Cultural Assessment of Iraq: The State of Sites and Museums in Southern Iraq

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Tell Mohammed: This site close to and contemporary with Tell Harmal was recently excavated by the Iraqis, but the diminution of resources caused by the sanctions forced cessation of research before the project was finished. A pillbox was recently built on this site by Iraqi troops. Otherwise it seemed to have only the usual problems of poor preservation of mud-brick. On our way out however we saw a sign indicating the presence of unexploded ordnance in the area.

Nasiriyyah Museum This is intact but is now where the Marines are bivouacked. I was not allowed in but other team members report that there are camp beds between the copies of Hatra statues and Assyrian reliefs. In general the regional museums had copies that could be used for teaching children rather than originals, but these pieces seem to have been treated with respect. The director of research here, though, is annoyed since her house was part of the Museum and she has had to move out. Generally, however, the museum staff seemed pleased with the actions of the US forces. The current Museum Director, Abdul Amir Hamdani, is working with the Marines to see that sites being actively looted are better protected.

Protection of Sites in the South: Unlike the north, looting has been and continues to be a very serious problem in the south. Even many smaller sites have been probed by looters searching for items which can be sold to dealers with connections to the world market in antiquities. Each such looter's hole rips out layers and artifacts without the recording of archaeological context that would enable us to learn about past environments, economies, conflicts , and daily life. We were informed by the Nasiriyyah Museum officials that there is an antiquities bazaar at Rifa'i, north of Nasiriyyah. We passed this information on to Dr. George in Baghdad so he could inform U.S. customs investigators concerned with smuggling.

In Nasiriyyah we were able to link up with the Marines stationed in the Museum who already had on their agenda the initiation of a process of monitoring the sites. We went with them to Girsu and Larsa, and they intended to continue to examine Lagash, Umma, Adab and Isin, although there were some issues as to which sites were under whose control. The main problem that we faced was that they do not use the same coordinate system as geographers and archaeologists use, but work off military map sheets. These are based on the Universal Tranverse Mercator grid used by most Geographical Positioning Systems, but there are different transformations that need to be effected for each map sheet. I have made the conversions from the standard system to theirs and emailed them the grid coordinates of the other sites we need them to check out, primarily Umma, Isin and Adab, all of which are reported (along with Larsa) to have been badly damaged. I stress here, though, that the good news is that the U.S. Marines seem to be taking this issue seriously.

The problem, however, will not be completely resolved until Iraqi authorities themselves have the means to re-establish guardianships over these sites.

The Iraq Museum: Other teams were concerned with the Museum, but we did have a useful tour and discussions with both Dr. George and Col. Matthew Bogdanos, then in charge of the effort by U.S. authorities to investigate the looting of the Museum. The following observations complement those of others. The material situation is as follows.

1. The Department prepared for the war by removing the portable objects on exhibit to a bunker away from the museum. That bunker and its contents are intact.

2. The looting of the "crown jewels" of the museum was therefore limited to those items in the galleries which were not portable or a few which were inadvertently left in the storerooms when the bulk of the items from the galleries were put in off-site storage. Among these are the Uruk Vase, the Lady of Uruk, the decoration from the Ubaid temple (some of which have since been has been recovered), the statue of Entemena, the gold lyre from Ur (here the bull's head that was stolen was a replica, admittedly in gold, and part of the structure of the lyre was damaged). Other objects were broken, such as one of the Harmal lions. I do not have an exact number of this group of missing objects but they are between 30 and 50.

3. The gold was in a vault in the National Bank. The bank was bombed and the stair down to the vault is filled with rubble. It was also filled with of water, but this has now been pumped out and the vault has been entered. It is reported that the Museum boxes are intact.

4. Three of the five storage vaults in the museum were broken into. The vault with the Museum's large collection of cuneiform tablets was not touched. One of the plundered vaults was apparently used by a sniper, who seems to have entered the Museum with the mob. . The official count of objects missing from the vaults is continuing and will go on for weeks, but more than a thousand had been recorded by the time when the last.

5. The UNESCO team is the only delegation who have been in the vaults. McGuire Gibson estimates that the losses from the vaults to be in the thousands but probably not in the tens of thousands. It will be an enormous job, however, to go through all the material remaining there to determine what is and what is not present.

6. The vault-by-vault records are preserved, so we do not need to reconstruct the catalog of objects from records outside Iraq. However, the data bases of Iraq Museum holdings that are being constructed by foreign expeditions from their own records will be helpful in computerizing the holdings of the Iraq Museum.

7. It does seem clear that the thieves did get the keys, but since all of the safes in the offices were opened (quite professionally in some cases) and we all know that people tend to keep keys where they are convenient, this should not be surprising. Thieves stole some 250,000,000 Iraqi dinars from the safes, two months payroll for the Department.

8. The offices are completely looted and the files in a mess. They did get some new plastic picnic chairs the other day so that people can now sit down, but that is about it.

The situation with the staff of the Department of Antiquities, is as follows.

1.The current Museum-Director, Jabber Khalil, will remain in place. The most active archaeologist in the Department, Donny George, the Director of Research will also remain in place. There may be other changes in staffing as the "de-Baathification" process goes forward. We must hope that this is done sensibly and rapidly so that Iraq's archaeologists can get back to work.

2. The Department suffered a major reduction in staff in the early 1990s, but were able to recover somewhat in recent years. Many employees, however, are young and are still in the process of being trained and many of the old hands have left Iraq. There are now about 2000 employees of the Department of Antiquities, including the site guards, some of whom are in place and some of whom have been driven off their sites by looters. Those who have been reachable (not the site guards) have each received an emergency grant of $20. At the time of our visit they had not been paid a salary in two months.

3. At the moment the lack of security in Baghdad has made it difficult for many of the staff to get to work, especially the curatorial staff needed to assess the losses. These are mostly young women and have been coming in dribs and drabs to the museum when their fathers, brothers, or husbands could accompany them. Dr. Selma al-Radi set up a bus system to bring the curatorial staff to work. The National Geographic Society has made a small donation for this purpose, insuring about one month of service. This, however, is a stop-gap approach.

There are several areas where the Iraqis need help. Among these are the following:

Computing resources: All of the Department's computers were stolen. It would be helpful in making lists of precisely what was stolen from the Museum to have new computers and training. I plan to return to Iraq in a month if possible with other members of the American Academic Coordinating Committee for Iraq Cultural Heritage taking computer equipment adequate for making digitized catalogs of both what is missing and what is still in the Museum, continuing computerization project initiated in the early 1990s by the Museum. We will also provide them with remote sensing data and GIS software so that they can assess where they need to do to protect sites from future development and agriculture.

Preventing the looting of sites. This falls under the heading of security within Iraq. Until Iraqi authorities are better prepared, it will have to be done by the US military. We were pleased to see that the Marines in Nasiriyyah were on the job. We must continue to urge the military throughout the country to take this task seriously.

Conservation. Along with preparation of a catalogue, this will be a concurrent task in the process of rehabilitation of the Museum. The Iraqis will need training, materials, etc. This is really within the province of Museum personnel rather than our group and I believe that the British Museum and others are working on this issue.

Elizabeth C. Stone Professor
Department of Anthropology
Stony Brook University
Stony Brook, New York

The National Geographic Society's Cultural Assessment of Iraq: Introduction>>
Part One: The State of Sites and Museums in Northern Iraq>>
Part Two: The State of Sites and Museums in Southern Iraq (this page)
Part Three: A Helicopter Inspection of Endangered Southern Sites>>
News Report: Ancient Iraqi Sites Show Theft, Destruction>>

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