Buried Treasure

R. A. Hettinga rah at shipwright.com
Mon Jan 12 08:31:58 PST 2004


The Wall Street Journal

      January 12, 2004

Buried Treasure

Remember the second Mongol invasion? The comparison to the 1258 sack of
Baghdad by Genghis Khan's grandson was one of the more popular allusions in
the wake of Saddam's fall, especially with initial claims that U.S. forces
had stood by while 170,000 pieces were looted from Iraq's National Museum.
By now most people know that this estimate was a gross exaggeration, and
the discovery of hidden storage chambers has reduced the losses from one of
the world's top archaeological depositories to roughly 10,000.

But misconceptions remain, says Col. Matthew Bogdanos, the Marine reservist
put in charge of the investigation. Over coffee Col. Bogdanos (who also
happens to hold a master's in classical studies) outlined not only the
issues that deserve more attention -- e.g., the international trade in
illicit antiquities -- but the things that could be done to leave Iraq's
National Museum better than it was before.

Restoring Iraq's Heritage

When U.S. forces arrived on the scene they found the Baathists had made the
museum a well-fortified defensive position (itself a violation of
international law) complete with sniper posts. The initial dilemma was
finding out what happened and what went missing.

The museum had no master list and some of its own officials didn't know
about storage areas where treasures had been secreted. The colonel says
even the thefts themselves varied: random ransacking by mobs, the selected
thievery of professionals, as well as inside work by museum officials who
used keys to raid an underground, bricked-off basement storage area -- in
the dark.

To date, 13 of the 40 missing major exhibits have been recovered, including
the mask of Warka reproduced here. The Italian Carabinieri have done
yeoman's work photographing and cataloging the surviving treasures, which
should ultimately yield a computer-based master catalog. While the museum's
administrative offices -- occupied by those associated with Saddam's regime
-- were trashed and vandalized, the public galleries were left largely
intact. The colonel hopes that the silver lining might be an Iraqi museum
that is really public.

Ironically, foreign interest in the plight of Iraq's cultural treasures
appears to be dissipating at the very moment that the museum desperately
needs computers, climate control and other equipment to protect and
preserve a collection that has been neglected for a decade.

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R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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