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Taking Stock in Baghdad April 15-July 11, 2003
by Mark Rose

Click here for the latest update.

April 15

Several days have passed since the catastrophic plundering of Iraq's National Museum of Antiquities. Amid a flood international condemnations and recriminations, facts remain elusive and efforts to salvage what remains are just beginning. Key questions are unanswered. For example, how many objects were in the museum and how many remain is not known. The number 170,000 appears in many reports; one account cites estimates that from ten to thirty percent of the collection is still there.

The museum's catalogue--the record of its holdings--is said in many accounts to have been "destroyed." A computer containing an electronic version of the catalogue is damaged, according to the Independent, but whether or not the data can be recovered is unknown. Photographs show some of the inventory cards for individual objects strewn about museum offices. Establishing as complete a record of the museum's holdings as possible will be a critical first step in trying to identify and recover the objects. If the catalogue in Baghdad is truly lost, then scholars will have the monumental task of trying to re-create it as best as can be done from records in foreign universities and museums. The Boston Globe and Times (London) report that scholars are providing the U.S. and U.K. governments with basic lists of the types of artifacts in the museum for use in the field by troops patrolling the borders of Iraq.

How the museum came to be left unprotected is unfathomable, and the U.S. has been sharply criticized for this. U.S. Brig. General Vincent Brooks told reporters at U.S. Central Command briefing on Tuesday, "I don't think anyone anticipated that the riches of Iraq would be looted by the people of Iraq." But the University of Chicago's McGuire Gibson is quoted in several accounts that the museum was number one on the list of sites needing protection that he discussed with officials at the departments of State and Defense prior to the war. Secretary of State Colin Powell has pledged that the U.S. will play a leading role in restoring the museum and in efforts to recover what has been stolen.

In a statement Monday, the U.S. State Department said Monday that people trafficking in the artifacts could be prosecuted under U.S. and Iraqi law. Some Baghdad residents are responding to senior Shi'a cleric Ayatollah Sistani's fatwa against looting by bringing stolen goods to mosques for return to their owners, but so far there are no reports that artifacts from the museum have been brought in.

International response to dealing with the situation is now under way. UNESCO chief Koichiro Matsuura has asked for cooperation in tracking down objects from the museum, while Reuters says that U.K. Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell has called for an international declaration that all stolen artifacts would be returned to Iraq, similar to a WWII-era declaration by allied forces about art from Nazi-occupied Europe. UNESCO is convening some 30 experts in Paris this Thursday to discuss how to proceed, with a follow-up meeting slated for April 29 at the British Museum. UNESCO and the British Museum have both announced their intention to send experts to Baghdad to assess the museum's needs, but they may not arrive for weeks.

The nature of the plundering itself is now being discussed. Much of the damage seems to have been done by Baghdad's poor, venting their anger or grabbing what might be sold for food, but CNN and other sources report that some looters may have been more discriminating, taking only objects that might fetch high prices on the art market and passing over some replicas on display. Glass cutters left behind at the scene are viewed as another indication of professionals at work alongside the mob. Some items from the museum are rumored to already be for sale in Paris.

Accounts of the museum plundering today include extensive coverage in the Boston Globe and in the Times (London) and New Zealand Herald. For more links, go to The 2003 Iraq War & Archaeology website.

April 16

Uncertainty continues today over what remains in the Baghdad museum, with reports now placing the number of stolen or destroyed artifacts at 40,000-50,000 and 100,00. In a New York Times article, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Collins says that the museum had been placed on a "no-target list" but that his office made no promise to protect it. "We leave such decisions to commanders on the scene," he said. CNN states that U.S. Army soldiers with tanks and humvees began guarding the museum Wednesday morning and provides more photographs of the interior of the museum (in a separate pop-up window). An article in the Telegraph from Monday notes that looters decapitated twenty-six statues in the museum; an accompanying photograph shows the debris, perhaps suggesting that destruction rather than theft motivated some of those involved. It also notes, as do other sources, that the steel doors of the museum's vaults (said to be "about one foot thick") were untouched, apparently having been opened rather than being forced, and mentions speculation that members of the regime may have removed some artifacts before the looting took place. (The article and photograph can be viewed after free registration). Artifacts from the museum are now rumored to be in Tehran as well as Paris (where UNESCO officials and Iraq experts from nongovernmental organizations meet tomorrow). The University of Chicago's Oriental Institute is developing a website with information about objects believed to have been stolen from the museum. We will post the link as soon as we receive it.

April 17

UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura addressed more than thirty experts gathered in Paris. He asked all countries to prohibit importation of cultural, archaeological, and bibliographical objects that have recently left Iraq; requested museums, dealers, and collectors not trade in such objects; and stated that he would request that the Secretary-General raise the matter in the Security Council with the goal of obtaining a resolution mandating return to Iraq of any such objects that have already left the country.

The participants in the UNESCO meeting agreed on six measures for immediate action:

  1. That all museums, libraries, archives, monuments and sites in Iraq be guarded and secured immediately by the forces in place
  2. That an immediate prohibition be placed on the export of all antiques, antiquities, works of art, books and archives from Iraq
  3. That an immediate ban be placed on the international trade in objects of Iraqi cultural heritage
  4. That a call be made for the voluntary and immediate return of cultural objects stolen or illicitly exported from Iraq
  5. That there be an immediate fact-finding mission under UNESCO coordination to assess the extent of damage and loss to cultural property in Iraq
  6. That there be the facilitation of international efforts in assisting cultural institutions in Iraq

"It looks as if part of the looting was a deliberate planned action," University of Chicago professor McGuire Gibson, at the Paris meeting, told BBC News. "They were able to take keys for vaults and were able to take out important Mesopotamian materials put in safes." Gibson is further quoted, by an Associated Press reporter: "I have a suspicion it was organized outside the country, in fact I'm pretty sure it was," to which he added that if a good police team was put together, "I think it could be cracked in no time." In another report, AP says that at a Department of Justice news conference today, FBI Director Robert Mueller said that agents from the bureau are now involved, with some apparently having been sent to Iraq to aid in investigations there.

In comments carried in The Wall Street Journal today, Donny George, director-general of restoration at the Iraqi Antiquities Department, said that the museum's most important treasures ("including the king's graves of Ur and the Assyrian bulls" according to the article) were hidden in vaults not violated by the looters; an Akkadian bronze statue of Basitqi and a sacral vase from Warqa are among the missing antiquities. "There was a tremendous amount of looting just for destruction purposes--and there were artifacts that were not destroyed at all," George is quoted (speaking on April 16). "It was not as bad as I thought it would be." By contrast, the BBC News story lists 80,000 cuneiform tablets as "presumed missing."

The Art Newspaper has scanned and posted images of 300 objects from the catalogue Treasures of the Iraq Museum (whether or not these objects have been looted is uncertain).

April 18

Three members of the President Bush's Cultural Property Advisory Committee have resigned over the looting of the museum in Baghdad, including chairman Martin E. Sullivan, who wrote in his letter of resignation that "The tragedy was not prevented, due to our nation's inaction." An Associated Press report says that today (4/18) on the television show "Good Morning America" Martin faulted planners and not the troops on the ground. (Additional information on the resignations can be found in two CNN reports).

Interpol today announced that it has formed a "special incident response team" of senior officers to deal with the cultural losses in Iraq. It will send team members to the region later this month and into Iraq as soon as can be arranged, and, in early May, will meet with UNESCO and concerned nongovernmantal organizations at its Lyons, France, headquarters to coordinate strategy. By my count, Interpol, the British Museum, and UNESCO all plan to send teams to Iraq, with an unspecified number of FBI agents already there (according to an article in today's New York Times, the agents number in the dozens).

An article in the Washington Post describes the cuneiform tablets at the museum, including the archive discovered in 1986 at Sippar, which may now be lost without having ever been studied. The Sydney Morning Herald recaps what we know (or strongly suspect) about the looting and looks toward the art market, as does another report on Yahoo! News.

