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[casi] The new barbarians: US cultural crimes against Iraq...

and the "whole of humanity, since it is the history
of humanity that has been attacked. For this reason
the sack of Baghdad marks a significant point on the
trajectory of the Bush administration as it attempts
to plunge the world into a new barbarism that would
outstrip anything that history can show from the past."

Dear List,

>From this and other articles, from letters that
have been written, and from appeals that have been
made, it seems clear that archaeologists worldwide
stand firmly behind their Iraqi colleagues, who
are highly respected scholars internationally.

So it is unlikely that Washington will get away
with yet another web of lies, ie, that Iraqi
archaeologists have committed these thefts of
art treasures themselves.



The looting of Baghdad's museum and library

US government implicated in planned theft of Iraqi
artistic treasures

By Ann Talbot

19 April 2003

As the full extent of the looting of Iraq's
National Museum in Baghdad emerges, it becomes clear
that there was nothing accidental about it. Rather it
was the result of a long planned project to plunder the
artistic and historical treasures that are held in the
museums of Iraq.

Had the National Museum of Iraq been looted by poor slum
dwellers it would have been crime enough, and the
responsibility would have rested with the American
administration that refused, despite repeated warnings,
to provide for the security of Baghdad's cultural

Once the museum staff were able to communicate with the
outside world, however, it became apparent that the
looting was not random. It was the work of people who
knew what they were looking for and came specially
equipped for the job.

Dr. Dony George, head of the Baghdad Museum, said,
"I believe they were people who knew what they
wanted. They had passed by the gypsum copy of the Black
Obelisk. This means that they must have been
specialists. They did not touch those copies."

Speaking on Britain's Channel 4 News, he told
Dr. John Curtis of the British Museum that among the
artifacts that have been stolen are the sacred vase of
Warka, a 5,000-year-old golden vessel found at Ur, an
Akkadian statue base, and an Assyrian statue. It was,
said Dr. Curtis, "Like stealing the Mona Lisa."

It was only almost a week after the museum was
originally looted that Dr. George was able to alert
archaeologists worldwide to what had been stolen. The
American military authorities had made no effort to
prevent the objects leaving Baghdad or to put in process
an international search for the stolen artifacts.

The US reluctance to act cannot be explained by any
lack of warning. Professional archaeologists and art
historians had told the Pentagon of the danger of
looting beforehand. Dr. Irving Finkel of the British
Museum told Channel 4 that the looting was "entirely
predictable and could easily have been stopped."

The museum was the victim of a carefully planned
assault. The thieves who took the most valuable material
came prepared with equipment to lift the heaviest
objects, which the staff could not move from the
galleries, and had keys to the vaults where the most
valuable items were stored. Not since the Nazis
systematically stripped the museums of Europe has such a
crime been committed.

The US online publication of BusinessWeek magazine
reiterated the theme of premeditation and conspiracy in
the looting of Iraq's museums in an April 17
article headlined "Were Baghdad's Antiquity
Thieves Ready?" The article carries the subtitle:
"They may have known just what they were looking
for because dealers ordered the most important pieces
well in advance."

BusinessWeek writes: "It was almost as if the
perpetrators were waiting for Baghdad to fall to make
their move. Gil J. Stein, a professor of archaeology at
the University of Chicago, which has been conducting
digs in Iraq for 80 years, believes that dealers ordered
the most important pieces well in advance. --They
were looking for very specific artifacts,' he says.
--They knew where to look.'"

Since the last Gulf War in 1991 Iraqi antiquities have
flooded onto the market from the museums that were
looted then and from archaeological sites that have been
attacked with bulldozers. At such locations ancient
statues have been sawed apart so they could be exported.

This plundering of Iraq's cultural heritage has
only whetted the appetite of collectors who are already
responsible for looting Far Eastern, Latin American and
Italian archaeological sites. With the collapse of
global stock markets, works of art and antiquities have
come to be regarded even more highly as a secure
investment, fuelling an already huge underground market.

