Article excerpt

Many Antiquity readers will have spent a miserable first quarter of 2003 wondering how it is that war can still be reckoned an acceptable instrument of politics at the beginning of the third millennium of our era. Now it is over, we first mourn the tragic accidents, injury and loss of life suffered by combatants and bystanders. But next we must face a matter which is almost of equal misery and affects the world of archaeological scholarship much more widely: the looting of the Iraqi Museums. Whatever benefit may accrue to the recent military action in Iraq, it will long be overshadowed by this irreversible calamity. How did a coalition of such overwhelming might, and so confident of its own morality, allow such a thing to happen?

The event itself has been described to Antiquity in chilling terms by Dr Lamia Al-Gailani Werr, formerly of the Iraq Museum and founder of its Children's Education Department: "The looting of the Iraq Museum lasted more than two days. Some objects, such as the Warka vase and the Bassetki statue base of Naram-Sin, were clearly stolen to order, while a number of copies of famous pieces now in European museums were deliberately avoided. The looters also gained access to the locked vaults, where the extent of the loss and damage has yet to be evaluated. Extensive and wanton damage was caused by those who simply smashed everything in sight, including Hatra statues and the famous life-size terracotta lion from Tell Harmal. Fortunately many of the smaller pieces had previously been removed from the museum. The damage also extended to the administrative offices where the registers and photographs were torn and scattered about. All the equipment in the museum laboratory was completely destroyed."

"The Mosul Museum was also looted, again clearly on the orders of professional dealers; the lost objects are believed already to have left the country. The damage was not limited to museums. Among many others, the Manuscript Library of the University of Mosul was robbed. In Baghdad the Awqaf (religious) Library which contained priceless Islamic, Christian and Jewish manuscripts was burnt, while the National Library, the Iraqi equivalent of the British Library, was also burnt. The art galleries suffered similar destruction: the Saddam Centre of Modern Art was looted and the Gulbenkian Gallery burnt."

"Words cannot express my personal feelings at this terrible destruction of the culture of modern and mediaeval Iraq as well as ancient Mesopotamia. A catastrophic loss for the ordinary Iraqi was the burning of the National Archives, which included all personal and property registers. Indeed the enormity of what happened to the Iraq Museum is beyond immediate comprehension. I personally feel both cheated and angry, since I was one of the archaeologists who went to Washington to warn of the possibility of looting. We were given to understand officially that the Museum would be protected, and I feel particular anger when I know that just one or two tanks would have prevented all this destruction. Even the Iraqis under Saddam, when they invaded Kuwait, protected, stored and packed away the Museum, and the objects have now been returned intact."

Were other warnings given that such damage and theft was likely to occur? Yes indeed. In a letter to The Times on 24 April 2003 Colin Renfrew pointed out that he, Lord Redesdale and Lord Lea of Crondall had written to the Prime Minister on 11 February indicating the likelihood of looting in the event of military action. The letter was passed to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and officials of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq made similar representations to the same office, but without response. "Who was responsible in the FCO for gathering and assessing this information?" asks Lord Renfrew. "Why were warnings not heeded and the obvious risks assessed? What contacts were there with United States colleagues responsible for planning the capture and subsequent administration of Baghdad? …