A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Picking up the pieces in Baghdad
The international media have played an important role in raising public awareness about the looting of the National Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad. Unfortunately, much of the initial coverage focused on the sheer quantity of plundered or damaged artifacts, or on the few best known and most "valuable" objects. The stories created the misleading impression that the looting was significant simply because so many objects were missing, or that the chief interest of such pieces as the missing Warka Head or the ivories from Nimrud resides solely in their beauty or the fabulous prices that they might bring on the art market. Later stories--reporting the good news that the number of stolen objects was fewer than first estimated, and that some items had been voluntarily returned--unfortunately encouraged the public to relax their heightened sense of concern. In fact, it will take many more months, perhaps years, before an accurate count of precisely what is missing can be made or for vandalized artifacts to be restored. Similarly, when lists of the ten or twenty "most valuable missing treasures" are published, one loses sight of the thousands of less glamorous and less easily recognized artifacts that record for us, through writing or archaeological context, their place in the day-to-day life of the citizens of ancient Mesopotamia.
As archaeologists we deplore the destruction of context as much as we mourn the loss of the objects themselves. Objects that turn up individually on the antiquities market or on Internet auction sites or that find their way to a collector's shelf have become orphans. Stripped of all their associations--the other items of material culture with which they were found, and the records describing these associations--they have lost much of their cultural and historical meaning. This is the real tragedy of the looting of Iraq's museums.
The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) is among many national and international archaeological and cultural heritage groups working to alleviate the situation. As president of the Institute, I have appointed a task force of members with both archaeological and legal expertise to determine how we can make a real difference. So far, we have established a list of experts--in the fields of Mesopotamian and Islamic archaeology, art history, numismatics, epigraphy, and other specialties, as well as in conservation of artifacts and sites--who stand ready to help in the identification and repair of plundered and damaged cultural materials. We are also working together with government and nongovernmental organizations, law-enforcement agencies, and others to ensure that stolen Iraqi cultural material cannot be marketed in this country or others. The AIA, together with the Society for American Archaeology, has taken the lead in promoting the passage of new legislation, the Iraq Cultural Heritage Protection Act, prohibiting the importation into the United States of all archaeological and cultural materials that have left Iraq since August 1990, when large-scale plundering and smuggling first impacted Iraq's cultural heritage. Work on all these fronts will be long, painstaking, and unglamorous since it is always easier to destroy than to build.
Jane C. Waldbaum is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.