(Chicago) - The Director General of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, Dr. Donny George, spoke about the April 2003 looting, the recovery of antiquities and the museum’s restoration initiatives at a lecture hosted by the Field Museum.
“I saw everything as an eyewitness,” he said.
George is the Director-General of Research and Studies in the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, Baghdad. He participated in the Nineveh excavation project, as well as the Babylon restoration. His association with the museum began in 1976 and he became the museum’s director in 2003.
The Iraq Museum is “the only museum in the world that has history and culture of mankind in one spot,” George explained.
After the museum looting, over 20 international archaeologists wrote a collection of essays for the book, “The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad – The Lost Legacy of Ancient Mesopotamia,” filled with 190 color illustrations. The book reconstructs the museum’s collection and George wrote the forward. The inside cover of the book explains: “Iraq is a country of firsts: the earliest villages, cities, writing, poetry, epic literature, temples, codified religion, armies, warfare, world economy, and empire.” Hence, Iraq is the Cradle of Civilization.
According to the book’s front cover, a portion of the royalties from the sale of the book will be donated to the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage.
In April 2003, looters plundered over 15,000 antiquities from the Iraq Museum and 5,000 of them were most precious objects, such as jewelry and figurines. Within two years looters unearthed over 8,000 artifacts from the country’s 12,000 archaeological sites. The looting of archaeological sites is an ongoing problem, especially in Southern Iraq.
After his slide presentation, George showed an aerial photo of Umma - an archaeological site of eight square kilometers. The landscape contained thousands of pits. “These are from people digging there for antiquities,” he added.
Although the new police system has recruited 1,700 people, they lack communication systems and cars.
The Museum Looters
How much money is in the antiquities market? According to one of the book’s essays, “Theft of Time,” by Angela M. H. Schuster, antiquities smuggling is “a multibillion-dollar business… [that] ranks third in international monetary terms, behind drug smuggling and weapons sales.”
“There is a market for this material,” George said. “There is a demand.” He explained that there were three kinds of looters in the museum: people who took computers and TVs from the administrative area; people who had a good knowledge of antiquities; and finally, people who looted the storeroom, which contained boxes of cylinder seals and pottery.
The second category of looters knew which statues were authentic and which statues were replicas because they left some of the reproductions alone. Based on the museum team’s findings, if a looter came for a specific antiquity in mind and he found the showcase empty, he shattered it. Perhaps, out of anger. “We believe it was planned…to get these important pieces…” George added.
Looters smashed numerous antiquities including a terra-cotta lion from Shaduppum / Tel Harmal, from the early second millennium B.C. Moreover, they beheaded statues, such as the Statue from Hatra. The body is on a rectangular pedestal, but a deep crack runs diagonal above the toes of the right foot. Finally, looters knocked statues into pieces, including a statue of King Nebuchadnezzar from the Assyrian Period. A photo shows the statue strewn across the museum floor - stone bits in between five broken pieces.
When the attacks on Iraq began, George could not return home for three days. On April 8, 2003 around 5 A.M. rows of shooting tanks surrounded the area. By 9:30 A.M. there were three people left in the museum and George was one of them. Although they prepared to descend into the museum’s storerooms where it was safer, Iraqi militia were on the museum’s front lawn.
After the three men locked the doors to the museum they crossed the Tigris River with the intention of coming back. By 3 P.M., they tried to cross the bridge but the shooting was so bad that people could not cross it safely. Helicopter gun ships flew above the museum.
In the interim, the museum team established headquarters at a hotel. While listening to the news, George heard about the looting of the museum.
During his lecture, George paused for a moment. He looked at the podium and he continued.
On Sunday, April 13, George and his colleagues met with U.S. officers, asking that the museum be protected.
“Is there anything left?” the officer asked.
They replied yes.
Three days later, on April 16, around 7:30 A.M., tanks rolled into the area and surrounded the museum.
What happened, over the course of two days, inside the museum that housed antiquities covering 10,000 years of human history?
The looters entered the building through high glass windows surrounded by fences. George and his colleagues found glasscutters, so it was clear that people had intentions of looting the museum. They smashed holes into doors and they trashed files that contained archival documents, negatives, slides, and photos. The museum’s corridors looked like deserted areas.
From the Islamic galleries they pillaged wall paintings, but smashed other paintings. They took wooden door panels from Samarra, cuneiform tablets and important ivory. The cylinder and stamp seal collection – 5,800 objects total – pilfered by the looters.
