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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Who stole Iraq's priceless treasures?

Five years ago, as the tanks rolled in, history's most priceless treasures vanished from Iraq. What really happened still confounds world experts. Now, for the first time, Britain's leading authority on Iraq archeology and a witness to the devastation, delivers his verdict

Five years ago, the world stood by while the Iraq Museum in Baghdad was sacked and looted. And it still beggars belief. It was abundantly clear before the invasion that the cost of removing Saddam was going to be very high, but few people could have predicted how high the price would be in terms of deaths and the country’s cultural heritage.

I certainly wasn’t prepared for the newspaper headlines that screamed “Iraq Museum Looted” when Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, and I arrived back at Heathrow from a trip to Tehran on April 13, 2003. I had been a regular visitor to Iraq since 1970, and during the 1980s had directed archeological excavations at eight different sites in the north of the country. During this time, I had formed many close friendships and come to have a deep love for this fascinating, welcoming but troubled country. Like many people, I was bitterly opposed to the war, but this was chiefly on humanitarian grounds. It had not occurred to me that the coalition forces would be so careless with cultural heritage that they would not even bother to post a guard at the museum after their tanks had penetrated the heart of Baghdad. To hear that the museum had been looted, therefore, was deeply shocking.

The source of my dismay is evident: as an archeologist and historian, I’m aware of what is at stake. But why should anyone else care? Iraq is rightly referred to as the cradle of civilisation. It is where writing was invented, the first cities appeared, and Mesopotamia – the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates – was home to Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians. The Iraq Museum was one of the richest museums in the Middle East, if not the world, and housed a magnificent collection of treasures from ancient Mesopotamia. Others around the world shared my sense of outrage, so it was only natural that a press conference at the British Museum that had been arranged long before, to mark the museum’s 250th birthday on April 15, should be completely taken over by the Iraq Museum crisis. Tessa Jowell, then secretary of state for culture, struggled to answer the probing questions about why such a disaster could have been allowed to happen. But neither she nor anybody else had any answers. More significantly, as the conference was breaking up, Channel 4 News managed to set up a satellite phone link in Baghdad to my old friend Donny George, the director of research at the Iraq Department of Antiquities, and I was able to speak with him directly. I was the first person outside Iraq he had been able to speak to.

Donny was distraught. Looters and vandals had been rampaging unchecked through the museum for two days. Although there was nobody in the building at that time, it was still unguarded and therefore vulnerable. He asked me to pass this information on, and he urged me to come to Baghdad as soon as possible to see what could be done to help.

As soon as it was known that Donny wanted me to go to Baghdad, a number of journalists offered to facilitate my trip. I joined forces with the BBC team and on April 22 flew out to Amman, where we picked up our “protection officers” (a euphemism for hired guns) and drove in a convoy along the desert road to Baghdad.

Once across the Iraqi border we were confronted by stark reminders of the recent war: military convoys, burnt-out vehicles and bombed bridges. Nothing, however, prepared me for the changed appearance of Baghdad. On the outskirts of the city we could see blackened buildings, some with smoke still rising from them. The streets were more or less deserted, and there was an unreal calm and quiet, punctuated by the periodic sound of gunfire, showing that there was still some resistance to the coalition occupation. We made straight for the museum, and our vehicles were allowed through the locked gates.

Donny, Dr Jabr Ismail, the director of the Department of Antiquities, and Dr Nawalla al-Mutawalli, the director of the Iraq Museum, all came out to greet me. It was agreed that we should sleep on the ground on the colonnade. In the morning we were able to start our inspection of the museum. It was a heartbreaking sight. I already knew that, in the build-up to the war, the curators had moved most of the objects from the galleries to a “secret store” in the bowels of the Earth beneath the museum. However, they had left behind all those objects that, for one reason or another, were difficult to move or were simply overlooked, and it was these objects that had been stolen or vandalised. Many of the glass showcases were also smashed, so in some places there was a thick carpet of broken glass on the floor. In addition, every one of the 120 offices in the building had been broken into, usually by smashing a hole in the door.

