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Protecting Iraq's Ancient Heritage 1996-2009

Our ongoing coverage of the cultural heritage crisis in Iraq includes a news summary, an exclusive online feature from Mosul, expert commentary from Neil Brodie and McGuire Gibson, and Archaeological Institute of America past president Jane Waldbaum's perspective and report on the latest efforts by the AIA. See the AIA website for more on Iraqi cultural heritage and legislative initiatives.

Journey to Iraq (From the President, July/August 2009)
Good news from Baghdad and beyond

Seized Artifacts Back In Iraq (From the Trenches, July/August 2008)
The government of Syria has returned 701 artifacts to the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad.

Iraq Updates (May 5, 2008)
Five years after the ransacking of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad in April 2003, scholars and law enforcement officials are still assessing the damage from the theft as well as the ongoing plundering of sites. AIA President C. Brian Rose recently led a roundtable discussion about the situation for Salon.com. A transcript and audio file of the roundtable, "Robbing the cradle of civilization, five years later," can be accessed on the Salon.com website. Meanwhile, on April 27, Syrian authorities handed over more than 700 Iraqi artifacts seized from smugglers, and Iraqi officials are discussing the return of more objects seized by Jordanian authorities.

Iraq's Heritage Critically Endangered (online feature, August 28, 2006)
The fate of Iraq's antiquities became front page news again with the August 26 publication of a story on The Art Newspaper website titled "Iraq's top cultural official resigns." The report states that Donny George, president of Iraq's State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, resigned August 7 and fled the country soon after, taking refuge at least temporarily in Damascus, Syria.

All Eyes on Iraq (Review, November/December 2005)
In a batch of new books, a number of authors who care deeply about the fate of Iraq's archaeological heritage offer a variety of avenues to better understand the history of the region and war's impact on it.

Tell it to the Marines... (From the President, November/December 2005)
During the past year the Archaeological Institute of America has begun an innovative program to help educate troops soon to be sent abroad. The program sends experienced lecturers to military bases to teach the basics of Middle Eastern archaeology and the importance of protecting the evidence of past cultures.

The Casualties of War: The Truth about the Iraq Museum (American Journal of Archaeology article, July 2005)
As Baghdad was falling to coalition forces in April 2003, the international media reported that the Iraq Museum had been ransacked and more than 170,000 of the finest antiquities from the very cradle of civilization had been stolen while U.S. forces stood idle. The list of missing objects read like a "who's who" of Near Eastern archaeology, and the world reacted with shock and outrage. In response, the United States dispatched to the museum a highly specialized multiagency task force that had been conducting counterterrorism operations in southern Iraq at the time of the looting. Their mission was to determine what had happened at the museum and to recover whatever antiquities they could. Among several startling discoveries were that the museum compound had been turned into a military fighting position and that the initial reports that over 170,000 priceless antiquities had been stolen were wrong. Although final inventories will take years to complete, the best current estimate is that approximately 14,000-15,000 pieces were initially stolen. The investigation determined that there had been not one but three thefts at the museum by three distinct groups: professionals who stole several dozen of the most prized treasures, random looters who stole more than 3,000 excavation-site pieces, and insiders who stole almost 11,000 cylinder seals and pieces of jewelry. Click here to open a printable pdf file of the full story from the American Journal of Archaeology.

Taking Stock in Baghdad (online newsbrief, April 15-July 11, 2003)
A summary of news about cultural heritage in Iraq with links to coverage worldwide.

Legislating Protection for Iraqi Heritage (online feature, June 26, 2003)
A comparison of House and Senate legislation to protect archaeological and cultural heritage in Iraq finds H.R. 2009 more comprehensive than its counterpart S. 1291, says the Archaeological Institute of America.