Who is John W. Limbert, the man tapped by Colin Powell in his April 14 statement on safeguarding Iraqi antiquities and cultural property? Limbert's bio includes a Ph.D. from Harvard in History and Middle Eastern Studies, the Peace Corps, and fourteen months as a hostage in Iran.

April 19-21

The Associated Press is now reporting that, FBI Art Theft Program manager Lynne Chaffinch says U.S. Customs has intercepted "at an unspecified U.S. airport seized at lest one item believed stolen from a Baghdad museum." (Both the BBC and CNN have picked up the story but offer fewer details.) According to a Jordanian newspapers, customs officials there have seized forty-two paintings thought to have been stolen from the museum. The artworks were confiscated from journalists, while a "Western traveler" was caught with historic photographs of Saddam Hussein, also apparently taken from the museum. Meanwhile, some artifacts have been returned by people in Baghdad. But there's still no word on the condition of the central bank's vaults in which some of the museum's treasures were placed before the war began. Outside the capital, looters are said to have stripped bare the museum at Babylon.

The Observer reports that retired general Jay Garner--the head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), charged with helping to rebuild Iraq--is "livid" about the museum looting in Baghdad. It seems the museum was number two on his list of institutions to be specially guarded in the city, right after the central bank. The list was sent by ORHA to "senior U.S. generals" and noted looting of the museum could mean "irreparable loss of cultural treasures of enormous importance to all humanity."

The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago has begun building a website photographic library and database of the museum's collections.

National Public Radio's Weekend Edition for April 20 included an interview with John Malcolm Russell of the Masschusetts College of Art and with Neil Brodie of The Illicit Antiquities Research Centre, a report from Baghdad with comments from Iraqi museum official Donny George, and an editorial by NPR Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr. These are free as audio clips (transcripts can be purchased).

April 22

The US State Dept International Cultural Property website has begun posting information and links on an Iraqi Cutural Heritage page. German scholars have asked that "governments" find the money "to pay guards to secure whatever treasures remain in Iraqi museums." A New York Post op-ed article says scholars blaming the Americans for the looting in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq are misguided. Outside of Baghdad, the Mosul museum was ransacked while ancient remains and historic structures at Samarra were untouched.

April 23

Customs agents remain on the lookout for Iraqi artifacts. Items have reportedly been seized in London, Washington, and Boston, but we don't yet know what may have been recovered. A Fox News engineer has been charged with trying to smuggle into the U.S. paintings from Uday Hussein's palace and other unidentified objects looted from Baghdad. There are also reports that art dealers have gotten contacts suggesting access to some of the stolen items.

April 24

The Washington Post reports that some items are being returned to the Baghdad museum. One man says he decided during the looting to remove some objects himself for safekeeping, and he has now taken them back. Officials are also pleaded with thieves to return artifacts, announcing over loudspeakers that they can bring them in with no questions asked. An AP report indicates that this is indeed working, at least to some extent.

April 28

Institutions and governments continue to respond to the crisis. Scholars are meeting in London tomorrow, April 29, to discuss how to salvage what can still be saved. An Atlanta Journal Constitution gives a good overview of efforts so far, noting those of the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania, among others. In a letter to the Washington Post, AIA president Jane Waldbaum and DePaul University College of Law professor Patty Gerstenblith outline proposals already made by the AIA and call for cooperation among archaeologists, museums, private collectors, dealers, and auction houses. In Britain, two databases are being contemplated--one for stolen art generally and one specifically for stolen Iraqi art. Separately, a member of Parliament has called for legislation to close legal loopholes that might allow the sale of Iraqi antiquities in the U.K.

Some artifacts have been returned voluntarily, and some have been confiscated. Three boxes containing tablets and stauettes were returned to the museum by followers of Ahmed Chalabi, who said they intercepted them in Kut where an armed gang had taken them enroute to the Iranian border. Others, who say museum staff are too closely linked to Saddam Hussein's regime, are said to be holding on to 500 trunks of artifacts for now. Here's more on the (now former) FOX News employee indicted for smuggling 12 paintings he took from a palace belonging to Sadam's son, Uday. Apparently war-time journalistic pilfering is a longstanding custom. An amazing Los Angeles Times article links a reputed mistress of Saddam with the looting of sculptures from Hatra. One archaeologist says he reported the pillaging, only to find himself arrested and tortured. (Note: the article can be read for free, but you might have to register.) Still, by and large, the returned and confiscated artifacts are not the objects thought to have been selected by professional thieves early in the looting. And there is no news of the artifacts supposedly deposited in the central bank.

Commentary on the situation includes this statement by one of the soldiers now guarding the museum, as reported in the Times of London: "We were fighting the whole time. For four days we were taking machinegun-fire and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) from these buildings around here. They had a bunker around the back of the museum with a cache of RPGs. Guys were running out of that alley, firing Kalashnikovs at us." The Japan Times faults those who did not make protection of the museum a priority and suggests those who smashed many of the antiquities must have been "profoundly alienated...severed from their cultural roots." The Post-Gazette of Pittsburgh places the looting in the larger worldwide context of the illicit antiquities market."

April 29

Reports on the BBC website provide background for today's meeting of museum officials and others in London, some initial results of the meeting, and more on objects being returned in Baghdad. AP also has a story on the London gathering. Experts are to be sent to Iraq to assess the situation and the UN Security Council is to be asked to embargo all Iraqi cultural property. There will be an official UNESCO pronouncement tomorrow. Meanwhile, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has received U.S. Department of State (Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs) funding for a "red list" of Iraqi artifacts. ICOM says the list will provide an overview of the types of cultural objects that could have been looted in Iraq to help customs officials, police officers, art dealers, and collectors recognize them and will alert and raise awareness of professionals and the general public on the illicit traffic of Iraqi cultural property. ICOM already has red lists for Latin America and Africa on its website. Finally, for what it is worth, another BBC report claims that the tomb of Gilgamesh may have been found at Uruk.

April 30

More details from yesterday's meeting in London: an Inter Press Service News Agency Agency (IPSNA) report quotes Donny George of the Baghdad Museum as telling journalists, "The Americans are controlling the border check points but they are not controlling who is going out or what they are taking with them. On the other side in Jordan they are checking everyone thoroughly...they have caught a dozen people trying to smuggle looted treasures from Iraq's museums. I am very sorry to say that almost all of them have been journalists." In the same report, George says that museum insiders were not involved in the looting was not an inside job, but the Financial Times quotes him as saying, in the context of professional looters at the museum, that keys had been found there. The Guardian provides, along with the IPSNA story, the looting timeline from the perspective of George and his colleagues. Also in the Guardian, and in a Miami Herald article, is list of about 20 important pieces known to have been taken from the museum or damaged. According to the Miami Herald, assessing the damage will take time; many vaults have yet to be examined. Blame on the American soldiers for not protecting the museum, as well as for not sealing Iraq's border, is fairly thick these reports, but a letter to the editor in the Boston Globe asks if soldiers had moved in to guard the museum, were they supposed to shoot looters looters (and any well meaning Iraqi citizens who might have been taking objects to safeguard them)? An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education includes analysis of the looting by psychologist Will Cupchik, who sees long-term stress, unfair loss, and mob mentality as among its causes.

About other cultural institutions in Baghdad: the Wall Street Journal on Monday reported that citizens had saved six truckloads of books and other documents from the National Library, while the Guardian article mention above notes texts taken from the Saddam Hussein Manuscript Center are among the objects that have been returned.

May 1

More information about cultural sites in Baghdad and throughout Iraq is now available. Various reports, especially one by Alan Riding in the New York Times, easily viewed on the International Herald Tribune website, offer the following:

The National Museum in Baghdad: residents have returned hundreds of small objects (but some are in fact plaster casts and gift shop items) and soldiers from the Iraqi National Congress returned 465 small objects found in a case they confiscated. The museum's catalog, key to assessing what is missing and to tracking it, may not be a complete write off. Major General Buford Blount III of the 3rd Infantry Division says, "There's literally just...thousands of thousands of desk drawers and filing cabinets of files and pictures dumped on the floor." Blount's suggestion that only ten to 15 percent of the museum collection was stolen seems overly optimistic. Some areas apparently still have not been checked--the fate of the tens of thousands of cuneiform tablets is unclear--and many items were smashed rather than stolen. Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, who is investigating the looting told Alan Riding that "It has been a challenge to us that the Iraq museum is closely identified with both the prior regime and its Baathist party. Everyone says this looting was anger at the regime."