The illegal trade in antiquities is thought to be as
lucrative as drugs trafficking, to which it is often
linked. According to a report by the McDonald Institute
for Archaeological Research, "The Trade in illicit
Antiquities: the Destruction of the World's
Archaeological Heritage," produced in 2001, London
and New York are the main markets for this trade.
Switzerland, which allows an art work that has been in
the country for five years to be granted a legal title,
is a key trans-shipment point.

Professor Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, director of the
McDonald Institute at Cambridge, told a press conference
at the report's launch that the trade continued
because "The government is in the pocket of the art
market, which wants to keep the flow of
antiquities." He added, "It's a scandal."

As news of the latest looting broke, the Labour
government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair
organised a hasty press conference in the British
Museum, at which Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell promised
official support to protect Iraqi antiquities.

Even as she spoke, the National Library of Iraq was
being looted. Home to rare, centuries-old illuminated
copies of the Koran and other examples of Islamic
calligraphy, as well as irreplaceable historical
documents from the Ottoman Empire, the building was set
on fire, destroying an untold number of texts.

Reporter Robert Fisk, who saw the flames, ran to get
US marines in an attempt to save some of the collection,
but they refused to help. Fisk wrote in the Independent,
"I gave the map location, the precise name in
Arabic and English. I said the smoke could be seen from
three miles away and it would take only five minutes to
drive there. Half an hour later, there wasn't an
American at the scene and the flames were shooting 200
feet into the air."

After the fate of Baghdad museum, it can only be
concluded that the generalised looting and arson at the
library served to cover up a more systematic crime, in
which select manuscripts were stolen for wealthy
collectors. In the process they connived in the burning
of books--another Nazi practice.

The role of the ACCP

In the aftermath of these two devastating attacks on
culture, attention has focused on the activities of the
American Council for Cultural Policy. Even the British
press that works under some of the toughest libel laws
in the world has been willing to suggest that the ACCP
may have influenced US government policy on Iraqi
cultural artifacts.

The ACCP was formed in 2001 by a group of wealthy art
collectors to lobby against the Cultural Property
Implementation Act, which attempts to regulate the art
market and stop the flow of stolen goods into the US. It
has defended New York art dealer Frederick Schultz, who
was convicted under the National Stolen Property Act,
and opposes the use of the 1977 US v. McClain decision
as a legal precedent in cases concerning the handling of
stolen art objects.

In the McClain case a US judge accepted that all pre-
Columbian art or jewellery brought into the US without
the express consent of the Mexican government was stolen
property. Mexican law regards all archaeological
artifacts as state property and bans their export.
Mexico is one of a number of countries that has such

Ashton Hawkins, a leading art lawyer and founder of the
ACCP, regards such legislation as "retentionist". He
has condemned the archaeologically rich "source"
countries for attempting to protect their archaeological
sites and museums by such measures, and has argued that
under the Clinton administration such "retentionist"
policies came to dominate US government policy.

Hawkins has his sights set on the great Middle Eastern
museums. He has called for the Egyptian antiquities that
are held in the Cairo Museum to be dispersed. "I
would like to propose," he said, "that the
Cairo Museum offer museums around the world the
opportunity to acquire up to 50 objects for their
collections. In return, the museums would make a very
substantial contribution for the construction of the new
museum under the Giza plateau--$1 million each, for

The ACCP's inaugural meeting took place at the
Fifth Avenue apartment of Guido Goldman, a collector of
Uzbek textiles. Among those present were Arthur
Houghton, the former curator of the Getty Museum at
Malibu in California, which is notorious for displaying
works of suspicious provenance. Hawkins himself retired
in 2000 as vice president of the trustees of the
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, an institution
that, according to its own former director, Thomas
Hoving, holds many artifacts looted from Etruscan tombs.

Before the war began, the ACCP met with Pentagon
officials, declaring their great concern for Iraqi
antiquities. What that concern means is evident from the
remarks of William Pearlstein, the group's
treasurer, who also describes Iraqi laws on antiquities
as "retentionist". The ACCP deny that they
want Iraqi laws changed, but the looting of the museum
and library will effectively circumvent that problem if
US law on stolen art objects and archaeological material
can be changed.