Files, papers, index cards, photographs, films and computer software had all been swept off the shelves and onto the floor. It seemed that the intention had been to start bonfires, but fortunately this did not happen. All the safes in the building had been broken open. It was also clear that the intruders had broken into the storerooms, but at this stage nobody had been inside to assess the extent of the losses. There has been much speculation as to whether the looting that took place was spontaneous or organised – and who, precisely, was behind it. Theories have ranged from the involvement of Ba’athist loyalists, determined to cause maximum civilian unrest, to the connivance of international antique-dealers, requesting items to be stolen to order. Five years on, these questions remain unanswered. The whereabouts of looted material is also hotly disputed. There is clearly a black market in Iraqi antiquities, but where the pieces have ended up is not yet known.

The next day was full of uncertainty. The most important task was to prepare a list of missing items, and I helped Donny to do this. Among the 40 or so things missing from the galleries were some of the greatest treasures of the Iraq Museum, including the Warka Vase and the Warka Head, both dating from c3100BC; a stone statue of King Entemena of Lagash, c2400BC; a colossal copper statue base with an inscription of King Naram-Sin of Akkad, c2250BC; and an ivory plaque from Nimrud, c800BC, showing a lioness mauling an African against a backdrop of lotus flowers.

The Americans were keen to know exactly how many objects had been stolen. I tried hard to explain the difficulties of doing an audit and pointed out that, faced with a disaster on this scale, any leading museum in the world (including the British Museum) would have difficulty in giving an immediate answer, but to no avail. I had similar difficulties with the BBC team. They were convinced that the curators were in some way complicit in what had happened, and regrettably this view was expressed in the subsequent documentary. I was – and still am – certain that, although there might have been some negligence, there is no evidence of any dishonesty on the part of the three senior officials present at the time. It was clear that, at this stage, the most useful thing would be to bring to the attention of the world the full scale of what had happened. Evidently, the best way for this to happen was for Donny George to accompany me back to London and appear at the press conference that had been hastily arranged for April 29.

As speed was of the essence, we hired a GMC four-wheel-drive vehicle and driver and set by the periodic sound of gunfire, showing that there was still some resistance to the coalition occupation. We made straight for the museum, and our vehicles were allowed through the locked gates. Donny, Dr Jabr Ismail, the director of the Department of Antiquities, and Dr Nawalla al-Mutawalli, the director of the Iraq Museum, all came out to greet me. It was agreed that we should sleep on the ground on the colonnade. In the morning we were able to start our inspection of the museum. It was a heartbreaking sight. I already knew that, in the build-up to the war, the curators had moved most of the objects from the galleries to a “secret store” in the bowels of the Earth beneath the museum.

However, they had left behind all those objects that, for one reason or another, were difficult to move or were simply overlooked, and it was these objects that had been stolen or vandalised. Many of the glass showcases were also smashed, so in some places there was a thick carpet of broken glass on the floor. In addition, every one of the 120 offices in the building had been broken into, usually by smashing a hole in the door. Files, papers, index cards, photographs, films and computer software had all been swept off the shelves and onto the floor.

It seemed that the intention had been to start bonfires, but fortunately this did not happen. All the safes in the building had been broken open. It was also clear that the intruders had broken into the storerooms, but at this stage nobody had been inside to assess the extent of the losses. There has been much speculation as to whether the looting that took place was spontaneous or organised – and who, precisely, was behind it. Theories have ranged from the involvement of Ba’athist loyalists, determined to cause maximum civilian unrest, to the connivance of international antique-dealers, requesting items to be stolen to order. Five years on, these questions remain unanswered. The whereabouts of looted material is also hotly disputed. There is clearly a black market in Iraqi antiquities, but where the pieces have ended up is not yet known.

The next day was full of uncertainty. The most important task was to prepare a list of missing items, and I helped Donny to do this. Among the 40 or so things missing from the galleries were some of the greatest treasures of the Iraq Museum, including the Warka Vase and the Warka Head, both dating from c3100BC; a stone statue of King Entemena of Lagash, c2400BC; a colossal copper statue base with an inscription of King Naram-Sin of Akkad, c2250BC; and an ivory plaque from Nimrud, c800BC, showing a lioness mauling an African against a backdrop of lotus flowers.

