Letter from Baghdad

9 mins read

For the last four months, my life has been dominated by Baghdad and the Iraq crisis. I have been out there twice, once for a week and once for a fortnight, but much of my intervening time has been taken up by the crisis.

It all really began on April 15th when we had a big press conference here at the British Museum to launch our celebrations for the Museum’s 250th anniversary. However, this was only a week after the sudden collapse of the former regime and only three days after the news had broken in the west that the Baghdad museum had been looted. Thus, inevitably, the whole press conference was hijacked by the Iraq crisis. At the end of the press conference, Channel 4 News arranged a satellite phone link between me and Donny George which was broadcast here and all round the world.

Donny George is an old friend. He is the Director of Research in the Iraq Department of Antiquities, speaks very good English and has a natural talent for being a spokesperson. This was the first contact there had been with somebody in the Iraqi museums and he was able to tell us on the telephone of the scale of the crisis. It was immediately determined that I would go out as soon as possible – which I did.

Neil MacGregor, the British Museum’s new Director was very quick to take the initiative on this and he felt straight away that the Museum was well placed to take a leading role in this crisis. We had longstanding relations with our colleagues in the Iraq Museum and we have a range of specialisms here, not only on the curatorial but also on the conservation side. Fortunately two anonymous foundations immediately offered us grants for our work, so it has not come out of the Government’s grant-in-aid.

The first time I went out there was in April, and I was soon able to confirm the full extent of the crisis. Most of the material in the Iraq Museum had been taken off-exhibition in good time and sent into safe storage. What had been left behind in the exhibition halls consisted of pieces that were difficult to move because they were too heavy, or because they were fixed into their bases, or they were too fragile to move. It was clear straight away that 40 of these major and important objects had been stolen.

In addition, the thieves had been all through the storerooms. There was some talk right at the beginning that 170,000 items had been stolen, but this was simply a misunderstanding based on the fact that there were 170,000 registered objects in the collection, and some one made the rash assumption that all had been stolen. We now know that around 13,000 items are missing, of which nearly 5000 are cylinder seals. The American military have made major efforts to recover these, and seven of the exhibition items have in fact been recovered, including the most important of all – the Warka Vase from Uruk dating to some time before 3000 BC and probably the most important monument of this early civilisation.

On the basis of this visit we had an idea of the scale of the problem and the first thing we did was to send out Sarah Collins to be a member of ORHA, the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance; this is the organisation that the CPA ( the Coalition Provisional Authority) has established to govern Iraq. The cultural section is very small, only about half a dozen people in all, headed by an Italian called Ambassador Pietro Cordone. Fortunately, Sarah Collins, who is Curator in the Department, speaks good Arabic and has been at the heart of dealing with cultural matters in Iraq. She has been joined by Helen MacDonald of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, who is now based near Babylon.

My second visit to Baghdad was for two weeks in the second half of June when I went out with three colleagues from the British Museum. We flew out on the 11th June to Amman and then drove overland to Baghdad. We spent four days in Baghdad working at the museum and having meetings with museum officials and Ambassador Cordone. One day we went to Babylon which was relatively unscathed, though the gift shop had been looted and set on fire. Then we went to Mosul where we visited the complex of eight of Saddam’s palaces, all of which had been comprehensively looted. We visited Nimrud which had come off relatively lightly, though two reliefs had been stolen. And then on to Nineveh where Sennacherib’s palace was found to be in an appalling state, though not all the vandalism was recent. Back in Mosul, we visited the university where the offices had been extensively looted and a number of books stolen from the libraries, and then to Mosul Museum, where as at Baghdad most of the exhibition objects had been removed before the war, but a number of the larger objects had been left and had been smashed.

I was particularly sad to see that the bronze gates of Ashurnasirpal II found at Balawat in 1956 had been looted; these had been restored by being fastened to modern wooden replica gates, but many of the pieces of decorated bronze had been ripped off the wooden door leaves, though two pieces were later retrieved from the museum garden. We went back to Nineveh where the dig house was found to be in good condition. Finally, we returned to Baghdad whence we flew to Amman in a United Nations plane and eventually on the 26th June returned to London. Visiting Iraq has not been my only concern. I have also been to conferences in New York, Bonn and Paris and of course here in the UK. Most recently I have been to Tokyo, to the third UNESCO conference where it was unanimously recommended that all the offers to help restore the Iraqi heritage should be co-ordinated by UNESCO. We at the BM are entirely supportive of that proposal; we think it is the best way forward, and in the interim period we are doing what we can.

Although the Americans are happy for other members of the coalition to play an important role in cultural affairs, it does become very difficult to disentangle cultural from military affairs. This is particularly the case with looking after the sites down in the south of the country where sites are being looted and require military guards. The position as regards archaeological sites is very gloomy; there has been very, very extensive looting at some of the sites, notably at Nippur, Isin and Umma. At Isin a National Geographic team reported that almost 300 diggers came up to their helicopter, waving, and were surprised that the Americans would think that they were engaged in wrongful activities. It is also American military officials who have been involved in policing the Iraq museum, ascertaining the scale of the losses and setting in place mechanisms for trying to retrieve stolen objects. A lot of that involves liaising with Interpol and police organisations.