Professor John Merryman of Stanford Law School and a
member of the ACCP has called for a "selective
international enforcement of export controls" in US
courts. In other words, it should be perfectly
legitimate to import the objects looted from Baghdad if
a US court chooses not to recognise Iraqi legislation.

Merryman set out the organisation's principles in a
1998 paper in which he argued that the fact that an art
object had been stolen did not in itself bar it from
lawful importation into the US.

He went on to claim, "The existence of a market
preserves cultural objects that might otherwise be
destroyed or neglected by providing them with a market
value. 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"
(International Law and Politics, vol. 31: 1).

This is a self-justifying argument that reeks of
hypocrisy. Wealthy collectors can now point to the chaos
on the streets of Baghdad, the looting of the museum and
the burning of the library as evidence that the Iraqis
are unable or unwilling--too poor or too ignorant--to
look after their treasures, which would be better
housed in American museums or private collections.

The ACCP's ideas represent the interests of
particularly rapacious sections of the US ruling class,
who operate on the principle that everything--even
an object of priceless artistic or scientific
value--is defined by its "market value".

What they mean is price, since the real value of the
objects stolen from the Museum of Baghdad and the Iraqi
National Library is incalculable. These are quite
literally people who understand the price of everything
and the value of nothing.

The prescription for the market to determine possession
of and access to works of art and archaeological
material would place these artifacts in the hands of a
rich minority and make public access to them depend on
the good will of their wealthy owners. Despite the fact
that many of the ACCP members have been associated with
major public institutions, their agenda is profoundly
opposed to the public dissemination of art and
archaeology. They are not only trying to change the law
in other countries, but are working against the most
progressive traditions of American society, which has
always prized its public museums.

A scientific tradition

The development of public museums went hand in hand with
the development of a scientific understanding of
archaeological artifacts and the societies that produced
them. Publicly funded museums represented a break with
the tradition of private treasure hunting. Their
exhibits aimed to display the material artifacts of the
past in a rational and scientific manner.

The accumulation of archaeological artifacts in private
hands tends to disrupt scientific work, since material
becomes scattered, is difficult to catalogue and much of
it remains unknown to scholars working in the field.
Public museums are public not only in their funding and
because they open their galleries to visitors, but in
the sense that they make knowledge available to
all--something that has been recognised as a primary
requisite of the scientific process since the scientific
revolution of the seventeenth century.

One of the effects of the looting of the Baghdad museum
has been to destroy the card catalogue and computer
records of the museum's holdings. This has not only
made tracking down its treasures more difficult, but has
also undermined generations of patient archaeological
work. To destroy such a catalogue is, both in a symbolic
and practical sense, to make a collection private,
because its contents become unknown to the outside world.

While the major objects are well known internationally,
a museum's records goes far beyond these spectacular
works of art. It includes all the minor finds of
archaeological excavations that, in themselves,
are not eye-catching, but when studied together produce
a picture of a society that cannot be gained from its
art alone.

Archaeologists spend their time sifting the detritus of
past civilisations, often literally. They may sieve tons
of earth looking for beetle wing cases or seeds. Cess
pits and rubbish heaps produce a wealth of knowledge.
What is thrown away and discarded provides a context for
the relics of great temples and palaces, or royal tombs.

Petr Charvat's recent book Mesopotamia before
History [1] contains lovingly photographed images of
pieces of mud impressed with rush matting. This is not
the stuff to grace a collector's cabinet, but
reveals vital information about the craft skills and way
of life of ancient Mesopotamians.

A blow to world scholarship

The Baghdad museum was more than a place to display
artifacts. All excavations carried out in Iraq by
international teams of archaeologists were reported to
it. The museum therefore possessed a database of
knowledge that was accessible to researchers
internationally, and was the hub of a vast cooperative
endeavour. Its looting and the destruction of its
records are a blow to world scholarship. It threatens to
turn the clock back more than 150 years to the period
before scientific archaeology in Mesopotamia.