Libraries: the 40,000+ collection of Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and Kurdish manuscripts from the Saddam Manuscripts Library is safe; as reported earlier, a substantial portion of the National Library collection was also saved. Not so lucky were the 6,500 Islamic manuscripts in the Religious Endowment Library, which were apparently burned. The libraries of Baghdad University and the Science Academy were looted and burned.

Archaeological sites: according to initial reports, looting does not appear to have happened at site museums at Nimrud, Ashur, Hadra, Samarra, and Nineveh. Buildings at sites in Ashnuna, Baa-Kuba, Najaf, Kirkuk, and Mosul were looted, but the extent is unknown. The museum in Mosul, as reported before, appears to have been hard hit. A quick-thinking Baghdad and Chicago based businessman says he was able to enlist the help of a local tribal leader to protect the site of Kish, near Babylon, with $300 and the promise of an assault rifle.

Stemming the flow: Objects confiscated by Jordan's customs officers will be kept by that country's Department of Archaeology until security is restored in Iraq. So far the Jordanians have intercepted intercepted seven statues, numerous old manuscripts an books, and assorted cultural and historical objects. Archaeologist John Russell described how the illicit trade in Iraq developed after the Gulf War to CBS audiences last night. ("Archaeologists are liars," commented a New York based dealer in the same program. Here's a brief report on the UNESCO Director General's request for an international embargo.

May 2

An article by Neal Ascherson in today's Guardian has several interesting quotes from Donny George. About the pillaging of the museum by local people: "I don't make excuses but, you know, after 30 years of a regime like that, pressure builds up on people. Most of them were not educated, and to them the museum was just one more government building. They didn't just take antiquities but 95% of the office furniture, all computers, most of the cameras. My office was two feet deep in papers; my desk was broken into three pieces and I found my chair 100 yards away." More detail about how the professionals looted: "We found glass-cutters and sets of keys. They got into the storerooms by a back route, through two steel doors and a brick wall. They clearly had a detailed plan of the building." And on the effectiveness of the call by imams for the return of objects: "It worked! I got my computer printer back, and a good number of the Nimrud ivories, some of them gilded."

The Times of London contributes to the discussion a rambling editorial that scolds the U.S. and Great Britain, noting that in the Second World War, "Museums were looted, but by soldiers who respected what they were looting." More interesting and more thought provoking is the range of viewpoints expressed in letters to the Times. The writers ask if Saddam's regime had done enough to protect the museums and archives (noting Soviet efforts to do this in the Second World War), suggest that the documents of Saddam's regime are in themselves in need of protection as historical records, and wonder if anybody at the April 29 London meeting at the British Museum rudely asked how that institution obtained its Mesopotamian treasures. One letter comments on the lack of protection afforded the museum using a quote from the Brief Lives, written by antiquarian and tell-all John Aubrey (1626-1697): "Thomas, Lord Fairfax of Cameron, Lord General of the Parliament Army: when Oxford was surrendered (June 24, 1646) the first thing General Fairfax did was to set a good guard of soldiers to preserve the Bodleian Library.... He was a lover of learning, and had he not taken this special care, that noble library had been utterly destroyed."

A companion piece to yesterday's New York Times report is now available on the International Herald Tribune website, which doesn't require registration. The article focuses on the illicit trade, looting after the Gulf War, and implications for today.

May 5

Martin Bailey of the Art Newspaper recaps last week's London meeting with information from Iraqi curator Donny George, who said that only about 100 objects, too heavy or too fragile to move, had been left in the public galleries and that most of them had been looted but that some large stone reliefs were relatively unharmed; although it will take months to check, it may be that only a small proportion of the 170,000 objects in the museum's vaults were looted; and the central bank vault was buried in rubble and its contents--including gold jewelry recently found at Nimrud, coins, and other artifacts--are expected to be safe within it. This article and the next add new details to accounts of fighting at the museum. Originally from the Chicago Tribune, this report also downplayed the devastation of the museum's collection, quoting Marine Colonel Matthew Bogdanos as saying, "There is no comparison in the level of destruction seen in the museum and that seen in the administrative offices. It's absolute wanton destruction in the offices. We didn't see anywhere near that destruction in the museum. [People] stole what they could use.... They left the antiquities." A Knight-Ridder article includes comments reflecting Iraqi distrust of the museum personnel. And here's a look at Babylon today, with notes on Saddam's version of the site, looting of one of the regime's palaces there, and more suggestions that the Iraqi people closely identified the archaeological establishment with the recently departed government.

In case the reports from Baghdad are making people too optimistic, this article from the New York Times affords a reality check: no organized effort to intercept stolen antiquities at checkpoints within Iraq, no way to protect sites in the countryside, and a well-developed looting and smuggling network. (This site requires registration; the article may appear on the International Herald Tribune website in the next day or so.) Meanwhile, Jordan is said to have stationed antiquities experts along the Iraqi border to aid in identifying and intercepting looted artifacts

Two resource pages with links to statements by nongovernmental organizations, online articles, museums with collections from Iraq, etc. , are available on the websites of H-MUSEUM (a moderated mailing list for museum professionals) and the International Council of Museums. The Interpol meeting on Iraqi cultural heritage now underway in Lyon, France, is closed to the media, but there will be an address and limited interview opportunity tomorrow, so look for coverage then.

May 6

In his opening statement for the Interpol meeting of art experts and law enforcement officials in Lyon, France, the assistant director-general of UNESCO, Mounir Bouchenaki, reveiwed the international response so far and reminded attendees that archaeological sites are still at risk, "we are going to concentrate on what has happened in the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad, in the Mosul Museum, but also we should be careful about what is probably happening in the archaeological sites of Iraq like Hatra, like Ur, Assur, etc." The Baghdad museum's registeries are intact, simplifying the compilation of a database of objects--key to establishing what has been taken and recovering it--although that is a still a massive undertaking. Mounir said that UNESCO has taken the lead in coordinating various institutions in establishing a database and acknowledged a Swiss offer of 250,000 francs (about $190,000) for the project. It is, however, unclear what this database will look like, who is to compile it, and what its relationship will be to the Oriental Institute's existing online catalogue or the International Council of Museum's "red list" being developed with some of the $2 million the United States has pledged to protect and restore sites and museums in Iraq. Ronald K. Noble, Interpol's secretary general, told attendees that, "the aim of this week's meeting is to define a comprehensive international strategy for identifying cultural treasures looted from Baghdad and returning them to their rightful homes." He described how Interpol works and what it has done so far, noting that, "It is important that traders in stolen works of art or antiquity never be able to sleep comfortably thinking that Interpol has forgotten. Interpol never forgets, and Interpol will devote whatever time it takes to help recover stolen works of art and antiquity." U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft also addressed the Interpol meeting. According to an AP report, Ashcroft said, "From the evidence that has emerged, there is a strong case to be made that the looting and theft of the artifacts were perpetrated by organized criminal groups--criminals who knew precisely what they were looking for.... Although the criminals who committed the theft may have transported the objects beyond Iraq's borders, they should know that they have not escaped the reach of justice." The same report notes comments by John Edward Curtis of the British Museum, who has just visited Baghdad, and said that the fate of 100,000 to 200,000 antiquities in storage, as well as an unknown number of small items museum officials removed for safekeeping before the war, is uncertain. This suggests that the low figures in recent reports from Baghdad, saying only 30 to 40 antiquities were missing from the museum in fact refer only to the pieces that were still in the exhibition halls. Ashcroft's full statement has been posted to Interpol's website. His comments follow on last evening's announcement that the United States has prepared a U.N. Security Council resolution asking countries to be on the alert for Iraqi antiquities, forbid their importation, and return any found to the museum. This Reuters report says that the measure will probably be introduced this week; a possible fly in the ointment is that it could be attached to a larger and contentious resolution on the lifting of sanctions against Iraq. Jonathan Foreman, a New York Post correspondent in Baghdad, has challenged the claim that U.S. troops guarded the oil ministry while allowing the looting of the museum. Here is his article, "Bad Reporting in Baghdad" (carried in The Weekly Standard).

