Plunder of Iraq Culture Treasures - US Adv. Panel resigns

By RAY CONLOGUE – with a report from Mark MacKinnon in Baghdad – courtesy Globe and Mail, Saturday, April 19, 2003 – Page R1

For Iraq, and the world in general, it is now time to gather the stones together.

The sacking of Iraq’s National Museum last weekend means that as many as 170,000 stone, clay and gold objects dating back over 8,000 years are now in the hands of looters. A few have made their way to the infamous crooked middlemen who will transport them to Europe and North America, where wealthy collectors are waiting to purchase them.

And, in an irony almost too painful to bear, Iraq is the only place in the world where there are ancient written records actually dating to the time of Ecclesiastes. “If you’re interested in Biblical history,” says Oxford University cuneiform expert Eleanor Robson, with some bitterness, “you will find that most of the written Biblical record comes not from Israel but from Iraq. So people are really interested in this material. Sadly, they don’t see it as belonging to the Iraqi nation.”

It has already become a commonplace to observe that the Pentagon could have prevented the horror by posting a single tank and two Marines in the courtyard of a museum whose ancient holdings rivalled those of the Louvre and the British Museum. But it didn’t. “Anybody with any intelligence would have posted guards,” laments Irwin Finkel, a curator of ancient clay tablets at the British Museum. “It’s too obvious for words.”

On Thursday afternoon, Martin Sullivan, the head of a U.S. presidential panel on cultural property, resigned to protest against the failure of the army to protect the museum. His anger is echoed by experts around the world. “The Pentagon is culpable,” says Ed Keall, an authority on Iraq and head of the Royal Ontario Museum’s Near Eastern and Asian Civilizations Department. “They were warned of the dangers and they’re in breach of the Geneva Convention, which states that invaders must protect the national heritage. I can believe they ignored it,” he adds with disgust. “But I can’t imagine they were unaware of it.”

Especially embarrassed are U.S. experts who warned the Pentagon of the dangers. “We specifically told them [the Pentagon] that the biggest time of risk would be between the Iraqi army melting away and the U.S. army coming in. We urged special-forces teams to secure the museum,” says Gil Stein, head of Chicago’s celebrated Oriental Institute. He adds that the Institute “was assured they would do this.” (On April 5 in Kuwait, U.S. Major Christopher Varhola stated that the U.S. military would protect Iraq’s museums from looting, “in particular the National Museum of Baghdad.”)

The U.S. Army has had a cultural-protection unit since 1943, when archeologists followed the army across Europe and protected museums as soon as they were seized. Inexplicably, however, the cultural unit was not permitted to follow the troops to Iraq. Members of the unit were finally allowed into Baghdad on Wednesday, four days after looting ended. Some of them privately contacted the British School of Archeology in Baghdad to say they were “infuriated and ashamed” at being sidelined, according to a source at the school.

Today, experts in ancient Near Eastern art are asking the world to put aside anger and mourning and begin immediately to gather the stones together again. On Thursday, 30 leading museum authorities gathered at UNESCO headquarters in Paris to plan measures for recovering as many of the stolen properties as possible and to begin literally gluing together the fragments of broken statues and tablets that litter the floor of the museum. After the meeting, UNESCO called for a UN resolution to embargo all trade in Iraqi antiquities until the criminals are caught.

As many as 2,000 looters surged through the building last weekend, emptying its vaults and smashing whatever was too large to transport. Hiding in the crowd of looters were professional thieves who opened museum vaults with keys, deployed glass cutters and ignored duplicates of artworks.

