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JUNE 2003
Volume 95, Issue 5
 

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Tracking down a nation’s treasures
For scholars concerned about how Iraqi antiquities weathered the war, the truth is hard to uncover.

This past January, as the United States weighed the prospect of war in Iraq, Oriental Institute professor McGuire Gibson, AM’64, PhD’68, was among a group of archaeologists who provided Pentagon officials with the locations of thousands of Iraq’s antique ruins, only 15 percent of which have been excavated. Gibson, president of the American Association for Research in Baghdad, and the other experts urged the official to comply with the 1954 Hague Convention and not target cultural sites.

The archaeologists also emphasized the importance of protecting the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad—home to tens of thousands of Mesopotamian antiquities, and the museum was ranked No. 2 on the U.S. military’s list of properties to protect. But in the April takeover troops failed to deter looters from ransacking the museum, and it initially appeared that thousands of artifacts had been stolen.

For Gibson and his colleagues at the Oriental Institute (OI), considered the preeminent Near Eastern studies center in North America, the news hit with the force of a death in the family—thousands of items excavated by University of Chicago teams over the past century were among those in the museum—and OI researchers quickly shifted into crisis mode, launching a cyber-catalog of the National Museum’s holdings—hoping both to help locate objects and to deter black-market sales.

Meanwhile, in the weeks following the takeover of Baghdad, estimates of the museum’s losses fluctuated wildly—from as many as 170,000 items to as few as 26. With OI associate professor Tony Wilkinson and Mark Ataweel, AM’00, a doctoral student in Near Eastern languages & literatures, Gibson headed off to see the situation first hand. By May 16, after several days in Baghdad, he could breathe a sigh of relief: “We have dodged a bullet,” he told a Chicago Tribune reporter. “Through some luck and some real preparations by the museum staff, we have saved a lot.”

Although the museum itself was a shambles, the staff had managed to move hundreds of items to an air-raid shelter. Some major pieces had been stored in the vaults of the Iraqi Central Bank; other items were taken home by staff members for safekeeping. The museum’s reference library, with its valuable manuscripts, was secure.

For the archaeologists, it was an occasion for measured elation. Reports indicated that looting was continuing at many of the sites scattered across Iraq, prompted by a long-flourishing black market. Smugglers seemed poised to take advantage of the confused conditions and lapse in regular border controls. As Gibson put it before the attack on Iraq began, “War and archaeology don’t mix.”

—M.R.Y.


 


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