The following is an archived copy of a message sent to a Discussion List run by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

Views expressed in this archived message are those of the author, not of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

[Main archive index/search] [List information] [Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]

[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

[casi] Looters Stole 6,000 Artifacts

[ Presenting plain-text part of multi-format email ]

Hello all,

here are 3 more stories about the looting of Iraq's National Museum:

a) Looters Stole 6,000 Artifacts (Washington Post 21/06/03)
b) Iraq's museums: what really happened (Guardian 18/06/03))

c) What really happened at the Baghdad museum? (Guardian 19/06/03)

Dirk Adriaensens

Looters Stole 6,000 Artifacts
Number Expected to Rise as Officials Take Inventory in Iraq

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 21, 2003; Page A16

U.S. and Iraqi officials have confirmed the theft of at least 6,000 artifacts from Iraq's National 
Museum of Antiquities during a prolonged looting spree as U.S. forces entered Baghdad two months 
ago, a leading archaeologist said yesterday.

University of Chicago archaeologist McGuire Gibson said the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs 
Enforcement told him June 13 that the official count of missing items had reached 6,000 and was 
climbing as museum and Customs investigators proceeded with an inventory of three looted storerooms.

The June 13 total was double the number of stolen items reported by Customs a week earlier, and 
Gibson suggested the final tally could be "far, far worse." Customs could not immediately obtain an 
updated report, a spokesman said.

The mid-June count was the latest in a confusing chain of seemingly contradictory estimates of 
losses at the museum, the principal repository of artifacts from thousands of Iraqi archaeological 
sites documenting human history from the dawn of civilization 7,000 years ago to the pinnacle of 
medieval Islam.

It now appears, however, that although the losses were not nearly as grave as early reports 
indicated, they go far beyond the 33 items known to have been taken from the museum's display 
halls. Gibson said looters sacked two ground-floor storerooms and broke into a third in the 
basement. Two other storerooms appear to have been untouched.

Gibson noted that there are "thousands of things that are broken" but not listed as missing. And 
teams of archaeologists sent by the National Geographic Society found widespread looting of 
artifacts from sites outside Baghdad. None of these are museum pieces, and most were simply plucked 
from the ground.

"Like any museum, the display collection is an iceberg," Gibson said. "Because this is an 
archaeological museum, there's a huge amount of stuff that's important to the sites themselves and 
to researchers, but never goes on display."

Looters broke into the downtown Baghdad museum and sacked it for several days in early April as 
U.S. forces toppled the government of Saddam Hussein and took possession of the Iraqi capital. U.S. 
soldiers were harshly criticized for standing idle as the looters rampaged through the building.

The museum housed 170,000 numbered items and thousands more artifacts that had either not yet been 
catalogued or had been set aside in a ground-floor "study collection" storeroom for researchers to 

Reporters and investigators arriving in the first days after the looting saw a virtually empty 
museum that had been thoroughly trashed. They assumed the worst, Gibson said, an impression that 
the museum staff did not seek to dispel.

In fact, the staff -- anticipating possible looting -- had spirited away a huge portion of the 
inventory, including almost everything portable in the display collection, and stashed it either in 
the basement or in off-site bunkers, Gibson said. Staff had also hidden a gold collection in a 
Central Bank vault during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and never removed it.

When U.S. authorities took their first close look at the damage, it appeared the finest artifacts 
had been "cherry-picked" by thieves with inside knowledge. Some U.S. officials suggested that staff 
members might have been complicit.

"This was unfortunate" but easily explained, Gibson said. Bitterly offended by U.S. forces' failure 
to protect the museum from the looters, staffers "were not going to give information on where 
things were," he added. Today, museum staff and U.S. investigators from Customs and the FBI have "a 
very good relationship," Gibson said.

Although the display collection lost only a few heavy, nonremovable artifacts that were either cut 
in pieces or ripped from their pedestals, the overall toll was much worse. Staff members began to 
inventory the museum's five storerooms in May. Losses there numbered in the thousands.

Both ground-floor storerooms had been looted, Gibson said. One housed the study collection, while 
the other held shelved artifacts and about 10 steel trunks containing as-yet unnumbered material 
from recent digs. All the trunks had been opened and emptied, Gibson said.

Two basement storerooms appeared to be untouched, including one containing most of the museum's 
priceless collection of cuneiform tablets, Gibson said. The third had been breached, however, and 
contained "some of the most important stuff in the museum, including pottery and ivory inlays," he 

 2003 The Washington Post Company

Iraq's museums: what really happened,11710,980042,00.html
The truth behind the sacking of a cultural heritage is far less colourful than the allegations of 
corruption and cover-up

Eleanor Robson
Wednesday June 18, 2003
The Guardian

What is the true extent of the losses to the Iraq Museum -170,000 objects or only 33? The arguments 
have raged these past two weeks as accusations of corruption, incompetence and cover-ups have flown 
around. Most notably, Dan Cruickshank's BBC film Raiders of the Lost Art insinuated that the staff 
had grossly misled the military and the press over the extent of the losses, been involved with the 
looting themselves, allowed the museum to be used as a military position, and had perhaps even 
harboured Saddam Hussein. The truth is less colourful.

