over the world have mobilized their resources to help publicize the missing artifacts. A growing number of images of priceless objects stolen from the museum are now appearing on the Internet, in the hope that publicity will discourage thieves from selling the artifacts on the black market. One of the leading academic institutions trying to help in the search is the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, where scholars are involved in the search for the lost treasures from Iraq. Melinda Smith reports.

One of the best-known treasures missing from the Iraqi National Museum is a copper head from Nineveh.

A king’s gold helmet originally discovered in the Royal Cemetery at Ur.

An ivory plaque of a woman’s head, from Nimrud.

A scarlet ware jar, an alabaster vase.

With so many records destroyed in the looting, it is hard to pin down the actual size of the loss. Charles Jones is part of the team at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute that is posting images on the Internet.

“We have processed some thousands of photographs at this moment and we have promises of many, many more coming in from collaborators.”

University of Chicago archeologist Tony Wilkinson is an expert on Mesopotamia and has worked in Iraq with scholars from the Baghdad Museum. He says the loss of so many treasures is immeasurable.

“It represents the greatest concentration of artifacts from the origins of civilization, from the origins of agriculture, the origins of writing and the origins of our civilization.”

The theft and destruction of so many priceless objects has angered archeologists like Tony Wilkinson. In the months of planning before the invasion of Iraq, experts from the University of Chicago and other institutions say they had worked with Pentagon officials to protect the museum in Baghdad and map many of the archeological sites in the countryside.

“Because we didn’t want to appear as just sort of wooly-minded academics, we gave very specific recommendations. And these recommendations were, that at the first available opportunity that there was a conflict and there was a sign that there was going to be serious trouble in the city, then…that troops and tanks should be posted at the major museums and especially the Iraq museum in Baghdad and that they should be protected.”

“That is why it is all the more tragic that someone, somewhere, dropped the ball on this issue of the protection of what was the key site and the key museum in the entire country.”

In response to the archeologists’ criticism, that American troops had not done enough to protect the museum, a U.S. Department of Defense official issued this statement.

Quote: “At no time during any of these meetings did we ever try to guarantee…as a matter of fact…we went out of our way to tell people that the active humanitarian mapping was not any form of guarantee that facilities would either not be bombed or would be protected at any cost. [The U.S. military] were engaged in combat operations, which they rightly thought was the more important thing to be taking care of at that particular time.” Endquote.

Meanwhile U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has promised help in the restoration of the museum.

“The United States will be working with a number of individuals and organizations to not only secure the facility, but to recover that which has been taken, and also to participate in restoring that which has been broken.”

Almost two weeks after thieves broke into the Baghdad museum, some of the smaller items were returned, with no questions asked. University of Chicago’s Tony Wilkinson believes many more artifacts will wind up on the black market or gone for good.

“The problem is of course for the person who is trading these items is that the really expensive, really valuable and spectacular objects are rather well known and they're easily traced.”

With the loss of so many thousands of objects from Baghdad, artifacts in other museums outside of Iraq have become increasingly more important links to the past.

While the Oriental Institute’s collection at the University of Chicago is small compared to the Iraqi Museum’s, it is still considered one of the world’s best. All of the objects in the Oriental Institute’s collection come from excavations in the Mesopotamian region.

For decades until the Gulf War in 1991, there was a close collaboration between archeologists from the Oriental Institute and those in Baghdad. In 1929 during an excavation in Iraq, the institute’s archeologists discovered this colossal human-headed winged bull, representing King Sargon the second. It was given to the Institute by the Iraqi Department of Antiquities. The massive mythical figure stands more than four and a half meters tall and weighs 40 tons and is flanked on each side by a relief of loyal subjects paying homage.

Scholars from the Chicago’s Oriental Institute say they look forward to the day when they can work once again with their colleagues in Iraq. In the meantime, they are doing what they can by means of the Internet.

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