Published on Monday, April 14, 2003 by the Washington Post
Pentagon Was Told Of Risk to Museums
by Guy Gugliotta
In the months leading up to the Iraq war, U.S. scholars repeatedly urged the Defense Department to protect Iraq's priceless archaeological heritage from looters, and warned specifically that the National Museum of Antiquities was the single most important site in the country.
Late in January, a mix of scholars, museum directors, art collectors and antiquities dealers asked for and were granted a meeting at the Pentagon to discuss their misgivings. McGuire Gibson, an Iraq specialist at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, said yesterday that he went back twice more, and he and colleagues peppered Defense Department officials with e-mail reminders in the weeks before the war began.
Asked yesterday about the looting of the museum, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld blamed the chaos that ensues "when you go from a dictatorship" to a new order. "We didn't allow it. It happened," Rumsfeld said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." "There's a transition period, and no one is in control. There is still fighting in Baghdad. We don't allow bad things to happen. Bad things happen in life, and people do loot."
Although the National Museum may have been the biggest prize, Iraq also has 13 regional museums at risk, including another world-renowned facility in the northern city of Mosul, as well as thousands of archaeological sites, ranging from the fabled ancient cities of Ur, Nineveh, Nimrud and Babylon to medieval Muslim villages abandoned in the country's vast western reaches.
"To the extent possible, and as soon as though it were yesterday, someone needs to post border guards to intercept antiquities as they try to leave the country," said archaeologist and art historian John Russell, of the Massachusetts College of Art. "There is a smuggling network in Iraq, and there could have been professional thieves among the looters."
Scholars first sounded a public alarm about the possible destruction of Iraqi antiquities in January, when a statement from the Archaeological Institute of America called on "all governments" to protect cultural sites during an expected conflict and in its aftermath.
Gibson and others said they were especially concerned because of the example provided by the 1991 Gulf War. Allied forces had scrupulously avoided targeting Iraqi cultural sites during the bombing of Baghdad 12 years ago -- one attack put only a shrapnel dent in the National Museum's front door even as it leveled a telecommunications facility across the street.
The end of that war kicked off a looting rampage, and eventually allowed systemic smuggling to develop. Artifacts from inadequately guarded sites were dug up and hauled away during the 12 years between the wars. "We wanted to make sure this didn't happen again," Gibson said, and Pentagon officials agreed.
"They said they would be very aware and would try to protect the artifacts," Gibson said, recalling January meetings with Pentagon officials charged with target selection and the protection of cultural sites. "We told them the looting was the biggest danger, and I felt that they understood that the National Museum was the most important archaeological site in the entire country. It has everything from every other site."
Pentagon officials knowledgeable about those meetings referred questions to the public affairs office, which said the military has tried to protect the sites.
Indeed, since the 1920s, Iraq has required that anyone digging within its borders file a report with the museum. In more recent years, expeditions had to submit all excavated material to the museum for formal cataloguing after each year's digging "season."
Looters apparently burned or otherwise destroyed most of those records last week, but Gibson suggested that scholars worldwide could duplicate the archive by copying their own files and reports and resubmitting them to Iraqi authorities.
The museum's artifacts, however, are another matter. Although the damage done is almost certainly catastrophic, Russell said, "it's going to be a matter of weeks or months before we're going to be able to identify any particular thing."
The possibilities are almost infinite. Iraq is the home of ancient Mesopotamia and has a cultural heritage that extends for thousands of years and encompasses the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Parthians, Sassanids and Muslims, to name only the best-known civilizations.
"There are thousands of unique items," said Boston University archaeologist Paul Zimansky. "If somebody walks off with those things, we'll never see them again. It is a disaster of major proportions."
The museum houses the 5,000-year-old alabaster Uruk Vase, which shows a procession entering a temple -- the earliest known depiction of a ritual. Also from Uruk is the "White Lady," the stone face of a woman that looks as if it was carved during the Greek Classic period but is 5,500 years old, one of the earliest known examples of representational sculpture.
The bust of an Akkadian king, dated 2300 B.C., is the earliest copper casting ever found. The Neolithic collection, of items about 9,000 years old, includes small sculptures of birds' heads from Nemrik, north of Mosul.
Russell said the museum staff attempted to pack up all the portable items on display and stash them in vast below-ground storage rooms and vaults, but looters found them. The museum also contained a spectacular cache of gold artifacts from the burial tombs of Assyrian queens in Nimrud.
"They were sent away to the Central Bank, and I told the Pentagon about those, too," Gibson said. "But I hear they looted the Central Bank as well."
Zimansky said Iraq's isolation during Hussein's rule meant that a great deal of material had remained unstudied and uncatalogued for years. An as-yet unresearched Sippar library of cuneiform clay tablets lay in the museum's basement and -- if it survived -- may contain the missing pieces of the Gilgamesh Epic, a heroic tale conceived by the Sumerians and written and rewritten in Mesopotamia for more than 1,000 years.
"I wasn't there [when the looting took place], and I don't know what the situation was, but I do know what's at stake," Russell said. "The need for policing should have been obvious. If it was impossible to do, then I'm sympathetic; if it wasn't, then I'm really irritated."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company