Two months ago, I compared the demolition of Iraq's cultural heritage with the Mongol sacking of 
Baghdad in 1258, and the 5th-century destruction of the library of Alexandria. On reflection, that 
wasn't a bad assessment of the present state of Iraq's cultural infrastructure. Millions of books 
have been burned, thousands of manuscripts and archaeological artefacts stolen or destroyed, 
ancient cities ransacked, universities trashed.

At the beginning of this year, the staff, led by Dr Dony George and Dr Nawala al-Mutawalli, began 
to pack up the museum in a well-established routine first devised during the Iran-Iraq war. 
Defensive bunkers were dug in the grounds. Early in April, Dr John Curtis, head of the Ancient Near 
East department at the British Museum, described a recent visit to Baghdad during which the museum 
staff were sandbagging objects too big to be moved, packing away smaller exhibits, and debating 
"the possibility of using bank vaults and bunkers if the worst came".

The worst did come. On April 11 the news arrived that the museum had been looted. We later 
discovered that there had been a two-day gun battle, at the start of which the remaining museum 
staff fled for their lives. Fedayeen broke into a storeroom and set up a machine gun at a window.

While senior Iraqi officials were begging for help in Baghdad, the US Civil Affairs Brigade in 
Kuwait was also trying from April 12 to get the museum protected. They already knew that its most 
valuable holdings were in vaults of the recently bombed Central Bank. The museum was secured on 
April 16, but it took until April 21 for Civil Affairs to arrive.

Captain William Sumner wrote to me that day: "It seems that most of the museum's artefacts had been 
moved to other locations, but the ones that were looted were 'staged' at an area so that they would 
be easier to access. It was a very professional action. The spare looting you saw on the news were 
the excess people who came in to pick over what was left." In other words, there was no cover-up: 
the military were informed immediately that the evacuation procedures had been effective. 
Suspicions remained that a single staff member may have assisted the core looters. But, Sumner 
says: "It might have been one of the grounds people, or anybody. I suspect that we will never know."

Within a week the museum was secure enough for George to travel to London. At a press conference he 
circulated a list of some 25 smashed and stolen objects which the curators had been unable to move 
from the public galleries before the war. They included the now famous Warka vase, which had been 
cemented in place. Last week it was returned in pieces. Other losses came from the corridor where 
objects were waiting to be moved off-site. George was understandably reluctant to reveal the 
location of the off-site storage to the Civil Affairs Brigade as security was still non-existent.

Inventories of the badly vandalised storerooms finally began after the catalogues were pieced 
together from the debris of the ransacked offices. Dr John Russell, an expert in looted Iraqi 
antiqui ties, made a room-by-room report for Unesco late in May. He noted that most of the objects 
that had been returned since the looting "were forgeries and reproductions". Other losses, he 
reported, included some 2,000 finds from last season's excavations at sites in central Iraq. His 
summary tallied well with George's. "Some 30 major pieces from exhibition galleries. Unknown 
thousands of excavated objects from storage. Major works from galleries smashed or damaged." The 
unknown thousands are beginning to be quantified. Expert assessors in Vienna last week estimated 
the losses from the museum storerooms at between 6,000 and 10,000.

Outside the Iraq Museum, the picture is equally grim. At Baghdad University, classrooms, 
laboratories and offices have been vandalised, and equipment and furniture stolen or destroyed. 
Student libraries have been emptied. Nabil al-Tikriti of the Univer sity of Chicago reported in May 
that the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs lost 600-700 manuscripts in a malicious fire 
and more than 1,000 were stolen. The House of Wisdom and the Iraqi Academy of Sciences were also 
looted. The National Library was burned to the ground and most of its 12 million books are assumed 
to have been incinerated.

In the galleries of Mosul Museum, cuneiform tablets were stolen and smashed. The ancient cities of 
Nineveh, Nimrud, and Hatra lost major sculpture to looting. The situation is far worse in the 
south. Some 15-20 large archaeological sites, mostly ancient Sumerian cities, were comprehensively 
pillaged by armed gangs.

It will take years of large-scale international assistance and delicate diplomacy to return the 
Iraq Museum to functionality. The process is deeply charged with the politics of occupation and 
post-Ba'athist reaction. The Civil Affairs officers are discover ing that senior staff are not 
necessarily enamoured of the American way, while junior staff are testing their newfound freedom to 
complain about their bosses. One insider commented: "George might make them work instead of read 
papers. And that is what all the fuss is about."

