Summer 2004

Restoring Iraq’s Cultural Legacy

A global campaign gets under way to help Baghdad rebuild its battered museums

An international effort is gathering strength to help Iraq safeguard its cultural heritage in the aftermath of the looting and destruction that followed the U.S. invasion and occupation of the country.

At a meeting in Paris in May organized by UNESCO, experts adopted guidelines to help Iraqi officials conserve and protect cultural assets and to coordinate international aid. At a conference in Amman, Jordan, in June, customs officials and law-enforcement agents from the Middle East, Europe, and the United States discussed how to help stop the illegal trade in artifacts smuggled out of Iraq.

Fawaz Khyraysha, director general of Jordan’s department of antiquities, was quoted at the Amman meeting as saying that authorities had seized “more than 1,000 stolen objects” smuggled out of Iraq, according to the French news agency AFP. Donny George, head of Iraq’s National Museum of Antiquities, in Baghdad, announced that Syria was holding 200 artifacts, and that Kuwait had confiscated 35. George added that 15,000 objects taken from the museum are still missing.

The government of the United States is providing partial funding of $1.4 million to Iraq, with an additional $1 million from the private Packard Institute for Humanities, in California, for repairing infrastructure and upgrading computer systems. This is in addition to the $2 million granted by Washington last year to protect “key museums and archaeological sites in Iraq.” The museum has blamed the lack of computers for confusion about which antiquities were missing, because paper files detailing the museum’s holdings were destroyed.

Once regarded as one of the Middle East’s great museums, the institution in central Baghdad briefly reopened one gallery last year but has otherwise been closed since before the U.S. invasion. John Malcolm Russell, a senior adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Culture and an archeologist at the Massachusetts College of Art, told ARTnews that he estimates it might take several years to completely reinstall the galleries. “The security environment in Iraq will determine how soon any part of it can open,” Russell says.

Looters raided the galleries within hours of Saddam’s downfall last April. Objects still missing include around 4,800 extremely valuable cylinder seals taken from storage rooms, according to a Web site at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, which has taken the lead in tracking the missing objects ( The small seals are among the most distinctive early Mesopotamian artifacts.

U.S. investigators say about 5,000 objects believed to have been stolen from the museum in the looting that followed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein have been recovered. About 1,000 of these were seized in the United States, and 750 in France and Switzerland combined, although those numbers include artifacts allegedly taken from archeological sites since the U.S. invasion. Many high-profile pieces that had never left Iraq, including a 5,200-year-old marble sculpture known as the Lady of Warka, were recovered by Iraqi and U.S. military police. Other artifacts were returned to the museum voluntarily after an amnesty was announced.

As the flow of returned objects tapers off, however, archeologists say they are worried that illicit dealers may be simply “sitting on” antiquities in hopes that pressure from police will die down. “We’re hearing about tablets from sites that were under active archeological excavation turning up on the European market. There are certainly more out there. They just haven’t shown up yet,” says McGuire Gibson, of the University of Chicago, an authority on Mesopotamian archeology who has worked with Interpol to help identify looted Iraqi artifacts.

Archeologists also reported that the rise in looting from ancient sites across Iraq is particularly evident in the south. Italian police units have conducted security inspections at sites across southern Mesopotamia and have helped train permanent Iraqi guards for the sites. Aerial photographs taken by the units indicate that five sites had been significantly damaged by diggers.

“We’re talking about whole sites, the remains of entire cities being destroyed,” says Elizabeth Stone, an archeologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Stone says the looting appears to be well organized and targeted at second- and third-millennium b.c. sites, which are favorites of collectors.

U.S. forces had previously guarded some sites or at least periodically flown helicopters overhead to scare away looters, according to archeologists. But troops have been redirected to focus on the armed uprising. “It’s totally lawless in the countryside now, and there is no control at any sites in the south,” says Zainab Bahrani, an archeologist at Columbia University, who recently visited Iraq, where she was born.

—Roger Atwood