May 7-8

Both CNN and BBC are carrying stories touting the recoveries of some 40,000 manuscripts and 700 objects. It isn't clear, however, if these totals are recoveries made by U.S. military and law enforcement personnel, volunteer returns by local Baghdad residents, or materials secured from looting by imams. The CNN account says the recoveries leave "perhaps only a few dozen key pieces missing." This statement, before any systematic inventory of the museum has begun, is at least misleading. Wednesday's AP report is a better account of the situation at the museum. Trevor Watkins, professor of Near Eastern Prehistory at the University of Edinburgh, editorializes in part on the lowered estimates of losses in a lengthy letter to The Scotsman. An archive of older stories about the destruction of art and museums in Iraq has been established at Arts and there is now an online summary of what is known, or not, about the fate of libraries and archives in Baghdad, Mosul, Basra, and elsewhere in Iraq. Armed looters have struck at Nineveh and Nimrud, according to a Chicago Tribune article (free, but registration required).

May 9

This is from an Associated Press report: "In Baghdad, exactly a month after U.S. troops hauled down Saddam's statue, civilian U.S. officials said Friday they had located the main vaults of the central bank, obtained some keys and combinations and sent Iraqi investigators inside. The vaults apparently escaped the looting and pillage that swept Baghdad after Saddam's regime fell, U.S. Treasury Department officials said at a briefing. They said the safes contain U.S. dollars, Iraqi dinars, gold and items from the museum put there for safekeeping. They also were flooded. 'We went down and waded in the water,' said George Mullinax, a Treasury official who is serving as senior adviser to the central bank. It was not clear where the water came from."

Links to various statements, stories, and websites, etc. can be found in the Iraqi Cultural Heritage Crisis section of the The American Association of Museums' website. Final recommendations from the May 5-6 Interpol meeting can be downloaded as a pdf file readable with Adobe Acrobat. Interpol has also posted images of objects missing from the museum.

Reporters questioned Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Lieutenant General William Wallace, commander during the battle for Baghdad, about the looting of the museum. Here's the latest news from Babylon.

Congressmen Phil English (R-Pennsylvania) and James A. Leach (R-Iowa) have introduced the The Iraq Cultural Heritage Protection Act (HR 2009), legislation intended to provide for the recovery, restitution, and protection of the cultural heritage of Iraq. The bill is supported by both the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society for American Archaeology. The full text can be seen on the legislative information section of Library of Congress website. Simply search for it as HR 2009.

May 12

A Times (London) article recounts an extraordinary protest by Baghdad museum employees this past Saturday: "Fifty museum employees staged a protest in which they waved placards under the noses of American investigators proclaiming that Jabir Khalil, chairman of the Iraqi state board of heritage and antiquities, was a 'dictator' and a 'thief.'" The same story quotes Donny George: "Looters went into the storerooms, to a specific area, and removed small items of high value. It shows a certain knowledge." But George, who said that how the thieves broke in has yet to be determined, did not accuse colleagues of complicity. An article in the Los Angeles Times on Saturday, and in today's Boston Globe, quotes Col. Matthew Bogdanos, head of the U.S. team investigating the looting, as commenting last week that, "In the most remote corner of the most remote building, they went after 90 boxes of the most easily transported items. This theft ring had an intimate knowledge of the museum and its storage practices." Here's more about Bogdanos, "infantryman, scholar, amateur boxer and one-time waiter at his father's Greek restaurant." Meanwhile, Jordanian officials continue to intercept cultural objects, including museum antiquities, at the border. has a good article about cuneiform tablets and online auction sites, where "the artifacts of the ancient Sumerian world--some of the earliest examples of human writing--are being sold off like so many mass-produced Tinkerbell tchotchkes. And these tidbits of the past are shockingly inexpensive: for less than a 1960s Donald Duck pinwheel from the Mickey Mouse Club, history plunderers can purchase their very own treasure."

May 13-14

Scant news out of Iraq on the cultural heritage front the past two days. A Boston Globe report yesterday has more information about the protection of the National Library collection by Mohammad al-Jawad al-Tamimi, which was first reported in the Wall Street Journal on April 28. Meanwhile, Japan's foreign and education ministers, along with UNESCO goodwill ambassador Ikuo Hirayama, have called upon individuals and institutions in that country to cooperate in international efforts to locate, preserve, and restore Iraqi antiquities that have been looted, according to The Japan Times. U.K. Culture Minister Kim Howells says the British government is backing a bill to close the door on trading in Iraqi antiquities. Currently they could be traded in Britain with legal impunity. In the U.S., the Archaeological Institute of America is one of several scholarly societies and research centers that have banded together to form the American Coordinating Committee for Iraqi Cultural Heritage. The committee, says the Boston Globe, will coordinate activities and fund-raising, represent American scholarly expertise to government and nongovernmental agencies, facilitate cooperation with European [and Japanese, we may assume] and international organizations responding to the crisis in Iraq.

May 15

Katsuhiko Onuma, director of the Kokushikan University's Institute for Cultural Studies of Ancient Iraq until this March, writes in the Asahi Shimbun that, "What is required of the United States and Britain, which started the war, is to urgently restore order. They are urged to confiscate stolen items with the support of international society without delay and make a positive effort to return them to Baghdad. We researchers must also reconfirm that cultural heritage belonging to all people is not something that serves the private pleasure of individuals or institutions that own it. Nor should it be sold and bought for money. I believe it is our duty to continue to strive to impart to the public that it is an irreplaceable asset that helps us shed light on the history of humankind." Daniel Potts, a University of Sydney archaeologist, is heading to Baghdad with a load of equipment--computer, scanner, digital camera, archiving software, etc.--with which to start modernizing and restoring the museum's records. Legislative update: the Iraqi Cultural Heritage Act (H.R. 2009) now has 36 co-sponsors. The Baghdad Museum Project website has the text of H.R. 2009 and a form that allows you to send an email message supporting the legislation directly to your representative, should you desire to do so.

May 16

A 78-year-old Italian diplomat, Piero Cordone, has been designated director of the cultural affairs department of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, the office responsible for finding and restoring Iraq's looted antiquities. Giuseppe Proietti, director-general for archaeology in Italy's Culture Ministry will be acting as his senior aid. Here are solutions to the looting of cultural artifacts in Iraq proposed by a panel of eight archaeological experts who met at the J. Paul Getty Museum on Tuesday. The International Cultural Property Protection page of the U.S. State Department website has established the Iraq Cultural Property Image Collection: "The database of images illustrates a selection of objects from the Iraq National Museum and other museums, archaeological sites or locations in Iraq. The images presented here are intended to be used as examples only. This is not a definitive inventory list nor is it a list of stolen artifacts. Rather, it is a preliminary listing of some of the types of items with respect to which there is a high probability that they have been illegally removed from Iraqi locations. The looting and destruction in Iraqi museums and other cultural institutions, as well as other factors, does not yet allow for a full accounting of what is missing and what is still present. Omission of a piece from this website will not be construed or provide any support for the notion that it is legal to possess or sell the piece."

