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The looting of Baghdad

The looting in Baghdad following the fall of Iraq has been a recurring topic [1] in the news for the last few years. It is interesting, not least because it brings home to people the reality of many acquisitions from archaeological sites, which is probably far closer to the truth than the image of an English gentleman picking up a few select items for their country residence. Certainly, the latter happened – but in many cases it was preceded by the former more brutal style of acquisition.

Peter Stone and Joanne Farchakh have written a new book on the subject which is reviewed in The Times.

Also, I thought it worthwhile at this point though to mention a book by one of the key people involved in trying to unravel the current situation – Matthew Bogdanos who I met in Athens in March has been largely responsible for leading recovery efforts, first on the ground in Iraq & now from within the US as he tackles the international art trafficking networks head on. His book is available in paperback soon.

The Times [2]

From The Times
May 9, 2008
The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq by Peter Stone and Joanne Farchakh
Reviewed by Mary Beard
Bajjaly Boydell, £50; 352pp

THE TWO MOST FAMOUS words ever spoken by Donald Rumsfeld – “Stuff happens” – were given in response to persistent questioning in April, 2003 about the looting of Baghdad, including the National Museum. Rumsfeld did not have a clue what had happened to the 5,000-year-old Wark Vase, or the thousands of other antiquities that had been systematically lifted; nor did he much care.

The contributors to this moving volume care a great deal about the treasures of Iraq, from the ancient civilisation of Mesopotamia to the manuscripts and archives in the National Library. The truth is that they know little more than Rumsfeld did. It is still disputed who masterminded the museum robberies: Saddam loyalists, international antiquities dealers, local criminals or rogue elements on the museum’s own staff? And how implicated were the Coalition forces in disposing of this material?

There are occasional bright spots in this terrible story of the destruction of Iraq’s museums and archaeology – the Wark vase was returned to the museum, along with other stolen objects. For a few months at least, a brave team of five Italian carabinieri plus helicopter, codenamed Viper 5, did manage to protect the archaeological sites around Nasiriyah.

The intervention of the British Museum and others eventually pressured the Pentagon to guard the National Museum more effectively. In retrospect, the British themselves were lucky: Basra Museum contained comparatively little to write home about.

But overall the picture is bleak. The fate of Iraq’s cultural treasures was already set when sanctions were imposed in 1991. Many of the Iraqi poor found that a tidy profit could be made from illegal digging and selling on the antiquities. And the no-fly zone meant that the Government could not send helicopters to police the sites in the desert.

Unsurprisingly, when the war began, none of the Coalition members had a plan for the cultural treasures. The result was the destruction of thousands of archaeological sites. Precious ivories were trampled underfoot on the museum floor. Whole libraries were set on fire.

Some of the archaeologists in the volume are perhaps over-optimistic about what is feasible in a combat zone. As an antidote, an excellent article by Matthew Bogdanos, who has served with the military in Iraq, gives a hardheaded strategic assessment of just how difficult it was to protect the museum. It’s not just a question of sending a tank.

Wars always threaten cultural treasures. In the Second World War, the Allies gave Pompeii its worst pounding since the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79 and pulverised the abbey at Monte Cassino. German raids targeted Bath and Exeter. In truth, Hague Convention or not, a Unesco Blue Shield or Baedeker three stars is more likely to draw, rather than deflect, enemy fire.