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Expert explains cultural meaning of Iraqi museum losses

WASHINGTON—The looting of priceless antiquities from the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad is being mourned worldwide, but their cultural significance might be less widely understood.

Gil J. Stein, a professor of archeology and director of the University of Chicago Oriental Institute, which has sponsored archeological research and excavations in Iraq since 1920, explains the cultural meaning of the losses.

Q. How significant are the losses from the Iraqi National Museum?

A. The museum was the world's main repository for the archaeological treasures of ancient Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This region saw the development of the world's first cities, states and empires, the first evidence for the emergence of kingship, the first law codes and, perhaps most important of all, the earliest invention of writing, more than 5,000 years ago. The civilizations of Sumer, Akkad, Babylonia and Assyria that grew up there exercised an enormous influence on the world of the Bible and form the foundation of Western civilization. The artifacts, inscribed clay tablets and works of art that document the rise of the world's first civilization are both figuratively and literally priceless.

Q. Have there been comparable losses, historically?

A. As a crime against world culture, this one is on a par with the Crusader sack of Constantinople. It is incomparably worse than the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan, an act of barbarism that shocked the world. The museum's looting amounts to the destruction of the cultural patrimony of an entire nation, and of Western civilization.

Q. What will the losses mean to the people of Iraq?

A. Iraqis are highly literate and have a deep understanding of their country's archaeological heritage. Their historical consciousness is one of the most important factors in defining a national identity that unites Iraq's religious and ethnic groups. This national identity based on a shared cultural tradition is one of the strongest counterweights to the twin dangers of religious fundamentalism and ethnic balkanization. Saddam (Hussein) understood these sentiments, which is why he tried to define himself in his political propaganda as a great ruler in the tradition of Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar _and gave his Republican guard divisions these names.

Q. Will the museum's looting make rebuilding Iraq harder?

A. Certainly. By allowing the National Museum to be looted and devastated, we have needlessly destroyed one of the most valuable emblems of Iraqi unity. We now run the very real risk that Iraqis will view this act as a calculated American attempt to undermine their nationhood.

Q. What can be done?

A. Several things:

First—and starting immediately—civil and military authorities should offer an amnesty and rewards or an actual buyback of the stolen treasures with no questions asked. This would be in keeping with the Iraqi Antiquities department's long standing policy of purchasing antiquities found by local farmers or others as a way to prevent the materials from being smuggled out of the country and sold on the international art market.

Second, the military must seal the borders of Iraq and do everything possible to apprehend anyone attempting to smuggle antiquities out of the country. American archaeologists have already begun providing the Pentagon with illustrated guides so that border guards or other coalition soldiers can recognize the different kinds of antiquities as smuggled contraband.

Third, photos of the looted antiquities should be posted on the Internet so that they can be immediately identified if and when they surface in the international art market.

Fourth, archaeologists and conservators need to inventory the museum and determine what has been taken and what still remains. An international conservation effort must be mounted in order to repair the damaged material.

Fifth, we must more vigorously enforce existing laws and agreements that prevent the importation of antiquities of undocumented provenance into the United States. We must also impose an immediate ban on the export of antiquities from Iraq.

Finally, the United States and the international community must provide the money for the buyback of stolen antiquities and the restoration of the museum and its holdings that survived in damaged form.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.