May 17-19

A press conference by Col. Bogdanos and comments by scholars in Iraq with UNESCO shed light on the museum situation and dangers facing sites outside Baghdad. Accounts of information presented by Col. Bogdanos were carried by several newspapers; here's Pauline Jelinek's AP report from USA Today. Key facts and figures: 951 pieces have been recovered; the staff had placed more than 7,000 objects, including the Nimrud treasure, into two vaults at the central bank; roughly 40,000 "ancient books, manuscripts and scrolls" had been moved to a bomb shelter in western Baghdad; small pieces from the public galleries had been taken to the restoration room, storage rooms, or a secret location that has been used by the staff since 1990 (of some 450 cases in the exhibition area, only 28 were broken into); of the large pieces left in the galleries, 42 were taken, but nine have been recovered. Having had a first-hand look at the museum in Baghdad, McGuire Gibson of the Oriental Institute told Chicago Tribune correspondent Tom Hundley, "We have dodged a bullet" and "Through some luck and some real preparations by the museum staff, we have saved a lot." (Registration may be required to access this story.) An AP report today has further comments by Gibson, as well as by John Russell of the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. Gibson on the museum: "The losses are not as great as we thought they would be. It's not a catastrophe, but it's still very, very serious." Russell on the museum: "It's only by comparison with the most dire initial reports that said everything was gone that it seems not so bad. Yes, not everything is gone, but major things are." Gibson does confirm that an important black basalt stela from Uruk that shows a king hunting lions was not taken, as originally feared. Concerning the looting of sites in the countryside, Mounir Bouchnaki, assistant director-general of UNESCO, asked that U.S. and U.K. forces do more to protect them. Gibson: "We know of many more sites, mostly in the south and isolated areas, that are being systematically looted by 80 men, 100 men, and 300 men per day and the material is going out of the country at an increasing rate" and "I have seen with my own eyes new digging on sites that were never touched before." According to Gibson, coalition forces are protecting several important archaeological sites, including Nimrud and Kish. A brief story in The Observer says that unidentified aid workers claim to have seen American soldiers commit acts of vandalism at Uruk, adjacent to which a large military base is being built.

May 20

A short summary, little more than an agenda, of the UNESCO team's work in Baghdad has been posted. Hopefully a report detailing the findings and recommendations of the experts will be made public before too long. A transcript of Col. Bogdanos' press conference and question-and-answer session last Friday is also now available online. It has a considerable amount of information, but is limited to the Bahdad museum only.

May 22

The United Nations Security Council has passed resolution 1483. Section 7 of the resolution reads: "Decides that all Member States shall take appropriate steps to facilitate the safe return to Iraqi institutions, of Iraqi cultural property and other items of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific, and religious importance illegally removed from the Iraq National Museum, the National Library, and other locations in Iraq since the adoption of resolution 661 (1990) of 2 August 1990, including by establishing a prohibition on trade in or transfer of such items and items with respect to which reasonable suspicion exists that they have been illegally removed, and calls upon the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, Interpol, and other international organizations, as appropriate, to assist in the implementation of this paragraph...." The full text of the resolution can be seen on the UN website or on the website of the Times Leader.

Ironically, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think-tank, has just called for UNESCO to be excluded from a lead role in recovering antiquities from the Baghdad museum. At the same time, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals is protesting that the "coalition administration in Iraq has refused a visa to Jean-Marie Arnoult, Inspecteur-Generale at the Bilbliotheque Nationale de France and the sole librarian member of the UNESCO mission to Iraq, apparently on grounds of his French nationality."

Who is to blame, and for what? The Economist wades into the politics of the situation. Of more interest, perhaps, are comments in a Daily Telegraph article about the exaggerated losses in intial reports that quotes the museum's research director, Donny George: "There was a mistake. Someone asked us what is the number of pieces in the whole collection. We said over 170,000, and they took that as the number lost. Reporters came in and saw empty shelves and reached the conclusion that all was gone. But before the war we evacuated all of the small pieces and emptied the show cases except for fragile or heavy material that was difficult to move."

Harvard experts are cautious about estimating the losses from the Baghdad museum, but fine arts professor Irene Winter believes several thousand are still unaccounted for, and Islamic art and architecture specialist Andras Riedlmayer points out the need to make pay and security for Iraqi library and museums staff a priority. The situation outside Baghdad may be very bad. Dan Potts of the department of archaeology at the University of Sydney reports from Iraq, in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, that: "Well, that situation is really dire. With the breakdown of the police service and the complete, sort of, shattering of the antiquities department with its regional offices and regional museums, there is no control in the countryside, and I don't think the American forces are interested in protecting archaeological sites at a time when they are trying to restore law and order in the big cities and make sure that looting stops at places like oil field and universities. There are reports now, definitely confirmed reports I've heard, that a whole group of sites, and this is just one instance, a whole group of sites south of Nasiriyah, centring on the Sumerian city of Umma are being systematically looted by a gang of over 300 men who are digging while they are guarded by about 40 men with Kalashnikovs. That's going on as we speak. And they're apparently driving away truckloads of antiquities and cuneiform tablets and, you know, that's... there has been looting of sites and illicit excavations ever since the Gulf War, but I don't think there's been anything like this, on this scale, because there's just a complete breakdown of law and order now."

May 23

A front-page story in today's New York Times tells of looting at the site of Isin. Reporter Edmund Andrews went there with archaeologist Susanne Osthoff, a member of the German team that excavated the site. Here are excerpts from the story:

"...about 150 young men armed with shovels, knives and sometimes semiautomatic weapons have been digging from dawn to dusk and extracting ancient relics almost hourly."

"On the outskirts of the site, people furtively offered to sell sculptures and ancient cuneiform tablets. A man in his 40's displayed what resembled a large oval ornament that was entirely covered in lines of cuneiform writing. 'Five thousand dollars,' he demanded."

"'We believe that every major site in southern Iraq is in danger,' said Donny George, director of research at Iraq's State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, which oversees all archaeological excavations in Iraq. 'We used to have guards there,' he added. 'But now they are either pushed away by the looters or they are working with thieves themselves in one way or another.'"

"Ms. Osthoff, who returned to Iraq shortly before American forces overthrew the government of Mr. Hussein, was alerted by local villagers who were horrified by the destruction at Isin. Protected by old friends, Ms. Osthoff waded into the mob of heavily-armed diggers four days ago and then escorted two journalists to the site again on Wednesday. 'They are poor people, and they are desperate to make some money," she said today. "But they do not understand what they are doing.'"

"'Every person who puts his hands on these things is bad,' said Abdulsadiq al-Abed, a 68-year-old Bedouin who worked with German and French excavation groups for 25 years.... A small and wiry man who moves slowly these days, he looked brokenhearted and ashamed at the plundering underway. 'If I tell them not to do that, they will shoot me,' he said. 'We have no government to watch them and no police to stop them.'"

The full account is on the New York Times website, which requires registration, but is free. The same story may appear on the International Herald Tribune website in a day or so; that site does not require registration.

British Museum director Neil MacGregor, who was in Baghdad on May 17-18 as part of the UNESCO mission, discussed losses and current conditions at the museum with Martin Bailey of The Art Newspaper. The report also talks about administrative problems that may hinder reconstruction of the museum and resuscitation of an antiquties service, and indicates that the UNESCO team's ability to gather information on museums and sites outside of Baghdad was greatly restricted.

The Oriental Institute's Lost Treasures From Iraq website has been updated. Have a look.

May 27

A report by Tina Susman in Newsday provdes more information, from U.S. Customs special agent Steve Mocsary, about artifacts from the Baghdad museum that are believed to be in an unopened vault at the central bank. Some of the "treasures" in the vault may have been placed there more than a decade ago, during the Iran-Iraq war. "We're pretty confident they're there, because over the course of this investigation, other artifacts we have found have been where we were told they would be," Mocsary said. "What we're finding is the majority of the more precious pieces were not looted." The bank's flooded cellar is being pumped dry, but when the vault may be opened and whether or not water got into it are unknown. A preliminary estimate by Unesco, reported in the International Herald Tribune, is that 2,000-3,000 objects may be missing from the Baghdad museum, the 2 million volumes of in the National Library are "reduced to piles of ashes, " and 1,500 modern paintings and sculptures are missing from the fine arts museum. "This is a real cultural disaster," said Mounir Bouchenaki, UNESCO's assistant director general for culture. The UNESCO team that visited Baghdad is likely to have its report, a damage assessment and recommendations, ready later this week. "It's happening at almost every site," Tofiq Abed Muhammad, director of antiquities for the province of Samawa told Edmund L. Andrews in this New York Times article. "They are smart. They take the antiquities that they know have value, and they know how to get them out of the country." The report shows the basic problem outside of Baghdad: too many sites, not enough troops. Muhammad said to Andrews that he told Lt. Col. Daniel O'Donahue, commanding officer at a nearby Marine base, that "we needed American soldiers at checkpoints, in combination with Iraqi guards." Colonel O'Donohue told Andrews, "We don't have anywhere near enough marines to police every fixed site in the country."