Early excavations were by modern standards unscientific,
as excavators were still learning their discipline by a
process of trial and error. One of the most elementary
lessons of that learning process was that context is
everything in archaeology. An artifact can only tell its
full story if its context is known.

By context, an archaeologist means the physical position
of an artifact in the ground, its relationship to other
artifacts and to the layers of earth around it. From
this information it is possible to determine an
artifact's relative date and considerable
information about its practical use and social
significance. Ripped out of this context, it loses much
of its meaning. Even the finest work of art can be
better appreciated when its context and the social
conditions of its creators are understood.

In its widest sense, understanding an artifact's
context means understanding its relationship to the
entire archaeological site at which it was found, to
other sites round about it, and to the historic
landscape in which it belongs. While national feelings
are often evoked to justify keeping archaeological
artifacts in their country of origin, the more important
scientific reason for doing so is that the context of
the artifact is preserved by keeping it close to where
it was found.

It is still possible to see in modern Iraq houses built
by similar methods to those employed by ancient builders
and to see boats built to similar designs. The full
significance of Mesopotamian artifacts can only be
appreciated by seeing them in the context of the
extraordinary landscape of modern Iraq--a country
where every hill that rises above the plain has been
built up from layers of mud brick representing
generations of occupation.

The American colonial administrator, retired general
Jay Garner, tried to co-opt the emotional impact of that
landscape for his own political purposes by holding his
big tent meeting within view of the 4,000-year-old
ziggurat of Ur, which was the temple platform for the
moon god Nanna. But by allowing the museum of Baghdad to
be looted, the US authorities have shown they have no
regard for the real importance of Iraq to human history.

When the medieval European cartographers who drew the
thirteenth century Hereford map of the world set out to
represent the planet on which they lived, they put Asia
at the top because to them it was the most important
continent. There lay the lands of the Bible. Jerusalem
was at the very centre of their world view, and beyond
it lay Babylon, the scene of the Jewish captivity, the
Tower of Babel and Abraham's home in the city of Ur.

So deeply impressed on the European mind was the
Biblical image of the world that the first excavators of
ancient sites in this region were looking for
confirmation of the Bible. Even in the twentieth
century, Leonard Woolley referred to his excavations at
Warka by the Biblical name of Ur of the Chaldees.

Yet the material that came out the excavations carried
out by Woolley, and others such as Layard, Botta and
Hormuzd Rassam, shook the Biblical view of the world.
Not the least important discovery was that familiar
Bible stories such as Noah and the Flood had their
origin in Mesopotamia long before the Bible was written.
As the cuneiform writing of thousands of clay tablets
was deciphered, it was realised that numerous complex
and highly developed civilisations had existed in
Mesopotamia of an antiquity never before guessed.

The full extent of this history only became apparent as
the technique of Carbon 14 dating and other scientific
methods were refined. Only in the second half of the
twentieth century was it realised that settled farming
could be traced back to the mid-eleventh millennium BC
in the Middle East.

The cradle of civilization

The earliest farming communities do not occur in the
area that is present-day Iraq, but in the better watered
highlands of the Zagros Mountains, Anatolia, the Levant
and the Deh Luran Plain. Nevertheless, Iraq was the
centre of the second phase of the protracted Neolithic
Revolution that began with the domestication of animals
and cereal crops.

In Iraq that revolution went a significant step further
with the development of irrigation, a technique that
vastly increased agricultural productivity. The surplus
produced by irrigation allowed the first urban
civilisation on the planet to emerge in the very region
that the combined military forces of the US and the UK
are reducing to a wasteland.

By 5800 BC, small farming communities were appearing
along the Euphrates. Within a few centuries they had
coalesced into dense urban settlements, each of several
thousand people centred on a temple which was largely
responsible for managing the irrigation system,
distributing food, and importing stone, minerals and
timber from the neighbouring highlands.

Over two millennia these Mesopotamian cities developed
the art of copper smelting, alloying bronze and, most
importantly, writing. Writing was essential to the
administration of cities that depended on a largely
artificial ecosystem created by irrigation, and which
needed to import even the most vital raw materials.[2]

Writing enabled a dramatic intellectual development to
take place. What began as a method of recording stores
and deliveries became a medium for writing poetry,
stories and history. Science and mathematics flourished.