Another major problem was flooding. Whenever there is any impact to the Central Bank, water flows. As a result, groundwater, insects, fungus and wet, wrapping material damaged the artifacts housed in the Central Bank’s storage rooms. One example is the Mona Lisa of Nimrud, from the 9th – 8th century B.C., which suffered severe head damage (Chapter VII, “Babylonians and Assyrians,” by Julian Reade).
Antiquity Recoveries, Restoration and the Effects of Military Occupation
Despite the rampant looting some Iraqis recovered stolen antiquities and brought them back to the museum. With Colonel Matthew Bogdanos in charge of the recovery, they established a “no questions asked” policy for people who returned objects.
Two young, Iraqi boys told George that he could depend on their good honor. Soon after, they brought nine artifacts back in a van. Another man brought back the “fragment of a male statue with an inscription of Naram-Sin, copper alloy from near Bassetki, c 2250 B.C.” (“From Village to Empire: The Rise of Sumer and Akkad,” by Paul Collins).
George explained that the artist used the wax technique for this statue, but looters took it then greased it and then they suspended it in a septic tank. Upon its return to the museum, it was still covered in grease. George showed the audience photos of the statue before and after archaeologists removed the oily lubricant.
From March through May 2005, an Iraqi youth organization called the Protectors of Antiquities traveled the Iraq provinces. They gathered 2,000 looted objects, including 400 clay tablets. Some of these antiquities were from the Iraq Museum.
In June 2003, several Iraqi men returned a piece known as the Warka Vase. According to Diana McDonald’s essay, “The Warka Vase,” the 4,300-year-old alabaster antiquity “…is one of the most important objects in the Iraq Museum because it is one of the first illustrations of the ritual and religious practices that were the basis of Mesopotamian society, and come from the most important city in Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium B.C. – Uruk, the modern Warka and biblical Erech.” Looters damaged part of the pictorial designs near the top of the vase and the bottom of its cylindrical base.
The destruction of artifacts at this level affects what people learn about the evolution of humankind. In her essay, “The Ravages of War and the Challenge of Reconstruction,” Selma Al-Radi explains that the significance of safekeeping antiquity collections “…is of vital importance, for without provenance an object loses its point of reference, its history, and its context.”
Basically, how can people understand human development and communication if they lose historical objects?
Through the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Interpol and ICOM, international customs agencies seized 300 objects in Syria, 1,300 most precious objects in Jordan and 300 tablets in Genoa, Italy. Iraq’s Ministry of Culture seeks cooperation from Turkey and Iran in the location of smuggled antiquities and they await feedback from these countries.
During wartime, the loss of antiquities is the occupying power’s responsibility. Artifacts that sustained damage from flooding, looters’ gashes and blows need restoration. U.S. tanks blasted a deep hole into the “Assyrian Gate” of the Iraq Museum, so it needs rehabilitation also.
“We need to arrange these buildings in a way that these buildings will defend themselves,” George said.
The museum has twenty galleries and security implementation is extensive. At present, there is still shooting on Haifa Street, located behind the museum. From time to time, they shoot at the museum guards. The museum remains closed to the public.
“We have to think of other ways to protect the antiquities in a way that can be most effective,” he said.
According to Zainab Bahrani’s essay, “The Fall of Babylon,” the American coalition’s construction of a helipad in the Ruins of Babylon caused severe damage. A couple examples are: “between May and August 2004, the wall of the Temple of Nabu and the roof of the Temple of Ninmah, both of the sixth century B.C., collapsed as a result of the helicopters. Nearby, heavy machines and vehicles stand parked on the remains of a Greek theater from the era of Alexander of Macedon.”
Together with the World Monuments Fund, UNESCO and the Getty Center, George works to train Iraqis in conservation and restoration. In collaboration with Iraq’s Ministry of Education, antiquity conservation involves educational programs for school-age youth, which will teach them how to protect their archaeological and cultural heritage. The Packard Foundation donated computer hardware to the museum used for the virtual construction of the museum’s database; and the U.S. State Department provided funding for the restoration project.
Current museum projects include research potential, collection catalogues and security, as well as display design.
At present, more than half of the looted antiquities, which spanned 10,000 years of humankind, are still missing.
Sonia Nettnin is a freelance writer. Her articles and reviews demonstrate civic journalism, with a focus on international social, economic, humanitarian, gender, and political issues. Media coverage of conflicts from these perspectives develops awareness in public opinion.
Nettnin received her bachelor's degree in English literature and writing. She did master's work in journalism. Moreover, Nettnin approaches her writing from a working woman's perspective, since working began for her at an early age.
She is a poet, a violinist and she studied professional dance. As a writer, the arts are an integral part of her sensibility. Her work has been published in the Palestine Chronicle, Scoop Media and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. She lives in Chicago.