Iraqi Treasures Recovered

This is Phoebe Zimmermann. And this is Steve Ember with EXPLORATIONS, from VOA Special English. Today we tell about efforts to recover ancient works of art stolen from Iraq.

Thousands of archeological treasures disappeared from the National Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad, Iraq last April. At that time, a coalition led by the United States ousted the government of Saddam Hussein. Robbers entered the museum. They stole and damaged many priceless objects.

At first, experts estimated that one-hundred-seventy-thousand objects were missing. But museum workers had hidden many objects for their protection before the war began in March. Some Iraqi citizens have been holding other artifacts for safe keeping. These people have expressed concern that museum workers are connected with Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath political party. They say they fear the artifacts might not be put back in the museum again. Negotations for returning such objects are continuing.

Officials now say the museum lost between ten-thousand and fifteen-thousand artifacts after the war. Baghdad citizens and others returned many of these ancient objects. An American group also has organized the return of almost three-thousand-five-hundred artifacts. Group members worked with local citizens and international officials to restore valuable pieces to the National Museum of Antiquities.

For example, the Americans helped recover a sculpture of a woman's head. Some experts said it is one of the five most important pieces taken from the museum.

The sculpture is called the Warka Mask, or Lady of Warka. It is about five-thousand years old. It was carved in the ancient city of Warka during the rule of the Sumerians. Iraqi police and American soldiers found it buried among fruit trees on a farm near Baghdad.

Jabir Ibrahim directs Iraq's department of ancient objects. He said his office learned in August about a group trying to sell the Warka Mask. But the group's negotiations with possible buyers apparently failed. After that, the group hid the mask. Information provided to the museum identified the person who apparently stole the mask. A week of negotiations with this person led to the farm. Soldiers and police dug out the mask from fifteen centimeters of earth. It was unharmed.

Jabir Ibrahim is among Iraqi experts who have said United States forces failed to protect the museum after occupying Baghdad. A number of international art experts and archeologists agree. But American officials say Iraqi Army soldiers were firing from the museum at American troops as they arrived. The officials say the gunfire made it impossible for the American troops to enter the museum. They say the stealing took place before the American military could help stop it.

United States Marine Colonel Matthew Bogdanos (boag-DON-ose) began the American investigation of the missing artifacts in April. Colonel Bogdanos is a reserve officer who has completed graduate work in classical studies. In civilian life, he works as a government lawyer in New York City.

At a recent media conference in Washington, D-C, Colonel Bogdanos described the efforts of his group. He reported how the thirteen members found missing artifacts in Baghdad and six other nations.

Colonel Bogdanos said the goal was not to punish people who stole the objects. Instead, he said his group wants mainly to recover the lost treasures. So the investigators operated on a policy of "no questions asked." This meant people who returned stolen objects would not be arrested.

Colonel Bogdanos praised religious and community leaders in Baghdad for spreading this message. A recent count showed that one-thousand-seven-hundred objects have been returned under the "no questions asked" policy. The colonel said many citizens in Baghdad also provided valuable information leading to missing objects.

The Americans said their hardest job was learning exactly what was missing. Museum employees had never recorded the presence of many artifacts in the huge collection. Some Iraqi experts say the employees purposely failed to do this. The experts said the employees meant to prevent Saddam's family and his Ba'ath party members from seizing valuable objects. Now Iraqi, American, British and Italian archeologists are trying to complete a list of which objects are in the museum and which are still missing.

Toward that goal, investigators have been sending photographs of the missing objects around the world. However, this effort has had many problems. Robbers had stolen or destroyed many of the photographs. Photos of other objects were of poor quality. Also, the museum had never photographed some of its artworks.

Still, many art communities and law-enforcement agencies have received photographs. If an artifact had no picture, investigators sent photos of similar artworks. Colonel Bogdanos said the goal was to make the objects as recognizable as possible.

The photographs have helped make searches successful at airports, security points and international borders. By last month, more than seven-hundred-fifty artifacts had been recovered this way.

Some artifacts from the National Museum of Antiquities have been missing far longer than a few months. Museum officials hid these objects more than twelve years ago, before the Persian Gulf War. For example, in nineteen-ninety, officials took a number of important objects to the Central Bank of Iraq in Baghdad. They included the golden head of a male cow.

They also included objects known as the Treasure of Nimrud. During the nineteen-eighties, archeologists had found these artifacts near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. They were found in royal burial places in what had been the ancient Assyrian capital of Nimrud. Boxes containing these artifacts had been placed in a lower-level area of the bank. However, the area became flooded.

This past summer, bank and museum officials watched as a National Geographic Society crew and American soldiers pumped out the water. When they opened the boxes, they found that the golden cow's head had been damaged. Then they opened boxes containing the Treasure of Nimrud. Those present held their breath as the treasures were lifted out. The gold, jewels and other artifacts were unharmed.

Workers at the museum also had hidden eight-thousand artifacts in a secret place before the most recent war. They had sworn on the Koran not to tell where that place was. Colonel Bogdanos and his group spent weeks talking to the museum workers in an effort to build trust. The workers finally shared their secret. The objects were discovered in good condition. The museum will show them again when security permits.

The Americans have carefully searched the huge National Museum of Antiquities. They found evidence of an Iraqi Army firing position in a storage room. They found many suspicious objects, including weapon parts and an unexploded bomb. They also found rocket weapons on the roofs of the museum library and the children's museum. The searchers discovered fifteen sets of Iraqi Army clothing in another museum building.

In a lower-level storage room, they discovered that almost three-thousand valuable small objects had been stolen. These artifacts were not yet ready to be shown to the public. Colonel Bogdanos believes the objects could not have been removed without a museum worker knowing they were there. He says a museum worker may have organized the theft or given information to other people. The colonel says some museum employees have left their jobs and cannot be found. Iraqi officials, however, say this theft was possible without help from museum workers.

Colonel Bogdanos now has returned to the United States. But he says only the first work of the investigation is complete. In Iraq, the search continues. Around the world, archeologists, art experts and law officers are helping to restore the museum's collections. Many people wait for the day when the National Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad can again show its treasures from the past.

This Special English program was written by Jerilyn Watson. It was produced by Mario Ritter. This is Steve Ember. And this is Phoebe Zimmermann. Join us again next week for Explorations on the Voice of America.

Voice of America Special English

Source: EXPLORATIONS – October 22, 2003: Iraqi Treasures Recovered
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