The National Geographic Society's Cultural Assessment of Iraq: Introduction

May 2003

Photo gallery and map>>
News Report: Ancient Iraqi Sites Show Theft, Destruction>>

Report Authors: Henry T. Wright, Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan and the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration
T.J. Wilkinson, The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, and the University of Edinburgh
Elizabeth C. Stone, Stony Brook University and Member of the American Academic Coordinating Committee for Iraq Cultural Heritage
McGuire Gibson, The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, President, American Association for Research in Baghdad, and Member of the American Academic Coordinating Committee for Iraq Cultural Heritage


Modern Iraq was the center of ancient Mesopotamia, the world's first urban civilization. Over their long history, Mesopotamians left tens of thousands of archaeological sites, most not yet scientifically investigated. As the probability of conflict increased, late in 2002, all researchers concerned with Iraq, all researchers remembered attacks on museums and sites in the early 1990s after the first Gulf War. We saw the danger to both Iraq's cultural heritage—its unique museums and archaeological sites—and to our Iraqi colleagues who care for the museums, protect the sites, and conduct research.

Early in 2003, Dr. Jeffrey Quilter of the Dumbarton Oaks Foundation sent a memo to Dr. John Francis at the Committee for Research and Exploration, suggesting that, as an independent non-governmental organization, the National Geographic Society was ideally situated to assess the actual situation with cultural sites in Iraq. In response to a request from Dr. Francis, I prepared a plan for a rapid assessment of Iraq's cultural heritage to follow upon any conflict, should that occur. The initial plan was to create two teams, one to go to northern Iraq and one to go to southern Iraq. Each team would have two experts with knowledge of archaeological sites and research in their respective area. Each would also have a photojournalist to record what was seen. As the conflict developed, plans were augmented. We added a videographer to each team, and made arrangements to add an Iraqi archaeologist to each team if that proved possible. All team members would travel as journalists under the Society's aegis. This necessitated that we go first to Baghdad, which would enable us to coordinate with the National Geographic Explorer teams under Jason Williams and Lisa Ling, which was focusing on the story of the looting of the Iraq Museum.

The teams were able to assemble in Amman, Jordan, on 9 May. After a few hours of hectic final preparations we left Amman in a convoy of five SUVs , traveling a little ahead of the heavily guarded convoy of the German ambassador. We crossed the western Desert of Iraq, and had no problems in the bandit infested area along the Euphrates around the town of Falluja, arriving in Baghdad at 3PM. During the next two days, in spite of the chaos of demonstrations, arson, and gunfire, we contacted the other Geographic team and visited the Iraq Museum. Here Dr. Donny George, the Director of Research for the State Board of Antiquities, referred to in this report as the Department of Antiquities', gave us a tour of the sacked museum galleries and offices and arranged for contacts with Iraqi archaeologists in the north and south. We also visited the U.S. 'Organization for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance' or 'ORHA,' discussing our plan and requesting the use of a helicopter to visit remote sites in the south regarding which Dr. George had received news of massive looting. We received useful advice from Ambassador John Limbert, the experienced U.S. diplomat concerned with cultural issues in Iraq. The two teams left Baghdad on 12 May.

The accounts of T.J. Wilkinson for the northern team, Elizabeth Stone for the southern team, and McGuire Gibson for his helicopter survey follow.

Henry T. Wright
Albert Clanton Spaulding Collegiate Professor,
Department of Anthropology;
Curator of Near Eastern Archaeology, Museum of Anthropology
The University of Michigan

Part One: The State of Sites and Museums in Northern Iraq>>
Part Two: The State of Sites and Museums in Southern Iraq>>
Part Three: A Helicopter Inspection of Endangered Southern Sites>>
News Report: Ancient Iraqi Sites Show Theft, Destruction>>



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