Now, on the patchy green lawn outside Baghdad’s National Museum of Antiquities, Hammurabi stands a lonely guard. The undated sandstone statue of ancient Babylon’s greatest ruler was once just a taste of the treasures that lay inside the museum. Today, however, Hammurabi is remarkable because he is intact, and still on the property. The inside of the museum, which once housed some of the world’s greatest archeological artifacts, is both a crime scene and a disaster area. No visitors have been allowed in recent days, after it was discovered that the horde of journalists who arrived in the wake of what now appears to be the museum’s organized looting were stepping on and breaking priceless bits of history. “It’s a mess in there. Some irreparable damage was done” by onlookers in the first few days after the looting, said Second Lieutenant Eric Balascik, one of the platoon of American soldiers quite belatedly deployed to guard the museum. The museum, he said, would likely be closed to all visitors until at least next week. “It will take some time to assess the damage that’s been done. We don’t want to do any more.”

The Interpol police organization has set up an emergency squad, which will go to Baghdad as soon as possible to investigate the looting. Karl-Heinz Kind, an Interpol expert in antiquities theft, says that dealers and collectors around the world “should categorically decline any offers of cultural property originating in Iraq.” And they should turn over any person offering such property to their local police force.

The U.S. government, which demonstrated stunning callousness in its initial reaction to the looting, now realizes it has a major embarrassment on its hands. “It was the U.S. authorities who asked us to send out a worldwide alert this week,” says a senior Interpol spokesman.

The looting has opened up a simmering battle between archeologists, who want rare objects to stay in the countries where they are found; and a network of dealers and collectors, represented in the U.S. by the American Council on Cultural Policy, who want the right to import and purchase such treasures. “It would satisfy the hunger for this material,” says ACCP president Ashton Hawkins, a former general counsel for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

In the months before the current attack on Iraq, the high-profile ACCP lobbied Washington to overturn Iraq’s strict laws against exporting antiquities as soon as a U.S. government of occupation was in place (expert opinion is that this would violate international law).

Now that looting has occurred, the ACCP deplores it. But it still insists that collectors should be able to purchase the artifacts legally. “The best solution was to prevent the museum being plundered,” says John Merryman, a Stanford professor of law who is a member of ACCP. “But now that that’s happened, and it was predictable, there is a possibility of picking up the pieces.”

The ACCP’s solution is that collectors should purchase as many Iraqi antiquities as possible in the coming months, “bring them into [the U.S.] for safekeeping, and then return them to Iraq,” says Merryman. But wouldn’t some of ACCP’s dealers and collectors simply keep the objects? “I am shocked at the suggestion,” replies Merryman, “although admittedly I don’t know everybody on the council.”

Archeologists find the ACCP plan laughable at best. “What would make the ACCP collectors give it back?” says Dan Rahimi, the Royal Ontario Museum’s director of collections management, adding: “Antiquities dealers pay little attention to moral issues.”

“The ACCP people know nothing about Iraq,” says Oxford’s Robson. She adds that in the U.S. some antiquities collectors are fundamentalist Christians who think the objects “belong to them because they’re connected to the Biblical past.” Such attitudes, she adds, “are not mainstream in Europe, but in America they influence the government.”

Dominique Collon of the British Museum has declared that the ACCP has a hidden agenda. “This is just the sort of thing that will encourage looting. Once there is American blessing, it becomes open season. The last thing we want is condoned looting.”

While the archeologists are adamantly opposed to the collectors on this matter, there is division even among the archeological community. Some, like Hershel Shenks, editor of The Biblical Archaeological Review, feel the U.S. government should set up an emergency fund to buy back the objects from the looters before they leave Iraq. “We’ve got to do the dirty deed, quietly and with cash, and assure these people of amnesty. . . . This requires speed. We need to act.” Tony Wilkinson of the Oriental Institute agrees that, “Monetary rewards should be given for the return of objects.”

Archeologists who have experience in countries like Iraq, however, feel that any offer of cash will spark more looting. “Sixty per cent of the population has no job, no way to feed their family,” says Robson. “If you offer any amount of money for an antiquity, they’ll go straight out and rob the next museum.”

The worst thing for the archeologists is knowing how futile past police action has been. The first Gulf War, in 1991, destroyed the effective policing of archeological sites in Iran, and a flood of artifacts reached Europe. Of 4,000 pieces missing from one site, says Robson, only a couple of dozen were recovered.

