Tracking down a nation’s
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
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.”