Sunday, September 03, 2006

A Guest's Concerns: Iraqi Museum Sealed

By Carrie Hritz
Ph.D. Anthropolgy, University of Chicago 2005
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Washington University in St Louis

This article appeared in the August 26th edition of the Washington Post and in NYT on the same date. According to the article, the national museum in Baghdad has been sealed again with concrete to prevent damage to antiquities dating back to the origins of civilizations in Mesopotamia (although many reports from Baghdad in the recent year claimed the museum to already have been almost totally closed since its grand one day opening in 2004). It is important to note that this article states that the small funds allotted to the protection of archaeological sites in Iraq since 2003-4 is set to run out sometime this month. The director of Iraqi's antiquities board, a well respected archaeologist, has fled the country, due to threats against him and his family. While the rising violence in Iraq is a humanitarian disaster and human life is most important, this is a terrible development for Iraq's cultural heritage.

Understandably, the protection of archaeological sites in Iraq has been difficult since the disastrous American invasion and occupation in 2003. Large-scale, wide spread damage has occurred to sites that held the key to our understanding of the rise of the earliest civilizations in the world. The evidence is clearly visible on the free and publicly available Google Earth website. Before we lay blame squarely on the Iraqi people, let us not forget that the near total destruction of the economic infrastructure of the country of Iraq has left its people in a dire situation and often unable to provide for even their most basic subsistence needs. Looting and selling artifacts to a willing and eager antiquities market abroad is a rare source of income. The following is from the Washington post article:

"I can tell you the situation regarding antiquities is horrible," McGuire Gibson, an authority on Mesopotamian archaeology at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, said by telephone from Chicago. "There was a lot of attention paid to the looting of the museum the very same days the war started," Gibson said. "It hasn't stopped. There has been looting of sites on an industrial scale. Some of the greatest Sumerian sites have gone."

In the weeks before the U.S.-led invasion, Gibson worked to alert the U.S. military to the thousands of ancient sites across Iraq. The work helped save Iraq's heritage from U.S. bombs, but not from the looting -- unforeseen by U.S. military and civilian war planners -- that broke out after the collapse of Hussein's government.

Another disturbing statement comes directly from Donnie George. "George, an Iraqi Christian, cited what he said was growing pressure by officials of Iraq's ruling Shiite parties to emphasize Iraq's Islamic heritage and ignore the earlier civilizations that stretched back to Babylon and beyond. "A lot of people have been sent to our institutions," the Art Newspaper quoted him as saying. "They are only interested in Islamic sites and not Iraq's earlier heritage." Mesopotamia has evidence for the earliest cities in the ancient world, development of long distance trade, earliest empires, domestication of plants and animals, earliest writing; All the processes of cultural and societal change that make us who we are today. Are these not as important? This, too, is part of our cultural heritage.

"Iraqi Museum Sealed Against Looters"
Published: August 27, 2006 (Washington Post)

BAGHDAD, Aug. 26 -- Before he quit as head of Iraq's antiquities board, Donny George made a final desperate attempt this summer to safeguard the relics of 5,000 years of history: He ordered the doors of the National Museum plugged with concrete against the near-unbridled looting of ancient artifacts.

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