Modern research has revealed evidence of multiplication
tables, tables of reciprocals, squares, square roots,
cubes and logarithms to bases 2 and 16. Other texts show
volumes and areas, linear and quadratic equations.
Babylonian mathematicians calculated the value of pi to
3.125, close to its true value. Astronomy was highly
developed and if it was understood in terms of omens and
prophecy, its predictions of eclipses and the movement
of the planets were nonetheless accurate.[3]

The social and political structure of Mesopotamian
society cannot be traced directly from its material
remains, and archaeologists differ about its character
and the course of its development, but Petr Charvat
finds in Mesopotamian society to 3000 BC that "in
all spheres of society the principle of universality and
equality comes to the fore ... the material standard of
living is equalised by redistribution ... people meet in
assemblies to discuss and decide matters of common
interest.... All receive the same treatment in life and
death" ( Mesopotamia Before History, pp. 158-59).

>From 3000 BC there is some evidence of social
stratification and the emergence of a political elite or
ruling class in the "royal burials" of Ur, but
some archaeologists dispute this characterisation of
those burials.

In this period two great civilisations emerge: in the
south of present-day Iraq is the Sumerian civilization,
and in the north the Akkadian, which are both based on a
collection of city states that preserve many of the
cultural traditions of the earlier period. Not until
2334 BC does the first empire appear under the rule of
Sargon of Agade, who unites these two confederations.

Sargon's short-lived empire was replaced by that of
Ur Nammu in 2112 BC. The thousands of clay tablets that
survive from this period testify to the careful
management of resources that kept this empire alive
until 1990 BC, when it was replaced by the Babylonian
empire, which reached its high point under Hammurabi in
1792 BC.

The mid-fourteenth century BC saw the rise of the first
Assyrian empire. The Assyrians were to dominate
Mesopotamia again, and the whole region from the Gulf to
the Mediterranean in the ninth century BC. In 612 BC the
Babylonian empire was established. It most outstanding
ruler, Nebuchadnezzar, built the Hanging Gardens of
Babylon, the double walls of the city, the great
ziggurat and the processional way. He was responsible
for sacking Jerusalem and taking many of the Jews into

This succession of empires and the Persian empire that
followed were sustained by the immense productivity of
the irrigation system and the complex system of
administration that maintained it. The sophisticated
concepts that had been developed in the process fed into
the intellectual systems of later societies. Even the
Greeks, from whom we derive the name for the land
between the rivers, stood in awe of Mesopotamia's

One of the ministries that has been systematically
destroyed in the recent days of looting is the Ministry
of Irrigation. We might say that by this act the US
administration seeks to drive Iraq back to the dark
ages, except that Iraq has never known a dark age in the
sense that Europe has. Empires might rise and fall, but
as long as the irrigation system continued to function
the land between the rivers could produce more food than
it needed. By attacking the irrigation system, the US
administration is causing more damage in a few weeks
than any other previous invader.

Iraq's cultural significance did not end with the
close of the Persian empire. Throughout the European
dark ages it remained a haven of learning, preserving
under the Caliphs of Baghdad classical texts lost in the
West. Islamic scholarship was to prove vital to the re-
emergence of Aristotelian philosophy in thirteenth
century Europe and to the Renaissance.

The full extent of the losses in this respect will only
become apparent when the looting at the National Library
is itemised. That account is yet to come.

What is already clear is that a great crime has been
committed against not only the Iraqi people, but against
the whole of humanity, since it is the history of
humanity that has been attacked. For this reason the
sack of Baghdad marks a significant point on the
trajectory of the Bush administration as it attempts to
plunge the world into a new barbarism that would
outstrip anything that history can show from the past.

1. Petr Charv t, Mesopotamia before History, Routledge, 2002.
2. Brian M. Fagan, People of the Earth, Prentice Hall, 2001.
3. Michael Roaf, Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia, Equinox books, 1990

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