'Cradle of Civilization' Is Rocked; Authorities Press to Recover Stolen Antique Treasures of Iraqi Museum

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 16, 2003 | Go to article overview

'Cradle of Civilization' Is Rocked; Authorities Press to Recover Stolen Antique Treasures of Iraqi Museum


Byline: Joanna Shaw-Eagle, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

With news of the looting and burning of the Iraqi National Museum searing into their consciences, U.S. and foreign leaders and art experts have already swung into action to rescue what's left of Iraq's cultural heritage.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, UNESCO, individual museum officials, the Association of American Museum Directors, independent scholars and Iraqi antiquities dealers all are formulating plans for recovering the stolen goods and preventing further damage.

In interviews this week, scholars the world over called the Baghdad museum's looting "one of the greatest cultural disasters in recent Middle Eastern history."

The museum, through its objects and writings, recorded the history of the first great civilizations that began flowering in the fertile earth of Mesopotamia part of today's Iraq 7,000 years ago.

Vandals smashed or stole some of the most rare and valued of the Iraqi museum's treasures: clay tablets of cuneiform writing dating from the early Sumerian period, around the 4th millennium B.C.; a spectacular Sumerian silver harp, originally from the ancient city of Ur near Basra; the iconic "Head of a Woman from Urik," now Uruk, another great city of that dynasty; a unique pure copper head of a king from 2300 B.C.; and numerous pure gold necklaces, earrings, rings and bracelets, also Sumerian.

Though a full accounting of what was taken will take many months, an estimated 50,000 objects from the Iraqi National Museum were stolen or destroyed during 48 hours of rampage last week in the museum's exhibit galleries and storage vaults. Items included invaluable records and artifacts documenting "the cradle of civilization," so called because Mesopotamia invented cuneiform writing, legal codes, cities, scientific agriculture and recorded history.

"The museum had the significance for Mesopotamian civilization that the Smithsonian Institution has for that of America, the Cairo Museum for Egyptian culture, and the museum in Athens for Greeks," said Joan Aruz, curator in charge of the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. She is also curator of the museum's upcoming exhibit, "Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C., from the Mediterranean to the Indus."

Mr. Powell said at a Pentagon briefing this week: "We are concerned about some of the looting that took place in the museum in Baghdad, one of the great museums of the world. And 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 ... .

"The United States understands its obligations and will be taking a leading role with respect to antiquities in general, but this museum in particular."

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization moved quickly to plan a gathering of leading world archaeologists in Paris tomorrow. Their mission will be to design a method for rescuing Iraq's irreplaceable treasures, including those still in Iraq and ones already smuggled out. The heads of archaeological missions in Iraq from Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the United States were invited to the emergency meeting.

UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura urged British and U.S. forces to protect Iraq's heritage. McGuire Gibson, professor of Mesopotamian archaeology at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, said there are thousands of major Iraqi archaeological sites that need guarding.

"If they would announce some kind of amnesty, or reward, for the return of stolen objects, I think many would be returned. A lot of objects were taken in the heat of the moment," said Timothy Potts, an Iraq specialist and director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

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