Focus on Iraq: Where Civilization Began
Volume 56 Number 4, July/August 2003
McGuire Gibson, an authority on Mesopotamian archaeology at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, talked to ARCHAEOLOGY in early May about his work in Iraq, the sacking of the Baghdad museum, and the global importance of the region's cultural history.
In your meeting with Department of Defense officials on January 24, what did you tell them about protecting Iraq's heritage and what did they say to you?
We pointed out the importance of Mesopotamia. It's not just a desert. Iraq is not just a desert. It's the place where civilization began, it's the longest surviving continuous tradition of civilization in the world, it's earlier than Egypt, it's earlier than any place else. And that it is the foundation of all ideas of civilization, for Western civilization as well as Eastern. And that we trace our own cultural roots back to Mesopotamia.
We also talked about the great number of sites in Iraq, that every hill in southern Iraq is artificial, there are no natural hills, these are ancient sites, 99 percent would be ancient sites. That there's very great danger in war that sites would be disturbed and destroyed, especially if armies dig-in on the high points, which these would be. And I told them we could supply them with the exact coordinates of several thousand sites. I was able to deliver, I think it was the next day, a list of 4,000 sites. We later sent another 1,000. I know they put those into their computers, into their mapping systems. And I know they made an effort not to destroy sites. They had a special list of 150 sites on a "do not target" list that included all the famous sites one would think of and a lot of others. I came away from that meeting and subsequent email messages with various people in the military that they were aware of ancient sites, they were aware of the importance of the museum. In fact, I made the point the museum was the single most important archaeological location in the country, and they said we are aware of it and it would be heavily safeguarded and it won't be targeted. My understanding was they were going to take it and safeguard it.
Obviously that didn't happen. Where did things break down?
I think it had to do with the fact that they just had too few troops on the ground, and the commander of the troops in Baghdad has said that. They just didn't have the people to do it.
When will we know what's happened to all of the museum's small objects, like its tens of thousands of cuneiform tablets?
Well, first of all the Iraqi's need the manpower on the ground, and they have limited numbers of people in the department. And conservators from all over the world are telling them don't sweep the stuff up the until we get there. They've asked people to come in and help, and so they're hesitating to move anything. So they won't be able to do the assessment for three or four weeks; it depends how fast the conservators get there.
Do we know what's happened outside Baghdad?
We know that for the past 13 years that sites have been very badly butchered, illegally excavated by people just looking for objects they can smuggle out of the country and sell on the international antiquities market. Antiquities have been flowing out by the thousands, probably thousands a month. I'm sure the illegal digging didn't stop when the war was going on and I will bet you that its going on even as we speak. Last week we heard looters were using front-end loaders, doing tremendous damage to the sites. There is no control in the country.
Can the international community halt the trade of antiquities and other cultural objects looted during war?
They could stop it if they wanted. Every once in a while they do stop something, but the problem, at least in the U.S., is that it is so hard to get through the legal process of reclaiming these objects. It has taken more than a year to reclaim one object that was spotted in an auction catalogue, with numerous emails back and forth between the U.S. and the Iraqi Department of Antiquities to get details on whether this artifact was on display in the Kirkuk Museum before the date on which Kirkuk Museum was looted. The Iraqi's had to produce documents showing it had been sent to Kirkuk Museum and was in such and such a case at Kirkuk. This is the kind of thing you have to go through. The U.S. does keep to the regulations, it's just that getting them enforced is the question. But there should be a worldwide ban on the trade in antiquities from Iraq right now. Even if there was a stated U.S. policy, made very public, it wouldn't stop this trade, but it would put a real chill on it. I'm hoping we'll get the ban and that law enforcement will enforce it, but whether it will I don't know because many of the people who collect and exhibit this material are extraordinarily powerful people, with lots of connections in Washington, lots of connections in London, and various places. And its a little hard to know.
Do you see any good coming out of this?
We'll I'm hoping if nothing else it will bring to the [public's] attention that antiquities are not just a commodity but a part of global heritage, and should not be used as something to enhance your reputation, as something to enhance your little collection, or to enhance your reputation by giving it to a museum at some point. If major museums in this country would stop showing material on loan from the collection of various people, it might put a damper on the trade also. If there weren't that social cachet, if there weren't that legitimizing of stolen objects and the eventual donation or selling of them for a great deal more money because they've been on display and therefore have picked up value. If museums would stop cooperating in that venture it might just put a damper on collecting and on the illegal trade.
But will this still be in the public's mind in six months?
I think the public won't forget because, as the museum goes through its holdings and does this very careful inventory of what it has and then finds out what it doesn't have, I think that more and more objects will be added to that list of things which are definitely known to be gone. And every time you add to that list, especially when very important, very well-known objects go onto that list it will be news. And that will go on for at least another year.
