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Birth of Writing Explored in Baghdad Conference

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Just steps away from the Tigris River, researchers gathered to re-examine the thesis that the early Shakespeares and Hemingways only wanted to count goats and barley.

They discussed how computers could help analyze cuneiform texts from 5,000 years ago, and subtly refuted an upstart theory that the art of writing somehow began in Egypt rather than here in Mesopotamia.

Those were the official topics at an international conference in Baghdad last week to celebrate five millennia since the birth of writing, which first emerged as a tablet-based accounting method when Babylon and Sumeria were great empires.

Yet, equally important on the minds of the dozens of assembled archaeologists from the United States and Europe was catching up on a life's work interrupted and finding out just how badly the field of archaeology in Iraq suffered from a decade of turmoil.

For some of the Iraq specialists the conference was the first time back since they were forced to leave before the 1991 Persian Gulf war. So they were eager to check on the welfare of Iraqi colleagues, catch up on the Iraqis' research and visit their old excavation sites to see what had been looted in the chaos and confusion after the war.

The researchers came despite a United Nations trade embargo on Iraq, but they were not the first. Many European scientists never stopped visiting Baghdad, and a few have even begun digging again for the artifacts that tell the story of man's earliest civilizations.

"It's wonderful to see friends I have been concerned about," said John Russell, an archaeologist from Massachusetts who planned to visit his old dig at the 2,700-year-old Sumerian Palace for the first time in 11 years. "In the end it's the Iraqi people who are going to save it all."

The writing conference was the brainstorm of Iraqi archaeologists. But in the midst of Iraq's standoff with the United States over the trade sanctions and expelled weapons inspectors, it inevitably took on political undertones.

Its success marked another small opening in the international isolation of President Saddam Hussein's regime, and the government seized on that as part of its campaign to weaken support for the U.S.-led sanctions meant to contain Iraq's military capacity.

Hussein's name was emblazoned in gold on the conference's official banner. Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz addressed the researchers at the opening ceremony telling them that Iraq was the victim of United States lies and distortions.

"Thank you for breaking the cultural embargo on Iraq and serving humanity," Iraqi Culture Minister Hamed Youssef Hamadi, wearing his military uniform, told the crowd.

Donny George, an Iraqi archaeologist who is director of research and studies at Iraq's Board of Antiquities, said the conference was organized partly as a way to lure back the foreign digging partners and revive a field that has suffered substantially over the last decade.

"It's been a great loss for both sides," George said. "Everybody was celebrating the millennium. We thought it was best to celebrate one of the best achievements of mankind—writing."

Primary among the archaeologists' concerns was a rash of looting at many Iraqi sites after the war. Left unguarded, some sites were overrun by illegal excavators, some of whom came in with bulldozers and took away whole mounds of earth rich with cuneiform tablets, bowls and other priceless artifacts.

At the conference, George and other Iraqi researchers showed slides of some of the worst damage, describing some sites as being reduced to "moonscapes." Much of the loot ended up in private collections in London and New York, they said.

Also looted were small museums at some of the sites. One of them was at Nineveh, the site of the palace of Assyrian King Sennacherib where Russell, the Massachusetts researcher, spent years digging.

"I've heard horrible things," Russell said, although he was confident the rest of the site was intact. "It's pretty hard to imagine them destroying a site the size of 40 or 50 football fields."

Iraqi officials say they have gotten the problem mostly under control now by hiring more guards. "We pay them more than teachers make here," said Manhal Gaber, head of the antiquities department northern section, where Nineveh is.

The Iraqis also celebrated after getting the main Iraq Museum in Baghdad reopened last year. Most of the artifacts are back in place, although the embargo prevented them from getting the special glues and other materials needed to repair some damaged pieces.

The gold and other precious finds are still housed in Iraqi banks, where it was rushed before the bombing began in 1991.

Another way the field was set back was when the exchange of information was prevented between the researchers inside and outside of Iraq. The foreigners could not follow along with progress at the Iraqi digs, while the Iraqis were cut off from what the outsiders were writing and printing about previous finds.

The Iraqis were unable to accept scholarships or other invitations abroad because they couldn't get visas or money. Both in the United States and elsewhere, bright young archaeologists began looking for other places to do their research, such as Syria.

"The embargo made it absolutely impossible for the antiquities department here," said Joan Oates, a Cambridge University archaeologist who has American citizenship and formerly lived in Iraq.

Oates recalled her first trip back to Iraq several years ago, when the antiquities department had only two cars to ferry its staff out to sites, and often they were broken down. At the conference she said she was busy chasing after Iraqi archaeologists to make sure she had their material correct in a book she is writing.

Despite the troubles, the Iraqis have pushed on with their research. They currently are training about 70 archaeologists, they began printing their research publication again two years ago and they have computerized the antiquities office despite the embargo.

Last week, they announced that among their recent finds was an ancient Sumerian city in southern Iraq, complete with intact cemetery and skeletons.

At the conference, which concluded at the Abassid Palace along Tigris, the archaeologists spent four days presenting their latest findings to each other and debating fine points of research that were as fascinating as they were esoteric.

A cuneiform expert spoke of the angles with which Sumerian schoolboys would have had to hold their tablets to make scribblings. A Briton explained how he deciphered the words "king of the land of Assyria" from a lion, hill, and plow found on a wall.

An Italian researcher defended her thesis that religion inspired the first writing, despite the near consensus that it evolved to help administer trade and food stocks as the early empires expanded and became more complex.

A 1998 claim that writing developed first along the Nile River in Egypt? Wrong, said several archaeologists, citing different dating techniques for the error or the fact that writing's development through stages is far more documented in Mesopotamia.

Some of the scientists said they weren't worried that their governments might look unkindly on their trip to Iraq. "Not the slightest," said an Oxford University cuneiformist. Others admitted being a little nervous. Nary a one voiced support for the embargo.

Many recalled trying to convince the world in 1991 that Iraq was not just empty desert, that it was Babylon and other biblical sites. Now many of them are bitter that the embargo has forced some of Iraq's best scientists to seek work elsewhere.

George, the antiquities official, said archaeologists from at least 11 European countries and the United States have come to the conference. Already working in the field, he said, were the Italians, French, and Germans.

"Only the U.S. and Britain are not back now," said Oates, the Cambridge University researcher.