Update on the Iraq Museum





Editorial in the WSJ (Jan. 10, 2004):

Remember the second Mongol invasion? The comparison to the 1258 sack of Baghdad by Genghis Khan's grandson was one of the more popular allusions in the wake of Saddam's fall, especially with initial claims that U.S. forces had stood by while 170,000 pieces were looted from Iraq's National Museum. By now most people know that this estimate was a gross exaggeration, and the discovery of hidden storage chambers has reduced the losses from one of the world's top archaeological depositories to roughly 10,000.

But misconceptions remain, says Col. Matthew Bogdanos, the Marine reservist put in charge of the investigation. Over coffee Col. Bogdanos (who also happens to hold a master's in classical studies) outlined not only the issues that deserve more attention -- e.g., the international trade in illicit antiquities -- but the things that could be done to leave Iraq's National Museum better than it was before.

When U.S. forces arrived on the scene they found the Baathists had made the museum a well-fortified defensive position (itself a violation of international law) complete with sniper posts. The initial dilemma was finding out what happened and what went missing.

The museum had no master list and some of its own officials didn't know about storage areas where treasures had been secreted. The colonel says even the thefts themselves varied: random ransacking by mobs, the selected thievery of professionals, as well as inside work by museum officials who used keys to raid an underground, bricked-off basement storage area -- in the dark.

To date, 13 of the 40 missing major exhibits have been recovered, including the mask of Warka reproduced here. The Italian Carabinieri have done yeoman's work photographing and cataloging the surviving treasures, which should ultimately yield a computer-based master catalog. While the museum's administrative offices -- occupied by those associated with Saddam's regime -- were trashed and vandalized, the public galleries were left largely intact. The colonel hopes that the silver lining might be an Iraqi museum that is really public.


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