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Picking Up the Pieces of Iraqi Antiquities

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Science  25 Apr 2003:
Vol. 300, Issue 5619, pp. 559-561
DOI: 10.1126/science.300.5619.559

The U.S. troops who were nowhere to be found when looters besieged Iraq's National Museum 2 weeks ago now ring the building. And the storerooms and basement have been locked. But as order is slowly restored, archaeologists and curators face the daunting challenge of assessing the damage to the museum's priceless collections (Science, 18 April, p. 402). They are not alone: Public health officials last week were trying to assess the impact of extensive looting of equipment from several Iraqi medical laboratories.

What's missing from the museum is far from certain. Donny George, research director of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities, believes the list includes the famous Warka vase—a 5000-year-old meter-high carved container—along with an important copper statue base from the Akkadian period in Mesopotamia and an unidentified Assyrian statue. The fate of tens of thousands of other objects is unclear. “There's a lot of damage,” says Lamia Al-Gailani-Werr, an Iraqi expatriate archaeologist in London who spoke by phone with George. Innumerable storage cases were emptied, the museum office was ransacked, and the laboratory used for conservation was emptied. “There's nothing left—everything was smashed,” she says.

There was some good news, however. George says that the Nimrud gold, a cache of finely worked Assyrian grave goods discovered just before the first Gulf War in Nimrud, is secure in a Baghdad bank vault. Also secure is the museum's reference library, which holds important Islamic manuscripts as well as the archaeology reports from 60 years of excavations in Iraq. To prevent further looting, the storerooms and basement have been sealed. But the lack of electricity makes it hard to determine the state of the collections in those dim areas.

Some outside help is on the way. U.S. officials assigned to provide assistance and attempt recovery of missing objects arrived in Baghdad this week. A U.S. Army captain who is part of the civil affairs division hopes to arrange the military transport of necessary supplies, such as conservation chemicals. U.S. Customs officials and FBI agents are also arriving in Baghdad to track down stolen objects. But some Western archaeologists are skeptical of those efforts. “How good are their interrogation skills in Arabic?” asks one.

A number of countries have pledged to help rebuild the research facility, including Italy, which has offered to donate at least $400,000 and possibly as much as $1 million. And British Museum archaeologist John Curtis is to travel to Iraq this week. The U.S. government is also assembling a team of expatriate Iraqi researchers to visit next month.

After the fall.

UNESCO panelists are finding it difficult to assess the damage to collections in Baghdad and throughout Iraq.

CREDIT: UNESCO

Nearly 30 experts met in Paris last week at a previously planned UNESCO gathering to extend support to their beleaguered colleagues. Speaking at a press conference after the 17 April meeting, University of Chicago archaeologist McGuire Gibson said there can be no complete assessment until a UNESCO-sponsored mission is able to inspect the damage. When that will occur is not clear.

In the meantime, UNESCO's expert panel suggested six steps that should be taken immediately, including bans on the export and trade of Iraqi artifacts and a call for the voluntary return of stolen objects. But just how effective such measures will be is not clear. Of the 4000 objects that disappeared from Iraqi museums during the 1991 war, only 54 have been recovered. Salma El Radi, an Iraqi archaeologist at New York University, speculated that even the most famous artifacts could disappear forever into private collections. “Plenty of collectors will pay under the table. Somebody will buy them,” she said.

Iraqi officials believe that the looting was not random. Muayad Damerji, an adviser to the minister of culture and a former chief of the state board, told Boston radio station WBUR on 16 April that the looters apparently spent more than a day going through the collection, seeking the most valuable objects, and that glass cutters were found in the museum. Ironically, many artifacts had been brought to Baghdad for safekeeping. “We thought the museum would be safe,” Damerji said, “especially since we know many of our American colleagues did their best to tell the American Administration” about the importance of Iraq's archaeological heritage.

Looting has also dealt a blow to Iraq's public health infrastructure, say officials at the World Heath Organization (WHO) in Geneva. On 16 April, the Central Public Health Laboratory in Baghdad was looted and damaged; several labs elsewhere in the country appear to have been targets as well. Looters also made off with almost every piece of equipment and several vehicles from WHO's Baghdad office before torching the building.

Although WHO officials are still gauging the full impact of the rampage, they are critical of media reports that samples stolen from the Baghdad lab could trigger outbreaks of polio and other diseases. Those reports are “overblown,” says Jim Tulloch, regional health coordinator at WHO. “There's no evidence that [the looters] were bent on getting their hands on pathogens.” Most pathogens would quickly deteriorate or die if not refrigerated, he added, although the loss of equipment, pathogen cultures, and records is a serious setback.

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