Iraq’s National Museum, home to artifacts of the world’s oldest civilization, was looted five years ago tomorrow. A collection of academics, lawyers, law enforcement officials, and former military personnel commemorated the anniversary with the release of a new book, Antiquities under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War, and an event for interested parties at the National Press Club. That included me.
The invasion of Iraq actually did surprisingly little damage to Iraq’s historic sites, in part because McGuire Gibson, an expert on ancient Mesopotamia based at the University of Chicago, gave the military coordinates of thousands of sites it should avoid on its way to Baghdad. “Iraq is Mesopotamia,” said Gibson, who spoke at the Press Club. “It is the root civilization for all civilizations.” The military did make mistakes, however. On April 10, looting of the Iraq Museum began and, due to a lack of postwar planning (and due to the Bush Administration’s unwillingness to treat culture like a legitimate facet of post-war reconstruction), it took six days for American soldiers to show up to help museum staff defend the premises. In all, 15,000 items from the Museum’s collection disappeared or were damaged. Theft and vandalism occurred at archaeological sites across the country.
Matthew Bogdanos, a Marine colonel, led the effort to investigate the looting of Iraq’s artifacts and to secure their return. Speaking at the Press Club today, Bogdanos showed slides of stolen or damaged artifacts from the Iraq Museum — the first naturalistic depiction of a human face in stone, for example — that could be found nowhere else in the world. Speaking of the unique nature of Iraq’s treasures, Bogdanos said, “Everything in Iraq can be prefaced with the word ‘first.'”
The reason why people like Bogdanos are needed to investigate the looting is because theft by neighborhood thugs is only the first step is a sophisticated chain that eventually puts fine artifacts in the hands of wealthy buyers in New York, London, Paris, and Tokyo. Smugglers who traffic guns and drugs across the Middle East also carry high-value historical treasures: Bogdanos identified one artifact that had traveled from Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut and then to Geneva. Tracing that network and working to end it is a full-time job for units within the American military.
Many of the artifacts from the Iraq Museum have been recovered and restored. The point, the speakers at the Press Club agreed, is not Iraq. The point is calling attention to antiquities trafficking and its ability to destroy a nation, likely already ravaged by war, by stealing its history and culture. The book provides procedures and strategies that can protect historic sites and artifacts in future war zones. The world’s preservers of culture — monuments, museums, libraries, and archives — are an underlooked casualty of war. The group behind Antiquities under Siege aim to change that.