The huge demand for Iraqi objects is partly because the country’s heritage has been protected since the 1920s. The British adventurer Gertrude Bell founded the National Museum in Baghdad and the first independent Iraq government passed a law, still in force, that forbids the export of any artifacts. Since 1960, even museums excavating in Iraq are not allowed to keep a portion of what they find.

Powerful Western museums such as the Metropolitan in New York find this situation insufferable. Some museums, says Rahimi, still buy Iraqi objects knowing full well they are illegal.

It is the “dig archeologists,” who know the local people, who are most sympathetic to them keeping the objects. Rahimi, who has worked in Jordan and Yemen, says he would “sit in the desert at night and talk” with the village people. “They’re not any different from you and me. They have the same values.”

Says Robson: “The British School of Archaeology [in Baghdad] takes the view that what the Iraqis want, we’ll do it. They’re our colleagues, they’re like you and me. They’re committed. They worked for years after the first Gulf War, with no salary, to keep the research going. And now they’ve been let down by Britain and America. So our attitude now is to support our Iraqi colleagues, as we would expect them to do for us if we had a catastrophe.”

She points out, regretfully, that it is the British experience of colonialism which has taught them to be sensitive to local needs. “Sometimes I wish the U.S. had some colonial experience,” she says. She points out that British soldiers in Iraq have been ordered to speak to the locals, and not to wear sunglasses. “It’s important to make eye contact.”

U.S. marines, on the other hand, go around looking like Cool Hand Luke and avoid contact with Iraqis. “They have to learn that simple things make a huge difference,” says Robson.

The big fear is that the Bush administration will listen only to money — and money is what the ACCP stands for. “It’s horrifying if collectors are allowed to buy these objects,” says the Oriental Institute’s Wilkinson. “If that should happen it will cause such an uproar throughout the world that the Bush government will be discredited.”

If, on the other hand, the U.S. government sends a strong signal that the smuggling must be stopped, then a good deal can be done to stop it. “There are people who know who the people are that pass stuff from the looters to the outside,” says Shenks.

The routes are also well known. Every archeologist spoken to for this article named Jordan as the chief conduit for antiquities, with a good proportion of those then passing through Israel. Once in Europe, Switzerland and Britain are major markets because neither country signed the 1970 UNESCO treaty against trafficking in stolen merchandise. Although Britain now has laws of its own, in Switzerland, anything can be sold without provenance or customs papers.

And despite British laws, says Robson, the Oxford High Street in London is full of shops selling cuneiform tablets alongside the Toby jugs and Wedgwood teapots. “Somebody I know got a cuneiform tablet for Christmas a couple of years ago. It turned out to be an important piece of Sumerian literature. It came to me, broken in two pieces, held together with an old elastic band that was decaying into the surface of the tablet.”

She explains that Iraq’s soil is salty, and once a clay tablet is removed from the moist earth, it dries out and the salt crystallizes underneath the written letters, breaking them apart. Unless the pieces are carefully hardened by baking, they disintegrate within 10 years.

The environment within the huge ceremonial sites in Iraq is just as fragile. Last week’s “big-tent” meeting between U.S. authorities and local chieftains was held on the site of the ancient city of Ur, “which is half the size of the modern city of Oxford,” says Robson. “These places need a lot of protection. A guy with a dog doesn’t do it.”

She was relieved the meeting was held at Ur, because it “accidentally” protected the site from looting — for a few days. Neither Ur nor Nineveh nor any of the other large sites, where diggers’ huts are filled with ancient objects, has any police protection.

“But I worry even about well-intentioned people tramping over Ur. It’s not like a Greek site which is stone-built. These structures are made of sunbaked clay bricks, very friable. There are coins and pots and tablets on the surface. Every step you take, something goes crunch.

“I’m glad that people know now how important this is,” she says. “But I’m angry that it took something so catastrophic.”

What’s the best way forward?

“Iraq managed all this quite well before the first Gulf War. All we have to do is get that back up and running. Well, perhaps we could do it without executing smugglers.”