May 28

In today's New York Times, reporter Edmund L. Andrews continues his coverage of looting outside Baghdad, here traveling in the company of archaeologist and journalist Joanne Farchakh (see her account of pre-war preparations in the Baghdad museum from our May/June issue). "These are just a sample of what I have," Khalil, a dealer who remained otherwise anonymous, told Andrews. "I have more than a thousand tablets. I have big statues made of stone. Just tell me what you want, and I can show it to you.... We can take the goods to either Syria or Jordan ourselves, and you can pick them up there." "There is a campaign to play down the damage to Iraq's antiquities," claims Jaber Khalil, head of Iraq's antiquities department (and no relation to Andrew's looter of similar name), in an AFP report carried in the Times. Here's more about denial of a visa for of the Bibliotheque National de France's Jean-Marie Arnoult, who was slated to be part of the UNESCO team assessing the losses in Baghdad. The Oriental Institute's Iraq Museum Working Group concerning the Looting and Destruction of Iraq's Museums, Libraries, and Archaeological Sites has just posted a formal statement about the situation in Iraq.

May 29

A reporter from The News Tribune of Tacoma, Washington, describes Ninveh today: "the site is in complete disrepair, having been looted after the first gulf war. Corrugated metal roofing sheets are all gone, exposing what's left of the sculpted stone wall sections to the elements. Some sections appear to have been broken up and pieces removed." There is apparently little evidence of any recent looting. Photographs showing "Endangered Iraqi Objects"--the main categories of artifacts which may be stolen from Iraqi museums and sites and illicitly trafficked--have been posted on the Interpol website. (Note: this is not the set of images titled "Cultural Property Stolen Iraqi Art" that was posted there some time ago.) This Los Angeles Times article from two days ago describes UCLA professor Robert Englund's Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, an attempt to digitize and archive cuneiform tablets from collections around the globe. Stephen Tinney, director of the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary Project is quoted as saying the digital library is "arguably the most important project in our field" and "What happened in the Iraq museum is really an object lesson in why it is important." Edmund L. Andrews' May 26 report from Iraq, published in yesterday's New York Times, has now been posted on the International Herald Tribune website.

June 2

The Electronic Cultural Atlas of Iraq? It is a three-month pilot project with the goal "to record information about Mesopotamian history and heritage, archaeological sites and art objects, and recovery initiatives around the world." There's an article describing it in the Los Angeles Times and more information about it on the ECAI website. The National Geographic Society has posted an assortment of photographs of objects from the Baghdad museum; these images were taken back in 1989. Links on the site to coverage by another photographer--who "lived in and photographed Baghdad before, during, and after the invasion"--don't seem to be working right now. Pietro Cordone, the Italian diplomat and Middle East affairs specialist taken on by the coalition to oversee cultural heritage in Iraq, has optimistic observations in an interview with the United Arab Emirates' Gulf News. Cordone says he hopes to re-create the management of the ministry of culture in a couple of weeks (he needs to find a new ministry building, as well). According to Cordone,"the army has appointed forces to protect, round the clock, all the main museums and sites.... In addition, in the remote areas, on-the-spot investigations are conducted constantly by using helicopters." Foreign archaeologists could be back at work this September. Perhaps they can focus on cleaning up after looters and organizing salvage work in advance of the construction entailed in rebuilding the country. Meanwhile, in Kabul the Afghan government, with financial support from Germany, is buying old books from impoversihed citizens to restock its looted National Archives.

June 3

The central bank vaults have been drained and the "four sodden crates and a metal box" containing the Nimrud treasure are still sealed according to this report by Eric Rich of The Hartford Courant. At least one would-be looter was apparently killed when he fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the vault door from close range. The bank's deputy governor Ahmed Muhammad made a rather cryptic remark about others who in the past had tried to remove the treasure using documents that purportedly authorized the removal. Muhammmad didn't name those people, but said "Leave the dead dead." The National Geographic Society has another account of the vault inspection. Links on that site to coverage by a photographer who lived in Baghdad before, during, and after the invasion are working now. An article in the Independent goes over the looting of sites, but has more emotion and less content than Edmund L. Andrews' New York Times reports, plus you have to pay for the full text.

June 4

High-tech to the rescue? Irving Finkel, assistant keeper in the department of the ancient Near East at the British Museum, describes a 3-D laser scanner ("It's a bit like a photocopier but a million times more powerful") that can be used to make exact copies of cuneiform tablets ("You have to imagine that you have a block of cheese. You turn on the machine and the laser cuts out this cheese in three dimensions"). The Oriental Institute's "Lost Treasures From Iraq" website now has photographs of 129 more objects, all of them ivories from Nimrud. Coalition culture honcho Piero Cordone pledges to reopen the Baghdad museum within four months, telling AFP that, "Even if it's just two rooms, my goal is to open it by September to highlight the resumption of cultural activity in the country."

New on the ARCHAEOLOGY website are correspondent Roger Atwood's report from Mosul, commentary on war and looting by Neil Brodie of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre, an interview with McGuire Gibson of the Oriental Institute, and AIA president Jane Waldbaum's column from our forthcoming July/August issue. Coverage of the Iraq cultural heritage crisis on the ARCHAEOLOGY website has been reorganized; all current (including the daily news summary) and archived stories now link off the "Protecting Iraq's Ancient Heritage" page which can be reached directly or via the site's home page.

June 5

Rory McCarthy, writing in The Guardian, describes difficulties and real dangers in rebuilding Iraq's ministry of culture. According to McCarthy, the coalition's point man for cultural heritage, Piero Cordone, estimates that up to 3,500 pieces were stolen from the museum, of which 1,200 have been recovered. In a Boston Phoenix article, Dan Kennedy examines media coverage and political spin in the wildly jumping claims for the number of missing or destroyed objects at the Baghdad museum in early reports. An interview with Francesco Bandarin, director of UNESCO's World Heritage Center, is currently posted here under the heading "Education, Science, and Culture." Bandarin discusses U.S. participation in UNESCO heritage efforts, Iraq, and dangers to cultural heritage sites worldwide. Where is the threat greastest? "Well, of course the ones that are in the war zones are completely under threat and in many cases also being destroyed. So, I would say if you can pinpoint the four or five critical war zones in the world--Congo, Iraq, Holy Land in Palestinian territories, Israel, Afghanistan, maybe also some local areas of conflict in the Indian subcontinent--they're dangerous for world heritage." Also of interest: the search is on for cuneiform tablets with ancient climate data and the faint echo of Agatha Christie's typewriter is still heard at Nimrud. Please note: our next update will be on Monday, June 9.

June 9

Many stories about the finding of the Nimrud treasure at the central bank are on line. This one from AP on Sunday summarizes figures released by U.S. Customs Service and State Department investigators, noting that 8,000 of the museum's most important artifacts are now confirmed secure in another vault (location undisclosed) and about 3,000, including 47 from the main exhibition area, are missing. That last number has now been revised downward to 33 according to the museum's Donny George, who says the museum will reopen next month with an exhibition featuring the Nimrud treasure. A two-day meeting is being held in Rome to discuss how to track down the objects that are gone. This article in The Observer has bits from an interview with an architectural historian who is featured on a BBC documentary about the museum looting: the collection was preserved through implementation of a plan dating to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s with five secure rooms in the museum, the central bank vault, and bunkers around Baghdad; the opening of at least one secure room with a key remains unsolved; and Saddaqm's son Uday and senior Baath party members "are known to have made millions from the international trade in antiquities." Patrick Healey of the Boston Globe studies the cultural divide between American soldiers ("Now we're being asked to be these people's best friends. And guard their antiquities, even as Iraqis themselves steal them") asked to protect archaeological sites and their Iraqi counterparts ("Americans don't know the value of our rocks and paper...I'm guarding the scrolls with my walking stick, but at least I am guarding them").