The Americans were keen to know exactly how many objects had been stolen. I tried hard to explain the difficulties of doing an audit and pointed out that, faced with a disaster on this scale, any leading museum in the world (including the British Museum) would have difficulty in giving an immediate answer, but to no avail. I had similar difficulties with the BBC team. They were convinced that the curators were in some way complicit in what had happened, and regrettably this view was expressed in the subsequent documentary. I was – and still am – certain that, although there might have been some negligence, there is no evidence of any dishonesty on the part of the three senior officials present at the time. It was clear that, at this stage, the most useful thing would be to bring to the attention of the world the full scale of what had happened. Evidently, the best way for this to happen was for Donny George to accompany me back to London and appear at the press conference that had been hastily arranged for April 29.

As speed was of the essence, we hired a GMC four-wheel-drive vehicle and driver and set off (without protection officers, which scarcely seemed necessary). We were soon bowling along at about 80mph on the deserted highway leading to the Jordanian border. Suddenly, without warning, we were overtaken at high speed by a powerful Nissan saloon car and forced to stop. In the Nissan were four men bristling with weapons. They pulled our driver out of the car, took him to the other vehicle, and two of the robbers climbed into our car.

Both vehicles were then driven off the road, for about a mile into the scrub. The men roughly searched all our pockets and bags, took our money and passports. They then asked a few questions, and on learning that we were archeologists they demanded to know if we had any “antikas”. Of course we didn’t, but they took my bag anyway so that they could check later at their leisure. They then pushed us back into our car, and I had the temerity to ask if I could have my passport back. Rather surprisingly in retrospect, the leader threw it into the car and they drove off. It was fortunate for us that this incident happened before insurgents started to kidnap foreigners. Our driver gladly pointed the vehicle in the direction of Jordan and put his foot down. Eventually, 12 hours later, he delivered us to our hotel in Amman.

That key press conference at the British Museum, attended by Tessa Jowell, attracted enormous interest and we were able to release the list of the most wanted items. We then arranged for a tour of inspection by myself and a small team of conservators and curators from June 3 to June 25, 2003. In the Iraq Museum, Ken Uprichard and Birthe Christiansen, our two conservators, busied themselves with doing conservation assessments and drawing up a long-term conservation plan, while my fellow archeologist Dominique Collon and I looked carefully at the storerooms, gathered more information about what had taken place, and investigated the possibility of undertaking an audit.

By then it was known that about 16,000 objects, including the Iraq Museum’s entire collection of engraved cylinder seals (for rolling designs on clay tablets), had been stolen from the storerooms, but the problem was not only with stolen material. Many objects had been swept off the shelves or emptied out of boxes, and then trampled underfoot. There was a particular problem with the delicate ivories from Nimrud. These and other objects are so priceless that it is impossible to evaluate the scale of the damage financially. We were also taken to see the gold jewellery from the tombs of the Assyrian queens at Nimrud, which had been put for safekeeping in a basement vault in the Central Bank. Although this vault had been flooded during the war, the jewellery had survived relatively unscathed, which was a tremendous relief.

But problems were not confined to the Baghdad Museum. We needed to get some sense of what was happening elsewhere in other museums and the many archeological sites throughout the country. We headed first for Babylon. Although there was a military presence here it was not very substantial, and there were no obvious signs of looting, apart from damage to one of the moulded brick figures showing a dragon in the Ishtar Gate and to the (modern) gift shop that had been burnt out. A greater problem was that, even though Donny George was with us, we were made to wait outside the gate of the camp for 2½ hours in a temperature of 45C. Access to archeological sites was a problem that I was to encounter again at Ur of the Chaldees, the famous Sumerian city in the south of Iraq.

