Lost Treasures of Humanity

Casualties of the U.S. War on Iraq

Revolutionary Worker #1198, May 11, 2003, posted at rwor.org

Within 24 hours after U.S. tanks entered the city of Baghdad, their arrival triggered a heist of the National Archeological Museum in Baghdad. While the U.S. media raved over the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue, a team of plunderers were ripping off irreplaceable statues from humanity's past.

On April 10, the thieves came to the museum--armed, the evidence suggests, with tools, glass cutters and even forklifts for moving massive stone artifacts. They knew what they wanted--bypassing a replica of Hamurabi's Code and going straight for authentic treasures. They did their work quickly--and when they left, the museum stood wide open.

Over the next two days, as the U.S. army consolidated its hold on Baghdad, hundreds of looters passed through the museum, taking and breaking almost everything not protected in vaults.

Within days, the heavy haul of rare historical objects were on their way toward multi-millionaire collectors in the world's richest countries.

The U.S. war machine shattered Iraq's army and government. The destruction of institutions and the desperation of people in this conquered country threw everything up for grabs. Suddenly everything was being sized up anew for its market value.


"If the museum doesn't recover the looted treasures, I will feel like a part of my own soul has been stolen."

Mazen Ahmad, selling eggs on Baghdad's streets

"It may be weeks, months, before we know what's there and what isn't."

Donny George, research director, Iraqi Board of Antiquities

Some of humanity's most breathtakingly beautiful and rare treasures are now being secretly auctioned off in the world's antiquities market. These objects include outstanding achievements of artisans who worked and innovated over 4,000 years ago--a life-sized statue of the Sumerian King Entemena, a large ivory relief of the Assyrian god Ashur, the detailed copper-cast head of an Akkadian ruler, and an ornate gold-and-ivory harp from Ur.

It is estimated that some of these objects will sell for tens of millions of dollars each.

Also missing are unique artifacts from the development of human civilization and learning: including 5,000-year-old clay tablets containing the world's first known written words, a 10,000-year-old pebble with 12 notches that is believed to be the oldest known calendar and 2,500-year-old cuneiform clay tablets that form the world's oldest intact library.

The museum's deputy director, Nabhal Amin, said that 170,000 objects may have been lost-- including 100,000-year-old stone tools and sculptures and carvings, ivory furniture, tilework, textiles and coins. Countless tablets are missing--where the earliest records were pressed in clay. These include market records, early poems, court records and mathematical theories--and it includes many tablets that have not yet been studied.

Many of these historic artifacts had survived the Mongol sacking of Baghdad in 1258 but could not be protected against the U.S. invasion of 2003. Some collections were successfully protected by the staff who hid them in special vaults within the building. But many objects were ripped from their identifying storage, and many were trampled in the rush to find and steal the most rare and beautiful.


The heartland of modern Iraq is the "Fertile Crescent"--the rich agricultural lands that surround the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Known as Mesopotamia, it is one of the regions in the world where human beings first developed agriculture and formed settlements. It is one of the places where the first kingdoms and states arose on the basis of agricultural surplus--and where early innovations in art, mathematics, writing, accounting, and organized warfare took place.

All over Iraq are mounds where the remains of thousands of years of habitation, from almost a dozen distinct cultures, lie piled on top of each other. Scholars have come here to Iraq for over 200 years to uncover how human society developed. At first they came looking for evidence of the mythic garden of Adam and Eve, but instead they found the record from 13,000 years of real human history--containing villages, temples, markets, forts and the earliest cities of Ur, Nimrud, Babylon and Nineveh. The gathering of that evidence has led to new understandings of the emergence of human society, classes and states from hunting-and-gathering life--and these continuing investigations have continually led to new discoveries, right up until the present.

Over the years, the museum in Baghdad had become a central gathering place for a huge part of early humanity's legacy. All excavations carried out in Iraq by international teams of archaeologists were reported to it.

Now many of the card catalogues and computer records for generations of scholarly work have been destroyed--perhaps deliberately to make less-well-known objects harder to trace and easier to sell.

It is not only the loss of the artifacts themselves. To develop scientific insights, investigators need to bring collections of artifacts together--including pottery shards or accounting records pressed in clay tablets, or fragments of mud sealer that reveal how straw roofs were woven. Each piece provides a context for all the others. As they are studied together, they reveal a more and more detailed picture of the peoples and societies that produced them.

The simultaneous theft and destruction of records means much of the museum's collection is stripped of context and torn out of the social process of systematic investigation. Even if the objects later "turn up," we may have lost much of their meaning. An irreplaceable human legacy is being "privatized" in every sense--turned into baubles and investments on secret display in the home galleries of the super rich.


"You tell me what their priorities are."

Salma El Radi, Iraqi archaeologist

While the battle for Baghdad was still going on, Secretary Rumsfeld criticized the media for reporting that there was widespread looting. "It's the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase," Rumsfeld joked, "and you see it 20 times and you think, my goodness, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?" Rumsfeld pooh-poohed it all, saying: "Bad things do happen in life, and people do loot."

Then, as awful details emerged from the Baghdad museum, the U.S. and British media started to suggest that perhaps the museum's own staff had carried out the heist, and 25 FBI agents were sent to Iraq to follow such "leads."

The Pentagon argued they had done everything reasonable to protect Iraqi historic sites--and treated the loss of this museum as regrettable, collateral damage of war.

When UN General Secretary Kofi Annan urged the U.S. to abide by the international laws governing "occupying powers" (including the conventions for protecting historical and art objects)--the Pentagon angrily replied that they were not occupiers and these treaties did not apply to them.