June 10

Iraqi archaeologists are facing a credibility gap. In "Lost from the Baghdad museum: truth," an article in today's edition of The Guardian, reporter David Aaronovitch comments on early claims of complete devastation of the Baghdad museum, what we now know, and the BBC2 production featuring architectural historian Dan Cruikshank. It takes a very negative view of some museum staff members. Cruikshank's own articles about his trip to Iraq last November--"The Lost Palaces of Iraq" ("to have a look at what 25 years of war and political isolation had done to the culture of the country. I wanted to investigate its ancient sites, buildings and museums, to discover what had been damaged or destroyed through war and neglect, and to chart what was under threat if military action were to take place")--and in the middle of this past April--"Return to Baghdad" ("to discover what had happened to the country's museums and archaeological sites during the recent war--and to discuss events with Iraqis I had met during my visit to the country during November last year")--can be read on the BBC website. The questioning of the museum staff continues on tonight's ABC News program "Nightline," which also revisits the looting of the Baghdad museum: "the truth behind this story is somewhat different. It turns out that almost all of the pieces are safe. They were hidden away by the museum staff for safekeeping.... They were hidden in a vault that was then flooded to protect it from looters. But the bottom line here? The museum staff apparently lied, in part to discredit the American troops." (The show's website will list links to related stories tomorrow, plus a link so you can order a transcript for an exorbitant $14.95.)

June 11

More dismal news from the countryside: "Far more material than what has been reported missing from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad is being ripped from the ground and leaving the country.... Extraordinary damage is being wreaked on this irreplaceable archaeological record," Henry Wright.

June 12

The 5,200-year-old sacred Vase of Warka and other artifacts were returned to the Baghdad museum Thursday by "three Iraqis in a car." The Coalition Provisional Authority's head cultural official Pietro Cordone was present at the time and thanked the trio personally.

British archaeologists are defending their Iraqi colleagues, whose motives were questioned by reporter David Aaronovitch in the June 10 edition of The Guardian. In letters to the editor, they say, "Our high opinion of the character of Dr George and his colleagues has been formed over two decades of working with them throughout an era of extraordinarily difficult circumstances--from the Iran-Iraq war to the few months leading up to the most recent conflict. George deserves the world's praise, not its condemnation, for saving so many of Iraq's treasures, and strong practical support in restoring the museum to functionality."

More reports from the survey of sites in Iraq are online now. "Over 200 men were seen digging at each of three separate sites, says McGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago.... Northern sites such as the former Assyrian capitals of Nineveh and Nimrud were guarded suffered only minor vandalism and a handful of holes dug in search of gold and other valuable artifacts. But Gibson found serious damage at 10 of the 13 southern sites he visited by helicopter." "'There are things we will never learn'" because of the thefts, said team member Tony J. Wilkinson, an archaeologist at the University of Chicago. "'Evidence is being ripped from the ground just as you tear pages from a history book.'"

The International Council of Museums has officially released its Emergency Red List of Iraqi Antiquities at Risk. The Red List describes "types of object especially at risk or likely to have been stolen from Iraq." As part of the international effort to halt the trade in looted Iraqi cultural objects, the Red List is aimed at helping customs and other law enforcement officiers, as well as dealers, identify artifacts that may be stolen (under Iraqi law all artifacts in the ground, not just those in museums, are property of the state). U.S. State Department funding has made this list possible; Arabic and French versions will be released shortly. Photographs of a further 100 objects--Neo-Assyrian ivories from Nimrud--are now available on the Oriental Institute's Lost Treasures From Iraq website.

June 13-16

This from a strongly worded opinion column carried in the Miami Herald and other newspapers last Friday: "Because George and the other museum officials who wept on camera were Baath Party appointees, and the media, Western and Arab, desperate to highlight the dark side of the liberation of Iraq, bought their deceptions without an ounce of skepticism.... It played on front pages everywhere and allowed for some deeply satisfying antiwar preening. For example, a couple of nonentities on a panel no one had ever heard of [the President's Cultural Property Advisory Committee] received major media play for their ostentatious resignations over the cultural rape of Baghdad." In fact, reports from Baghdad now say that the museum's collection of seals was robbed, and that the low-ball figure of 2,000 to 3,000 missing items is certainly wrong, the estimated loss being more likely in the 6,000 to 10,000 range. Furthermore, although the Warka Vase has been returned--as reported in the Art Newspaper and the Washington Post--it was badly damaged as this photograph on the Oriental Institute's Lost Treasures frm Iraq website shows. Then there's the looting in the countryside, for which see the listing of sites in this Art Newspaper article. (Please note: this update covers several days in part because of a disruption in our internet & web access.)

June 17

According to a report in the Guardian, over two-thirds of the 185 staff of Iraq's state board of antiquities, which runs the Baghdad museum, have signed a petition demanding its directors resign. The staffers reportedly say that some thefts from the museum were inside jobs and that the board's head of research, Donny George, armed them and ordered them to fight U.S. forces. George denied these claims, though he admits arming the staff and instructing to defend the museum against looters. The article notes that a coalition spokesperson said that George's Baath party membership had been investigated and he had been cleared, and that "All other allegations are just hearsay." John Malcolm Russell discusses reactions to the discovery that much of the Baghdad museum's collections are safe contrary to initial reports of complete devastation in a Washington Post article. "Most people I know share my relief that so much of the collection survived, yet many also feel that their noble instincts were manipulated not only to produce shock and grief at a loss of such unprecedented magnitude but also to provoke rage at the cultural callousness of the United States in failing to prevent this predictable tragedy. I can sympathize with those who feel conned. So why did the museum staff apparently make such exaggerated claims? I don't know. Recent news reports have suggested that perhaps the first reporters on the scene, confronted with an empty museum, inquired about the total number of registered objects and reported that figure as the loss, or that the museum's senior staff, outraged by the lack of protection, produced this figure in anger to embarrass the Americans. I may never know the answer." Russell points out that the reports of exaggerated lossesdid bring pressure on the coalition forces to secure the building (if that hadn't happened, the storerooms might have been thoroughly plundered). He believes that a complete inventory of the collections will take many months and characterizes estimates placing the number of missing objects at about 3,000 as "wildly optimistic" and "pure guesswork." Russell sees recent reports minimizing the losses "as a backlash against the early exaggerated figure. Instead of everything being lost, now it's almost nothing. This couldn't come at a worse time. The United States should be acting forcefully to prohibit the import and sale of the looted objects here. Instead I see half-measures. The recent U.S.-sponsored U.N. Security Council resolution ending sanctions against Iraq contains a strong prohibition against trafficking in looted Iraqi antiquities. This is an important statement, but it does not carry the weight of U.S. law. It's more like advice. What would make it U.S. law is draft legislation that is being debated in the House as H.R. 2009. Its goal is to eliminate the trafficking of the looted Iraqi antiquities in this country. And yet organizations representing antiquities and coin dealers, which publicly support a trafficking ban, are reportedly lobbying privately against the legislation." That is a real danger when coupled with the looting in the countryside, says Russell. "If we were outraged by what we thought was the looting of Iraqi heritage, we should still be, because it is happening still and on a phenomenal scale. We must not allow those who would profit from the backlash to capitalize on it by arguing that the smaller number of losses isn't that bad. It's bad enough." The looting in the countryside is summarized in an article in today's New York Newsday.