In the long run we're hoping that out of this will come some exhibitions abroad, which for one thing will keep awareness [high]. I'm hoping we'll get to have a show here. We were supposed to get a show in 1994 of treasures from the Iraq Museum, which was supposed to open at National Gallery and go to three other venues in the country. And the war put a stop to that. We were planning it in 1990, we had a group of people over in 1990 in Iraq choosing the objects. This would have been the first show from Iraq ever in the United States. It had been shown in Japan and Europe, fairly often in Europe, but it had never come to the United States. And I'm hoping we can get a show of objects from Iraq fairly soon--I don't think its going to stabilize for another couple years yet--but maybe in three or four years there will be a fairly big show coming, I hope, and that will keep public awareness.
What has working with Iraqi colleagues been like over the years?
I like them very much. I like their sense of humor. They have a tremendous sense of humor. It's what kept them alive over the last 25 years. And, you know, I've been dealing with them since 1964 and we've gone through some very very rough periods when there were no relations between the U.S. and Iraq and things could have been very tense, but I've never had anything but cooperation and help from them.
What was Iraq's antiquities department like?
Well the Iraqis have been sending people out to be trained, to get advanced degrees since the 1930s. Some of the very first people to get Ph.D.s actually did it here in this building, the Oriental Institute in Chicago, where I'm sitting, and they went back.... All through the 1960s and 1970s they were sending out dozens of people to get advanced degrees. So that are, there were in Iraq, before the first Gulf War there were something like 20 or 25 Ph.D.s in archaeology and related subjects, in Iraq and many of those were in the Department of Antiquities. Many of these people are top-flight; they match up with anybody in the field. The archaeologists would, one or two of them, would match up [at] any place and get a job any place in the world. Some are not as strong but they do in fact carry on very, very good fieldwork. One of the problems that they have is that its been very difficult for them to publish as much as they should because they also have routine work to do in the museum and they don't really get the time to actually sit down and get it on paper; a few of them still do. And one of the things we would hope to do in this new era is to bring these people out and give them a chance to have some time off so they could in fact put a lot of this on paper.
What shape is the department in today? Can it revitalize itself?
The thefts in the museum...these meetings we were having with UNESCO [on April 17] and the British Museum [on April 29] were called before the thefts actually took place, before the raiding of the museum. And we were having those meetings thinking okay now what do we do, how do we help the Iraqis to get back on track, because throughout the period of the embargo, the last 13 years, they've been very badly affected. I mean, there's been very little money in the country, archaeology had taken a back seat. They finally got some money to do some rescue work in the late 1990s, but like everything else, people were being let go and the entire department of antiquities, which had been the best in the Middle East, became a weak department with many many fewer people. And they lost some of their best people who went off to teach in neighboring countries, down in Yemen, in Libya, the Gulf, various places or even in England, even the U.S. They left because they just couldn't make a living staying in Iraq, they couldn't feed their families. But, you know, we're hoping some of these [people] will go back and become the core of the new department of antiquities. The department which used to have 2,600 people working for it had gone down to something like a few hundred if that, and that includes all the guards. And the destruction in the museum is going to throw everything, even our own thinking about what is going to go on. We've got to deal with this real crisis and try to put the museum and the department of antiquities back together, its not just the museum its also the department, the department which is the administrative wing that oversees the museum and all other museums. Its records were tossed around and thrown around; and at least they weren't burned, that's lucky, but its going to take them months to put that all back together and then decide how it runs. They're going to have to restructure themselves they've got to get new staff, they're going to try to bring themselves back to the 2,600 level, in fact I think they have to go higher than that because of the amount of work to be done.
You were familiar with the museum from the day it opened in 1967. What was it like?
There were very large halls with magnificent displays. They were all done chronologically, and its one spectacular piece after another. You went through the halls, period after period, you saw the Ur treasures, then you saw the Akkadian material with the bust or the head of the king, Sargon or Naramsin, and you got beyond that to Hammurabi. Finally, when you came into the Assyrian halls you saw the wonderful ivories that had been found down a well in the royal palace at Nimrud.
What are some of museum's most important objects?
The Uruk treasures from 3500-3000 B.C., including the basalt lion hunt stela. It's the one piece that really tells the story of the beginning of kingship, the beginning of the state. This is a scene in which a man wearing a turban and a long skirt is fighting lions, in one part with a spear in another with a bow and arrow. And this theme of a hero or a king fighting lions is absolutely central to Mesopotamian iconography and it lasts as a symbol of kingship from this point all the way through the fall of Babylon to the Persians in the sixth century. That's an extraordinary central theme. Another is the king as someone who takes part in ritual. This is what is happening on the Uruk vase where the king is presenting a whole set of gifts to the temple of the city goddess Inanna. Kings support temples with gifts and they bring back booty from warfare and present it to temples, because temples in many ways act as a social safety net, taking on the widows and orphans, and also it gives legitimacy to their regime. This vase is now missing.
© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America