It is perhaps important to put the Baghdad Museum into perspective. It was founded soon after Iraq became independent in 1919 and it is one of the finest museums of the Middle East, and undoubtedly contains the finest collection of Mesopotamian antiquities in the world: all the finest material discovered since 1919, or at least the bulk of it, has been put into the museum, which is full of spectacular and iconic pieces. It is extremely unfortunate that in some parts of the media accusations have been levelled against the integrity of the Museum staff, but I see no reason whatever to doubt their honesty and I am quite sure myself that they were not involved in the looting. Indeed, I feel that Iraq has a better record than almost any other country in the Middle East in looking after its cultural heritage, at least until the start of sanctions in 1990. There has been some pressure from America to change some of their antiquities laws, but it has not happened, rightly in my opinion. The present antiquity law which has been in force since 1971 prohibits the export of all antiquities from Iraq.

Following our second visit to Iraq in June we drew up a long conservation report and a series of recommendations. They can all be found on the British Museum website, www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk – click on News and then Iraq crisis. The plan was that four conservators from Iraq Museum should come here in the hot summer months of August and September and that an international team of eight people will go out to Iraq in October to do some or most of the emergency conservation work. That was the plan, but so far, the four Iraqi conservators have not been able to come here because they do not have passports or travel documents – the Coalition Provisional Authority has not yet put in place a system for giving people travel documents; we live in hope.

But all going well, I will go out again at the beginning of October when the international team of conservators go out. That is the plan, and I hope that next year UNESCO will be taking a fuller role in co-ordinating the task of getting the Iraq Museum back together again. The British Museum will continue to give all the help we can.

Colonel Matthew Bogdanos is a colonel in the US marine corps and is responsible for investigating the thefts from the Baghdad Museum. He is in fact a reservist, after a career in the marines during which time he was sent to Columbia University to read classical studies. (His father was a Greek restaurateur in Manhattan, so he was brought up on Homer.) He has since been a district attorney in New York and has spent the last 13 years of his life in law enforcement.

Following September 11 he was recalled and is now enforcing law in Baghdad Museum. This account is based on a report he gave to the Rencontre Assyriologique in London.

In order to recover the items, the team has used a multi-pronged approach. Firstly, they had to determine what was missing, which was a Herculean task as the offices had been looted, the records upturned, so it was impossible to be certain of what was there in the first place.

Secondly, they had to disseminate photographs of specific objects so they could be recognised and seized. Thirdly, they had to develop an amnesty policy, putting out the word that anyone could return items without any fear of retribution or prosecution.

And finally, they had to develop confidential sources in the Baghdad community and carry out restorative raids. Many of the objects had been moved to various secure locations. The most valuable objects, particularly those of gold, had been deposited in the vaults of the central bank. Unfortunately, these had flooded, but a National Geographic team had pumped the vaults out recovering millions of dinars of wet currency and the boxes of precious gold and jewellery – which all proved to be in good condition. The manuscripts had been moved to a bomb shelter in western Baghdad and 179 boxes containing 8366 artifacts were carried to a secret place, a storeroom which five members of the Museum had taken an oath not to divulge until Iraq had a lawful government. Bogdanos had seen it and had given his word not to divulge its location. All these objects appeared to be safe.

The Museum itself had been ransacked. One of the problems was that in the perception of the populace the Museum was associated with the Ba’athist regime, thus every office was damaged, every door was broken, every computer was stolen. This was ‘angry theft’, similar to that in the presidential palaces.

There was a different type of destruction in the public galleries. The looters seemed to fall into three categories which may well overlap. In the public galleries the thieves who stole 40 objects were selective and discriminating, avoiding casts and choosing the valuable items. Of the 451 display cases, only 28 were smashed – three of which had contained important objects, while most of the rest were empty. Forty objects were stolen, of which ten have been recovered. The second category was the looting in the Old Magazines. This seems to have been indiscriminate and random, with the contents of shelves swept into bags, and copies and forgeries stolen. The Old Magazines were sealed by a 12 inch steel door which had not been breeched. However, a door leading onto a back alleyway had been opened but was unforced. The keys to these unforced doors were last seen in the Director’s safe and are now missing.

Presumably someone had gone to the safe and taken these keys knowing that they were the keys to the back door. It could have been done by the Iraqi army: it appears that a firing position had been established on the upper floor. The third category consisted of the New Magazines, an annex built in 1986. Only one of the five stores had been opened, but it is here that the major looting took place. The Magazines were looted by people with an intimate insiders’ knowledge.

There were 30 storage cabinets containing half the cylinder seal collection and the coin collection; these were not looted because the looters had dropped the keys and could not find them. 4795 cylinder seals and 4997 other pieces were stolen from boxes on top of the cupboards. The thieves must have had an intimate knowledge of the museum and its storage practices and have known where the well hidden keys were kept. A total of 10,337 objects were stolen, of which 671 have just been recovered. Fortunately the clay tablets were not located, and are all safe. In all, nearly 3000 pieces have been recovered so far, most of them stolen from the Old Magazines. Of these just under half were returned as part of the amnesty programme, and just over half, (1591) were recovered by law enforcement techniques, such as raids, checkpoints and seizures. A further 679 pieces had been seized in Jordan, Italy, the UK and the US. A little more than 10,500 pieces are still missing.
(This report was adapted from the British Museum’s website)

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 1. Click here to subscribe

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