June 18

The acting director of the Baghdad museum says the Warka Vase can be repaired, but he also supposedly put the number of missing objects at only 1,000 (the reporter quotes McGuire Gibson's more reliable estimate: "6,000 items--and growing"). Oxford scholar Eleanor Robson gives an assessment of the situation in Baghdad, not restricted to the museum (after all, there are 12 milion books presumed lost when the National Library burned to the ground), and tries to explains some the various personal and political currents that are contributing to a charged atmosphere there. Switzerland's House of Representatives has approved legislation that brings the country's laws into line with the 1970 Unesco Convention. The time span for reclaiming stolen goods will be extended to 30 years (currently it is only five years) and limits indemnification of good faith purchasers to only the amount they paid for an object. For those convicted of trafficking in artworks, the legislation provides for fines up to $153,000 and jail time of up to two years.

June 19

Architectural historian Dan Cruickshank, whose BBC documentary on the Baghdad museum provoked some archaeologists to come to the defense of their Iraqi colleagues, responds to critics in today's Guardian . A Toronto Star reporter discusses the media coverage of Iraq--from the rescue of Private Lynch to unraveling what happened at the Baghdad museum.

June 20

Senate Committee on Finance chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and ranking Democratic member Senator Max Baucus (D-Montanna) have introduced The Emergency Protection for Iraqi Cultural Antiquities Act of 2003 (EPIC Antiquities Act). It extends the president's powers under the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CCPIA), allowing for an immediate emergency import ban. This extension would terminate one year after normal relations were established and the Iraqi government could then decide whether or not to seek a bilateral agreement with the United States under CCPIA. A pdf version of a press release about the act is available online; the text of the bill has apparently not been published yet. Grassley: "I don't want to get rid of the established process for protecting cultural antiquities, but this bill permits an extra guarantee of protection for Iraq's cultural antiquities in the short term while Iraq completes its transition. The last thing we in Congress want to do is fail to act to prevent trade in looted Iraqi artifacts here in the United States." Baucus: "This common sense legislation will help to protect the history and heritage of Iraq and is a good step toward ensuring that Iraq's cultural artifacts will remain in Iraq for generations to come. It's important that the U.S. continue to help the Iraqi people rebuild their economy and we can do that by encouraging trade between our two countries--while making sure that none of Iraq's historical and cultural artifacts are included in that trade illegally." For its part, the United Kingdom has had in effect, since June 14, Statutory Instrument 2003 No. 1519 The Iraq (United Nations Sanctions) Order 2003. ("Now, therefore, Her Majesty, in exercise of the powers conferred on Her by section 1 of the United Nations Act 1946, is pleased, by and with the advice of Her Privy Council, to order, and it is hereby ordered, as follows.") Section 8 prohibits importation or exportation of any item of illegally removed Iraqi cultural property.

June 26

On the museum front, a report from says that three Iraqis have been arrested trying to sell 28 artifacts from the Baghdad museum to Iranian smugglers. The report also notes an Iranian asylum seeker's uncomfirmed claim that a further 300 objects from the museum are in a village on the border. In ARTnews, correspondent Roger Atwood presents his findings about just what happened at the museum based on interviews of local residents, museum officials, U.S. troops accused of failing to protect the museum, and U.S. personnel involved in investigating the looting. Piotr Michalowski, a professor of ancient Near Eastern civilizations at the University of Michigan cautions against understating museum losses and discusses the devastating looting in the countryside in this History News Network commentary. For those interested in the numbers, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article gives the following as missing: the 32 pieces from the exhibition gallery and, according to NYU's Selma al-Radi, nearly 5,000 cylinder seals. Al-Radi says that more than 4,000 objects, some believed from the museum, have been siezed at the Jordanian border, while more than 2,300 have been returned by Iraqis in Baghdad. Meanwhile, unable to secure them, American troops at Saddam Hussein's main palace are destroying some of the dictator's favorite vintage autos.

And the libraries? According to the Oriental Institute's McGuire Gibson, the Iraq Museum Library is intact. The most important volumes had been placed in an underground bunker along with the almost 40,000 manuscripts from the Saddam Library and the rest of the collection was secured within its shelving at the museum. For an overall account of the Iraqi libraries, see "The Fate of Iraqi Libraries: What Has Happened & What Can Be Done" by Edouard Méténier of the Institut Francais du Proche-Orient-Damas, Université de Provence. he Glasgow Sunday Herald reports that a Scottish initiative to re-supply libraries in Iraq has netted some 15,000 volumes so far from university, academic, and reference publishers.

June 27

The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) has released a comparison of House Bill H.R. 2009 and Senate Bill S. 1291, both regarding the protection of Iraqi archaeological and cultural material. The AIA concludes that the Senate bill is much weaker than the House bill and would afford insufficient protections. Based on its concerns, the AIA is endorsing only the House bill and has called for public support of H.R. 2009, while suggesting that the Senate should consider a bill that "tracks" H.R. 2009 rather than S. 1291 as it is currently written. The comparison of the bills is presented in full here.

July 3

The Nimrud gold, along with the Warka Vase, was exhibited to journalists and diplomats for a few hours today. For background on the exhibition, see this Los Angeles Times report. Images of the objects displayed can be seen in the BBC News account. In this story, a Baghdad hotel owner relates how he bought and returned 157 looted objects to the museum. Here's a preliminary assessment of the National Library (the full report is due out by July 10): The library's building is unusable and a temporary home for the collection is being arranged. Thirty to sixty percent of the collection is safe, in three locations: a wing of the library whose steel door was welded shut by members of the Haq Mosque's Hawza Group, some 300,000 volumes taken by that group to its mosque for safekeeping, and a secure site in which library staff had placed "rare/forbidden" books. But no archival materials from the Ottoman period could be located.

July 7

The National Museum in Baghdad has become a symbol, a focal point for many people, good and evil, trying to send messages. Pietro Cordone, the Italian diplomat who is in charge of Iraqi culture for the Coalition, told The Independent that the display of the Nimrud Treasure on July 3 was "to show that things are getting back to normal." In the same article, two American archaeologists railed against the exhibit: "I think it is an act of propaganda," said Professor Elizabeth Stone, a specialist in Iraqi archaeology at New York State University. "It is to show that nothing really happened to the museum. No curator in the world would allow this sort of exhibition unless ordered to do so." Paul Zimansky, professor of archaeology at Boston University, said dismissively: "This is a kind of stunt." Hours later, Pfc. Edward Herrgott of Shakopee, Minnesota, a 20-year-old American soldier guarding the museum was shot and killed. Two days later, Richard Wild, a 24-year-old British journalist, was shot nearby.

July 8

From the BBC: "Dr. Nawalaal Mutawalli told a press conference at the British Museum in London that some 13,000 objects had gone missing from the Baghdad institution's storage room in the days following the fall of Saddam Hussein." Mutawalli is also cited in the Guardian as saying that 13,000 objects are missing or destroyed, including 5,000 cylinder seals. Allegations of complicity of museum staff in the thefts are dismissed by the British Museum's John Curtis, and some of the staffers themselves explain some of their actions that might have been misconstrued. Of the looting in the countryside, Elizabeth Stone says, "I think you've got to kill some people to stop this. The looters are armed and they are going to shoot people. This is a major problem."

The website of SAFE (Saving Antiquities For Everyone) has been re-launched. SAFE is a nonprofit volunteer organization with the goal of addressing the "ongoing worldwide problem of vandals and looters robbing us of our collective heritage." The site has information about the organization and its projects and an extensive list of links to other cultural heritage websites. Another useful website is Government Views of Iraq, with links to statements and press releases on Iraq by various U.S. government agencies, the UN and UNESCO, and Interpol, and to some other resources (like Gertrude Bell's photographs). This one is produced by the Cohen Library of The City College of New York.

July 11

According to the U.S. military, U.S. soldiers have seized artifacts from a suspected smuggler and recovered 12 pieces stolen from a Baghdad museum. Reuters reports that the artifacts were "wrapped in towels in a rice bag." Weapons, a large amount of cash, and communications equipment were also seized. Middle East Online reports on looting at Nippur: "At night, I hear the thieves," says Abbas Karmod, the site guard for the team from the University of Chicago that had conducted digs here periodically since 1980. "We have no weapons," he says, while "the looters are well organised."

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America