After Babylon we journeyed up to the north of Iraq, to ancient Assyria, as we were aware that there had been few reports about the state of the cultural heritage in that region. In fact, we were the first western archeologists to visit the Mosul Museum after the looting, and found that exactly the same thing had happened there as in Baghdad, at exactly the same time, during the days of April 10-11. Particularly distressing to see were the gates of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (883-859BC), found by Sir Max Mallowan at Balawat. Most of the pieces of embossed and chased bronze had been ripped off the reconstructed wooden doors and stolen. At Nimrud, the city made capital of Assyria by Ashurnasirpal, there was relatively little damage, partly owing, no doubt, to the presence there of a small US detachment, but we were shown evidence of some attempts to remove pieces of stone sculpture, one of which had been successful.

At Nineveh, we saw with horror that the corrugated iron roof over the palace of Sennacherib had been stripped off by looters, leaving the sculptures beneath exposed to the elements, but I understand this roof has now been replaced. On the whole, our visit to the north was encouraging, as it confirmed speculation that the damage to cultural heritage there was not as great as in the south.

Since the summer of 2003, the security situation has deteriorated sharply with the growth of the insurgency, and it is no longer possible to travel freely around Iraq. Many of the archeological sites are effectively inaccessible, and in the north it has become highly dangerous even for Iraqis to visit sites such as Nimrud. The result is that it has not been possible to follow through with any of the conservation recommendations made by the British Museum team, and travel to Iraq has become very restricted. In fact, my next opportunity to visit Iraq did not come until December 2004 when I was invited to Babylon.

During the summer and autumn of 2004, there had been growing unease about the size of the military camp at Babylon and the effect this was likely to have on one of the most important sites in the ancient world. It was the capital city of two of the most famous kings of antiquity: Hammurabi (1792-1750BC), who introduced the world’s first law code, and Nebuchadnezzar (604-562BC), who built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the world. The camp covered 150 hectares, and at one time had contained 2,000 soldiers. A number of reports and articles had called attention to the problem, and such was the growing strength of feeling that the coalition decided, in late 2004, to vacate the camp and hand it over to the Iraqis.

The Iraqi minister of culture, Mufid al-Jazairi, wanted a report from an independent observer detailing the damage that had occurred while Babylon was under military occupation. I was therefore invited to attend the handover meeting. En route to Babylon, I was put up in a vast room in a former palace of Saddam, situated next to an artificial lake with ornamental bridges. It was a bizarre experience to sleep in a palace built for the former dictator. At Babylon, the inspection party was conducted around the site by Dr Maryam Umran Musah, who was, at that time, in charge of Babylon. She was particularly well qualified to point out the many instances of damage. Firstly, there were about one dozen trenches, the largest 170 metres long, dug into previously undisturbed archeological deposits. In these trenches were found pottery, bones and fragments of brick with inscriptions in the ancient cuneiform script, mostly of the king Nebuchadnezzar. There were also cuttings where large amounts of earth had been removed from the surface, rather like opencast mining. Again, these cuttings were often into hitherto undisturbed archeological deposits. Then, around 300,000 square metres of the site had been covered with gravel, sometimes compacted and chemically treated, to be used as a helipad and to create spaces for vehicle parks and accommodation blocks. All the gravel had been brought in from elsewhere, and will in due course work its way into the archeological deposits, contaminating them irretrievably.

The same thing will happen with all the oil and diesel spilt in the area of the refuelling station. All around the site were sandbags and steel-mesh Hesco containers filled with earth scooped up from the site. When it was pointed out that this was bad practice, the contractors started to bring in earth from other places outside the site, but this is just as bad, if not even worse, as often this earth comes from other archeological sites and will therefore contaminate the record at Babylon. In many parts of the site, there were wheel marks caused by heavy military vehicles, and these movements are sure to have damaged the fragile archeological deposits beneath. Even the ancient brick pavement in the south part of the 6th-century-BC Processional Way had been broken by driving a heavy vehicle along it. Last, but certainly not least, was damage to eight more dragon figures in the Ishtar Gate, apparently caused by souvenir-hunters trying to remove bricks.

