Lost Time

By Russell, John Malcolm | Natural History, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Lost Time


Russell, John Malcolm, Natural History


Damage control in Iraq

EDITOR'S NOTE: The looting and destruction that have befallen ancient artifacts from, the museums and archaeological sites of Iraq are a calamity for civilization. The photographs on these four pages depict only a handful of the glories that had been unearthed in recent centuries; it is too soon to say with any certainty whether the items pictured here are safe or missing-or whether, if missing, they will somehow yet turn up.

In February 2001, Natural History published the article "Robbing the Archaeological Cradle," by John Malcolm Russell, a professor of art history and archaeology at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston and a leading authority on the antiquities of the Near East. Passages adapted from Russell's article, which provide cultural and historical context for the artifacts, are presented here (italic text). David Keys, a freelance journalist based in Middlesex, England, who specializes in archaeology, has contributed a report about the looting and the early responses to it.

Called Mesopotamia by the Greeks, and variously Sumer, Akkad, Babylonia, and Assyria by its own ancient inhabitants, Iraq has an excellent claim to be the cradle of Western civilization. The emergence of complex communities was accompanied by developments such as writing, the wheel, irrigation agriculture, cities, monumental architecture, state-sponsored warfare, organized religion, written laws, kingship, a wealthy class, imperialism, centrally organized production of hand-crofted goods, and large-scale trade. The first eleven chapters of Genesis are set, by and large, in southern Iraq, in the land of Shinar (Babylonia). Eden, the Summon word meaning "steppe," was the name of a district in Sumer, or southern Babylonia. Mesopotamian royal gardens, notably the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, may have inspired the story of the Garden of Eden.

-JOHN MALCOLM RUSSELL

Prior to the First World War, when the area that is now Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire, excavations by foreign archaeologists were carried out under permits issued in Istanbul, Mid-nineteenth-century excavators were allowed to export whatever they wished. That is how the British Museum and the Louvre acquired the bulk of their renowned Mesopotamia« collections. Stung by the empire's loss of irreplaceable treasures, and anxious to establish Istanbul as a center for the study of ancient art, the Ottoman statesman Hamdi Bey founded the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul in 1881. Thereafter, foreign archaeologists were obliged to share their discoveries with the museum.

After the First World War, Iraq became a separate state, initially administered by Britain. With the energetic guidance of a British official, Gertrude Bell, who advocated that antiquities be retained by the country of origin, the Iraq Museum was founded in 1923 in Baghdad.

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