More recently, news stories quote an Army colonel-in-charge who claims the loss "might not have been as bad" as reported.

Clearly, the U.S. government and media are using classic "spin control" to deflect any blame.

Meanwhile, however, angry scholars around the world point out that long before the war started, they gave the U.S. government repeated and detailed warnings that the museum was in great danger.

Archeologists were very concerned about Baghdad's museum because during the previous 1991 Gulf War a dozen of Iraq's regional museums and historic sites were systematically looted. Paul Zimansky, an archaeologist at Boston University, said, "A whole industry developed after the Gulf War of people going out and digging up things at night. We're talking about organized, armed teams." Thousands of objects were smuggled out of Iraq over the last decade--largely to Switzerland, and from there to antiquities markets in London, Paris, and New York.

Zainab Bahrani, professor of ancient Near Eastern art and archaeology at Columbia University, said that over the last year "We gave [the Pentagon] a list of things to protect; we gave them maps and the coordinates of sites and museums; we gave them a list of cultural-heritage priorities to protect the minute they got into the country; and at the top of the list we said, ` Place guards at the museums .'"

When the U.S. army moved into Baghdad, they were totally indifferent to the ancient culture and history of this region--all while they arrogantly insisted they were in Iraq to teach the people the basics of "civilized" life. The high command carefully sent hundreds of troops and tanks to protect two sites they considered vital to their interests: they protected the Iraqi Oil Ministry and the Interior Ministry (where secret police records are kept). The rest was left open for theft and destruction.

The staff of the Archeological Museum told reporters they sought out American soldiers as the looting was going on and begged them to protect the museum. One Marine tank crew actually came to the museum, saw what was happening and left after 30 minutes --allowing the facility to be completely gutted.

Outraged at the U.S. military allowing the Museum to be looted, three members of the White House Cultural Property Advisory Committee resigned in protest. Its chairman, Martin Sullivan, wrote in his letter of resignation that "the tragedy was not averted due to our nation's inaction."

In these same days, three historic libraries in Baghdad were also looted and burned--destroying thousands of rare and irreplaceable manuscripts and books, including unique early copies of the Koran. And the same happened to the rare collections at the ancient University of Mosul, at the University of Bara and the museum in Kirkuk.

The National Library's director Ra'ad Bandar said: "People used to come to Baghdad from all over the world to read these works. For religious scholars across the Muslim world, this is time of mourning."


"The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand...has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous `cash payment.'... It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in the place of numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom--Free Trade. In one word: for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct brutal exploitation."

Karl Marx and Frederick EngelsThe Manifesto of the Communist Party

"They may have known just what they were looking for because dealers ordered the most important pieces well in advance."

Headline in BusinessWeek magazine, April 17

On January 24, 2003, representatives of the American Council for Cultural Policy (ACCP) arrived at the Pentagon to meet with high-level officials of the Defense Department, and then, reportedly, also met with President Bush.

The ACCP is a group of 60 well-connected ruling class lawyers, lobbyists, wealthy collectors and art dealers, who include leading figures in the U.S. museum world and also some of the biggest dealers in illegal artifacts. The group was formed in 2001 around a simple program: to lobby against any barriers to the global sale and transport of humanity's most rare and precious archeological treasures.

All their work is done, of course, in the name of freedom and ending government tyranny. Their work is in keeping with the climate of "triumphant capitalism"--where protection of third world resources is ridiculed as outmoded "government regulation," where any expression of "national sovereignty" of other countries is considered hostile, and where everything in the world is up for sale.

The plundering philosophy of "acquisitors" was described by ACCP member and Stan- ford law professor John Merryman: "In an open, legitimate trade cultural objects can move to the people and institutions that value them most and are therefore most likely to care for them."

For centuries, colonial powers have robbed the art of conquered countries. The Baghdad museum only had a replica of Hamurabi's Code--because the original column with the earliest known set of laws was seized by the French colonialists a century ago and deposited in their Louvre Museum. After intense struggles against colonialism in the last century, a few post-colonial countries opposed the capitalist sale of their historical objects--and sought to keep and study their heritage at home. And international treaties were signed to prevent the wholesale robbery of such artifacts.

Now the ACCP wants to reverse such protections. ACCP's chairman, William Pearlstein, publicly attacks the "retentionist" policies of third world governments like Mexico that forbid the international sale of archeological objects. He denounced a 1930s Iraqi law that made the export of archeological objects illegal. His committee has called for reversing the U.S. laws controlling the import of artifacts.

And as this war on Iraq approached, Pearlstein argued that any post-war government in Iraq must allow much more of Iraq's heritage to be "certified for export" and "dispersed" through the capitalist world market.

Given all this, although the exact content of the discussions is not known, ACCP's meeting at the Pentagon set off alarm bells among scholars.

Capitalism has created an ugly, parasitic market in the historic treasures of the people--up to $3 billion a year. And now, the modern American political climate had handed the most aggressive of these vultures a hearing at the highest levels, just months before the invasion of Iraq. The implication was that the U.S. government would shortly be in control of Iraq--and would be in charge of setting policy for future Iraq governments on how the history of humanity collected there would be commodified.


The loss of human history in the robbery at the Archaeological Museum in Baghdad spans many civilizations including the Sumerians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Babylonians, Akkadians, and Persians.

Taken together, this robbery was not just a case of "collateral damage" in the chaos of war. Many factors came together to produce the destruction of the Archeological Museum and the "dispersal" of its precious collections. Iraq's Archeological Museum was caught in a "perfect storm." It was set up by modern imperialism, from many sides, for destruction, plunder and sale.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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