Of course, it is perfectly true that Babylon suffered grievously in the time of Saddam Hussein. Among other things, he rebuilt the palace of Nebuchadnezzar using bricks stamped in Arabic with his own name, he created an artificial lake on the site, and he built a huge artificial mound with a palace on the top. However, these abuses should not have been excuses for further maltreatment by the coalition. In fact, a military camp should never have been established at Babylon, and to have done so may be compared to building a camp next to Stonehenge or in the shadow of the Great Pyramid.

At Ur, in southern Iraq, the problems were of a different sort from those that bedevilled Babylon. It was at Ur, the legendary birthplace of Abraham, that Sir Leonard Woolley found the Royal Cemetery in the 1920s and 30s. The site itself is immediately next to the gigantic Tallil air base, said to be the largest in the Middle East and covering an area of about 28 square kilometres. The air base was there before the second Gulf war, but after that the site of Ur was incorporated within the perimeter fence surrounding the base, making the site inaccessible to ordinary Iraqis.

In March 2006, reports began to circulate that inscribed stones had been removed from the site of Ur, without the permission of the Iraqi Department of Antiquities, by archeologists working with coalition troops, and taken to the nearby provincial museum at Nasiriya. This was quite unacceptable and Donny George, by now director of antiquities, was outraged. He sent his staff to investigate, but also indicated that he would like to visit Ur himself, and invited me to join him there. There was an extra incentive for me in that the original excavations at Ur had been sponsored by the British Museum. Before this could happen, Donny left Iraq in August 2006 after members of his family had received death threats. He is now teaching at Stony Brook University in New York. The project was resurrected when I met his successor, Dr Abbas al-Husseini, at a conference in London in November 2006. I was finally able to go out to Ur in February 2007.

The camp at Tallil, which is on the air base itself, houses American, Australian and Romanian troops. The plan was that I should meet Dr Abbas, who had driven the 250 miles down from Baghdad specially for this rendezvous, at the airbase at 11.30am on February 22. He arrived at the main gate with a party of about 20 people in five vehicles, and immediately encountered a problem. The American guards were only willing to allow the party in if they were prepared to be searched, and if they had satisfactory ID. Dr Abbas was not willing, as a matter of principle, to be searched, and not all members of his party had proper ID. His argument was that as the director of antiquities he should have unrestricted access to all archeological sites in Iraq, which were, after all, under his control. Unfortunately, all arguments were to no avail, and after a 2½-hour standoff the Iraqi party departed. It is intolerable that the director of antiquities or any of his staff should not have unfettered access to archeological sites or monuments on demand, and it is very much to be hoped that such episodes will not recur in the future.

There was, unfortunately, another problem at Ur. The new main gate to the enlarged complex has been built on top of one of the suburbs of ancient Ur, known as Diqdiqqah.

The gate complex, or Visitor Control Centre, is 400 metres square, and its construction will undoubtedly have caused damage to the archeological deposits beneath. Admittedly, there have never been proper excavations at Diqdiqqa, but if the coalition authorities had consulted any archeologist, or anybody with expertise in cultural-heritage management, they would have warned against building the gate complex in this place. As with Babylon, such episodes highlight the pressing need for more consultation by the coalition authorities with the Iraq Department of Antiquities.

What now are the prospects for Iraqi cultural heritage? Unfortunately, in the five years that have elapsed since the looting of the Iraq Museum in 2003, there has been little progress. There has been a great deal of talking, at conferences organised in many parts of the world as far apart as Paris, New York and Tokyo, and there have been many offers of help, but so far these have not amounted to much. This is partly due to the poor security situation, which has made it difficult for people to operate on the ground, and partly to the reluctance of various governments to invest in capacity-building in Iraq itself. Exceptions to this are Italy and

Japan, who have funded, among other things, a new state-of-the-art conservation laboratory in the Iraq Museum. The lab is ready to use, but such is the security situation, with staff reluctant to come to work, that it sadly remains largely unoccupied. There have also been training courses for Iraqi specialists, including some in the British Museum.