The British School of Archaeology in Iraq and the British Museum now have staff working in the Iraq 
Museum, while other organisations worldwide are fundraising. George, Mutawalli and his colleagues 
have achieved the extraordinary in preserving as much as they have. We now need to help them 
salvage as much as possible from the wreckage and re-establish the country's cultural 
infrastructure so that Iraqis can plan their future knowing their past is secure.

 Eleanor Robson is a council member of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq and a fellow of 
All Souls College, Oxford

What really happened at the Baghdad museum?,2763,980368,00.html
Yesterday an eminent archaeologist claimed in the Guardian that Baghdad museum staff had not 
exaggerated the extent of losses during the war, or been involved in the looting afterwards. Here 
the man who first raised doubts about the museum's story responds

Dan Cruickshank
Thursday June 19, 2003
The Guardian

When the director of research at the Baghdad museum, Donny George, first issued his emotive plea to 
the world about the thousands of items missing or stolen, he didn't seem to realise that, along 
with emotion, it would also generate a determination to investigate. I went to find out what 
happened, and discovered compelling evidence not only that the initial figure attributed to the 
museum - 170,000 items lost or destroyed - was a huge exaggeration, but also that some of the 
looting may have been an inside job. It also seemed to me that treasures may have been plundered by 
senior Baathists long before the war.

In addition, we found a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and other arms in a storeroom. This 
seemed to prove that the museum had indeed been a prepared military position, just as the Americans 
had claimed, not a cultural site that had, by chance, become embroiled in the battle for Baghdad.

But now the waters are being muddied, and old reports and information are being recycled, creating 
confusion. The article in yesterday's Guardian by Eleanor Robson, a fellow of All Souls college and 
an archaeologist specialising in Iraq, seems to me to be a case in point.

Nobody is disputing that many things have gone missing, but the questions are, who took them, and 
when? Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, the New York lawyer coordinating the US search for missing 
antiquities, said in a recent report in collaboration with George that there were 33 major pieces 
still missing. Then the sacred Warka Vase reappeared, so now there are 32. Along with the many 
smaller items, it's very possible that the 6,000 to 10,000 figure that Robson cites may be accurate.

But as the five museum storerooms have been examined more thoroughly in recent weeks, they have 
turned out not to have been ransacked. Only three were entered by thieves and only key items, their 
locations known only to a few people, had been removed.

Furthermore, many of the 33 major pieces supposedly taken from the galleries are extremely 
valuable, and very small - prime candidates for being put into storage pre-war. So why hadn't they? 
That led me to conclude that, quite possibly, they had disappeared some time ago.

The news this week that the museum staff were staging a revolt against the senior personnel didn't 
surprise me, either: it was clear to me that they were unhappy, and I was even shown a whip that 
had apparently been used on them by members of the museum security department. They talked about 
the upper echelons of the museum hierarchy - people such as George - being Baathists who had to 
report on them. The whole culture of terror that you would associate with a totalitarian regime was 
in place.

That fear may explain the whereabouts of other missing items: I went to the place where 4,000 
manuscripts were being stored and the people there said they did not want to return them - they did 
not trust the Baathists at the museum.

As well as adding to the confusion over the looting, Robson repeats as fact the claim that the 
bunkers in the museum grounds were purely defensive, but that's one of the things that is under 
dispute. The Americans claim there were 150 Iraqi soldiers there, and that the bunkers were 
fighting positions - and they cited evidence for this. Pretending that this question is settled is 
a very significant sleight of hand.

Robson also says the arms found in the museum storeroom were there because Fedayeen had broken into 
it. But they hadn't - the door was open and the lock intact when US soldiers arrived. Who unlocked 
it and when remains a mystery.

That said, I'm quite prepared to believe that the museum heads are victims, not villains - that 
they are being terrorised by high-ranking former Baathists who are threatening to kill them if they 
say what really happened. But, for now, great caution must be exercised before the museum is handed 
back to them: there are so many inconsistencies, and they are tainted by being members of a foul 
regime, even if they weren't themselves foul members of it. Emotionally, it may be impossible for 
them to reconcile what has actually happened with anything that it would be acceptable to say now.

Part of the museum is due to reopen on July 3, and I am very alarmed about that. Are these 
artefacts safe? Really? What we need now is to discover the truth. We need to know what really 
happened. An attempt to patch over the cracks - to smooth things over for George and his chums - is 
exactly what we don't need here.

Sent via the discussion list of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.
To unsubscribe, visit
To contact the list manager, email
All postings are archived on CASI's website:

[Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]