Iraq Museum Antiquities
This is Phoebe Zimmermann. And this is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program EXPLORATIONS. Today, we tell about efforts to recover archeological treasures that were stolen from the National Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad, Iraq.
The National Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad is working to recover and repair thousands of stolen and broken objects. These ancient objects from Iraq's past were taken soon after the United States-led coalition ousted the government of Saddam Hussein.
The museum's losses include many valuable artworks and objects. No one knows exactly how many objects are missing. A first estimate of one-hundred-seventy-thousand missing objects has been reduced. But museum officials say many thousands have disappeared or been broken.
Last week, teams of American investigators recovered more than seven-hundred ancient objects and thousands of documents that had been missing from the museum's collection. Some of them had been placed in underground protected areas before the American invasion.
Officials say the museum still has some of its most treasured objects. For example, it still has the burial containers of kings of the ancient city of Ur. Muslims, Jews and Christians recognize Ur as the birthplace of Abraham. Abraham was the ancestor of both the Arab and the Jewish peoples.
Experts say the museum also has artworks showing male cows from the ancient kingdom of Assyria. Museum officials had placed them in a secure place before the war began.
Some stolen pieces also have been returned. For example, a young Iraqi man saw crowds stealing and breaking objects at the museum. He left and returned with a truck. He and two family members removed a number of objects for safekeeping. They include a statue of an ancient Assyrian king. It is damaged but can be restored. Some objects that were returned, however, have proved to be only copies of ancient pieces. They were being sold in the museum gift store.
Experts say many major treasures are missing. Many are from Sumer, an ancient area in southern Mesopotamia, now southeastern Iraq. These objects are between four-thousand and five-thousand years old. They include a life-size statue of a Sumerian king. Also missing is a statue of a head of a woman, a drinking cup and a musical instrument. The instrument includes the golden head of a male cow. Robbers also took the head of a marble statue of the Greek god Apollo and a large object of ivory that represents an Assyrian god.
For years, archeologists considered the Baghdad museum one of the finest in the world. Its collection includes objects from eleven-thousand years ago. But the most important objects are from ancient Mesopotamia. The area now includes most of Iraq and parts of Syria and Turkey. The major part of Mesopotamia was between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Scientists say Mesopotamia was the birthplace of civilization.
Mesopotamia was invaded by a number of peoples. They include the Akkadians, Amorites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, Parthians, Arabs, Ottomans and the British. Most recently, the United States-led military coalition entered Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein's government.
Crowds celebrated the end of Saddam's rule by breaking statues and other objects in public places. Crowds also stole objects from Saddam's homes and from government buildings. At first, such looters were blamed for all the losses to the National Museum of Antiquities. But United Nations experts say professional art thieves may also be responsible. Officials of the U-N Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – UNESCO -- say some thefts apparently were well planned.
Archeologist McGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago in Illinois believes professional art thieves entered the museum first. He says they took the most important objects. After that, he says looters followed the professionals.
For example, thieves left a copy of the prologue, or introduction, to an ancient document called the Code of Hammurabi. Hammurabi ruled the kingdom of Babylonia thousands of years ago. His code is one of the earliest written collections of laws. Apparently the introduction to the code was not stolen because it was not the true object. But the thieves broke off and carried away heads from valuable statues from an ancient city called Hatra.
Robbers also took a valuable collection of cuneiform tablets called the Sippar Library. The collection contains pieces of stone with cuneiform writing. Cuneiform developed from the oldest form of writing. The library describes life in Mesopotamia over thousands of years. It includes prayers, stories and scientific information. The stone tablets tell about the stars, planets and other heavenly bodies. One story describes the creation of the world.
Iraqi archeologists discovered the library in nineteen-eighty-six. It was in the wreckage of the Temple of Sippar, not far from Baghdad. They found about eight-hundred tablets in good condition. This was the first discovery of its kind ever made. It was the oldest complete library ever found in the place where it was developed. But experts fear that the ancient stone tablets may not have survived.
Museum officials in Baghdad have only incomplete records to help them decide exactly what is missing. The museum was closed for ten years after the Persian Gulf war in nineteen-ninety-one. During that time, records were lost.
Although lists are incomplete, officials know that some objects were taken before the most recent war. Some were taken during the last war. Iraqi officials say members of Saddam Hussein's government stole from the collection during the nineteen-nineties.
Many Iraqi archeologists and museum officials criticize the American military for the recent losses. They say the forces that entered Baghdad and other cities did nothing to prevent looting. American troops did not begin guarding the National Museum of Antiquities until days after the crowds entered and wrecked the museum.
Before the war, American and UNESCO experts had communicated with the American State Department and Defense Department. The experts described cultural and archeological areas in Iraq that needed protection. The goal was to make sure they were not bombed or robbed.
But coalition commanders say they lacked enough troops to guard museums in Iraq. They also say soldiers are not trained to control crowds. Some experts do not blame the soldiers. Instead, they say the Bush Administration should have provided more support to protect Iraq's treasures.
Today, many organizations are cooperating to restore the missing objects. Coalition soldiers and local guards are trying hard to keep valuable artworks from leaving the country. Muslim clergymen are urging citizens to return stolen objects.
Reports say some missing artworks are being sold illegally on international markets. Others apparently are being offered for sale on Internet Web sites. UNESCO has asked other countries to watch for objects taken from Baghdad. Officials in Jordan responded by finding and returning many museum pieces.
The worldwide police organization Interpol also is looking for stolen objects. So are a number of federal agents from the United States. In Baghdad, a United States Marine Corps reserve officer is investigating the thefts at the museum. In civilian life, Colonel Matthew Bogdanos works as a government lawyer in New York City.
Archeologist McGuire Gibson believes experts everywhere can help restore the National Museum of Antiquities. He says they should search their own records for descriptions of objects the museum had shown. These artworks then could be listed on the Internet. Antiquities experts, foreign museums and governments are acting to block the sale of stolen treasures. At a meeting in London two weeks ago, representatives of some of the world's leading museums promised to help restore Iraq's cultural treasures.
This Special English program was written by Jerilyn Watson. It was produced by Caty Weaver. This is Steve Ember. And this is Phoebe Zimmermann. Join us again next week for another Explorations program on the Voice of America.