This is a bleak picture, but there are some encouraging signs. Most of the 40 iconic objects stolen from the Iraq Museum galleries have now been recovered (but not the exquisite ivory plaque), as have about half of the 16,000 objects stolen from the storerooms (though the collection of seals is still missing). The return of objects was encouraged through the use of rewards offered by the US forces. Two galleries in the Iraq Museum have recently reopened, but the conditions of entrance are not clear. Most significantly, there seems to be a decrease in the scale of looting at archeological sites in the south, which was such a terrible problem. This is largely due to the efforts of Dr Abbas (who has now stepped down as director of antiquities), who used his contacts in the south to good effect. There is also good news about Babylon. The Department of Antiquities has reached agreement with the World Monuments Fund and the Getty Conservation Institute whereby these bodies will help to produce a site-management plan and start to rectify some of the damage. The British Museum will hold a special exhibition on Babylon, opening in November 2008, which will examine the truth and fiction behind this historic city and will provide an opportunity for visitors to learn more about the state of the site currently.

All these developments give grounds for cautious optimism. It is particularly encouraging that in the south of Iraq, the British Army 3rd Division, under Major-General Barney White-Spunner, has expressed an interest in helping, and it is in the process of drawing up a joint plan with the Iraq Department of Antiquities and the British Museum. This will involve visiting some of the most important archeological sites in the south to see how they can be best protected, and surveying some of the provincial museum buildings to see if they can be refurbished. This is a far cry from the attitude of the coalition forces in the build-up to the war. Then, the military authorities took no proper advice, but contented themselves with requesting lists of important sites (which could have been obtained from any one of a number of popular guidebooks). At the very least they should have been consulting closely with archeologists and other specialists familiar with Iraq, and at best they should have had archeologists and cultural-heritage experts embedded in the military, as they were in the second world war. In this way, some of the subsequent disasters could have been averted. Meanwhile, we are left with a situation in Iraq in which many top-quality museum objects have been stolen or damaged, and many prime archeological sites in the south of the country have been looted beyond repair, with the consequent loss of much priceless information about a cultural heritage that is the property of the whole world.

John Curtis is the keeper of the Middle East Department at the British Museum

Heist society

Evidence is mounting that a global criminal network is behind the looting

US troops stormed Baghdad on April 9, 2003, in the final stage of their “Shock and Awe” campaign. As gunfire raged, the national museum was left unguarded. The Americans placed it under protection on April 16, but by then thousands of treasures had been looted. Exactly who the thieves were, and where the unrecovered objects are now, is a mystery. Matthew Bogdanos, the US marine colonel who headed the official US investigation, believes a well-organised criminal network was in place before the invasion, waiting to take advantage of breakdowns in museum security. His investigation suggests that professional thieves moved into Baghdad hotels in the run-up to the conflict, and buyers were in place for higher-quality items before the looting. But the museum is just one of Iraq’s 10,000 archeologically important sites spread over thousands of miles. “Local people have known of the existence of items for years but haven’t bothered digging them up,” says Vernon Rapley, head of the Metropolitan Police Service’s Art and Antiques unit. “Suddenly the Iraqi borders have opened up and created a market. Now they are going in with bulldozers and digging them up.”

Items are sold to “more organised” buyers, who take them to Baghdad and then on to places like Oman and Jordan, as well as to Iranian dealers operating in London. Rapley explains that dealers have so many objects, such as cylinder seals and cuneiform tablets, that they are looking for more valuable pieces. “I think organised criminals are contracting the theft of particular items,” he says. On April 30, US customs officials at Newark airport seized four FedEx boxes arriving from London. Addressed to a New York art dealer, they contained 669 artefacts stolen from the Iraq Museum. How did the treasures get out of the country? Bogdanos points to middleman buyers, able to arrange the passage from Iraq using smuggling routes, tried and tested during the Gulf war in the 1990s. So where are the remaining items likely to be? “The intelligence at the moment is that the majority of important items are holed up in the region around Iraq itself,” says Rapley. “It’s better for the dealer to sell objects and arrange viewings in that region. Then the buyer has the responsibility of getting them to where it’s going. It’s less transit and less risk for the dealer.”

Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe

Original here

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