In the North of Iraq: Mosul's Museum, Hatra, and Nimrud (online feature, June 4, 2003)
Correspondent Roger Atwood reports that the largest single loss at the museum in Mosul was of 30 bronze panels that once decorated a gate leading into the Assyrian city of Balawat. The future of sites outside the city is uncertain. "The guards [at Hatra] are armed but they're afraid to kill because if they do, then it's going to put their family in jeopardy of being killed...there's also a pay issue. There's just not much motivation for them to protect the site."

Spoils of War (feature, July/August 2003)
Neil Brodie, coordinator of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, writes: "In the days following the sack of Baghdad's museums, the first question asked was: Why had coalition war planners and military commanders not done more to stop it from happening? Looking to the events of April 2003, and beyond, another and more fundamental question is: Why has no concerted international action been taken to block the trade and sale of material looted from archaeological sites and cultural institutions during wartime? The simple answer seems to be that the political will just hasn't been there."

Where Civilization Began (interview, 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.

Iraq's Plundered Past (From the President, July/August 2003)
In response to the recent looting of Iraqi museums and other cultural institutions, the AIA has formed a Task Force on the Cultural Heritage of Iraq, chaired by AIA President Jane Waldbaum. Updates on the Task Force's efforts will be posted on the AIA's website. 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.

A Conversation with Matthew F. Bogdanos (interview, October 16, 2003)
ARCHAEOLOGY talks to the lead investigator of the Baghdad museum looting

As a second war in Iraq became more and more likely toward the end of 2002 and in the first months of 2003, ARCHAEOLOGY followed developments, including efforts by the AIA to minimize the destruction of cultural heritage.

In the Shadow of War (From the President, January/February 2003)
With the threat of war looming once more, Nancy Wilkie, then AIA president, expressed the institute's concern for the region's cultural heritage, reaffirming the AIA's 1992 resolution, which urges all governments honor the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, usually known as the Hague Convention.

The Specter of War (special report, May/June 2003)
Archaeologist and journalist Joanne Farchakh's account of preparations at the Baghdad Museum to protect the collections and concerns of Iraqi archaeologists: "In case of an American offensive, the looting of sites will be infinitely more aggressive than in 1991."

Iraq Alert! (From the President, May/June 2003)
As the outbreak of war seemed imminent, the AIA's Executive Committee unanimously endorsed an Open Declaration on Cultural Heritage at Risk in Iraq: The extraordinary significance of the monuments, museums, and archaeological sites of Iraq (ancient Mesopotamia) imposes an obligation on all peoples and governments to protect them. In any military conflict that heritage is put at risk, and it appears now to be in grave danger....

War & Heritage: Is Iraq Being Protected? (newsbrief, March 27, 2003)
A last assessment of the situation as the conflict began.

Many sites and local museums in Iraq were left unprotected and were looted following the 1991 Gulf War. In response, the AIA passed a Resolution Regarding War and the Destruction of Antiquities in 1992. ARCHAEOLOGY covered the plundering of antiquities and their marketing in a series of reports from 1996 to 2000.

Assyrian Wall-Reliefs for Sale (newsbrief, November/December 1996)
Three 2,700-year-old wall-reliefs from the throne-room suite of the Assyrian king Sennacherib's palace at Nineveh, Iraq, appear on the antiquities market.

Stolen Stones (online feature, December 30, 1996)
Archaeologist John Malcolm Russell presents an extensive dossier on the looting and marketing of Assyrian reliefs that he had photographed in the throne room suite at Nineveh in 1990.

More Nineveh Fragments for Sale (newsbrief, March/April 1997)
Nine fragments from reliefs at the Sennacherib Palace Site Museum at Nineveh in northern Iraq surface on the antiquities market.

Nimrud Reliefs For Sale (newsbrief, November/December 1997)
The stream of reliefs looted from Assyrian sites in Iraq continues to flow westward.

Good News from Iraq (newsbrief, July/August 2000)
The Iraq Museum in Baghdad, one of the Middle East's most important museums, reopens its doors after being closed for a decade. On display are artifacts recovered from looted sites.

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© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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