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June 13, 2003

Recursive museum updates
Posted by Teresa at 12:09 AM *

Start with the joyful news that many of you will have already heard, which is that the National Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad lost far fewer artifacts than was originally thought. By these estimates it still lost 33 irreplaceable items and perhaps 3,000 less significant ones—a loss sufficient to produce screams of outrage, if it happened to one of our museums—but that’s still a huge improvement over the initial reports.

Who wouldn’t rejoice to hear this? David Aaronovitch, for one, writing in the Guardian. He’s very angry at the museum’s Director of Research, Dr. Donny George, who as of 14 April:
… was distraught. The museum had housed the leading collection of the continuous history of mankind, “And it’s gone, and it’s lost. If Marines had started [protecting the museum] before, none of this would have happened. It’s too late. It’s no use. It’s no use.”
So sad! Only it didn’t happen quite that way:
There was some looting and damage to a small number of galleries and storerooms, and that is grievous enough. But over the past six weeks it has gradually become clear that most of the objects which had been on display in the museum galleries were removed before the war. Some of the most valuable went into bank vaults, where they were discovered last week. Eight thousand more have been found in 179 boxes hidden “in a secret vault”. And several of the larger and most remarked items seem to have been spirited away long before the Americans arrived in Baghdad.
So yes, there was some looting, the museum took some serious losses, other museums in Iraq were unquestionably looted as well, and of course Iraq’s archaeological sites have been getting hit hard by pot-hunters since the Gulf War; but it would appear that on that day in April, Dr. Donny George misrepresented the situation just a tad.

I could be mistaken, but to me David Aaronovitch’s upset sounds a lot like that burst of anger that hits you after the first wave of relief subsides, right after you’ve discovered that your best beloved was not in fact on the flight that crashed, but hadn’t thought to phone and tell you so. You’ll be forever grateful that he was spared—but first you have to shake him by the shoulders and yell “Don’t ever scare me like that again!”

Besides, Aaronovitch, along with every other commentator I’ve heard so far, has missed what I would have thought was an obvious possibility. If I were the curator of the National Museum of Antiquities, and I knew I was facing a spell of civil chaos, I can only hope that I too would have the motherwit to stand up in front of the reporters and cry “Alas! Eheu! Welawey! All the good stuff has been looted! The cheap stuff too! We’re stripped to the walls! There’s nothing left!” If that’s what he intended, it worked. As Tom Tomorrow noted, the museum turns out to be one of the only major institutions in Baghdad that wasn’t completely looted. I’ll put up with having my emotions played with, if it means the holdings are preserved. Plenty of things in this life are distasteful while doing no one any good at all.

Assorted ankle-high freepi have gotten the idea that this should be the occasion for a vast confession of left-of-center error and guilt. Wrong, wrong, wrong. No one owes anyone an apology for having believed a story that was reported by every major news feed on the planet. And if anyone were owed an apology, these pismires aren’t the ones it would be owed to; so what the hell are they doing trying to collect on it? Go away! Take dance lessons or something. Get a different hobby.

They didn’t think it up on their own, of course; it has too many new sentences in it. They got it from Andrew Sullivan, a man who’s spending this decade pursuing the loss of the good of the intellect like a Boy Scout going after a merit badge. Here’s Joe Conason on it, in his Salon column:
Andrew Sullivan arraigns me (and Frank Rich and other Bush administration critics) for “hyping” reports about the looting of priceless artifacts in Iraq…Happily, “only 33” irreplaceable items are now believed lost—along with what noted archaeologist and antiquarian Sully describes as “3,000 minor objects of limited value.” (If 33 “priceless pieces” and another 3,000 of lesser worth were stolen from the Smithsonian or the Metropolitan Museum, that would be considered the heist of the century.)

That the ultimate losses weren’t much worse can be attributed to the foresight of the museum’s staff rather than the wisdom of Rummy.

So I don’t see any reason to revise my roasting of the defense secretary, whose nonchalant patter about “that same vase” badly damaged the prestige of the United States.
Tom Tomorrow’s response was more colorful:
The blurb for Sullivan’s “Liberal Idiocy of the Week” column over at Salon (you can go find it yourself if you’re interested) reads:
It was originally reported that 170,000 priceless artifacts were looted from Iraq’s national museum. That number now stands at 33. Will overeager Bush critics issue corrections?
So. Let’s put on our thinking caps. Is there anything else, anything perhaps slightly more important, which turns out to have been not quite as initially reported? Such as, say, the WMD’s which were the justification for the entire war? Why anyone continues to take Sullivan seriously is beyond my comprehension as a simple uneducated cartoonist. But it’s no wonder he keeps harping on this one— misdirection is everything. Consider two points: (1) the museum may have been the only goddamned site in Iraq which wasn’t looted down to the bare walls, and (2) that was only due to the foresight of the museum officials. If you will forgive me the indulgence of quoting one of my own previous posts:
The fact that the museum’s curators managed to hide the majority of the museum’s treasures in advance does not make the US indifference to that museum’s looting any more ethically palatable. If a police officer stands by and watches a mugger shoot a victim and does nothing to stop it, he’s still guilty of negligence even if the victim lives because he happened to be wearing a bulletproof vest.
Tom Tomorrow’s staying with this story, and has posted an update on it. Eric Alterman (no permalinks; scroll down to June 11, “Raiders of the Lost Art”) notes this Washington Post story from June 9 (“All Along, Most Iraqi Relics Were ‘Safe and Sound’”), and quotes this letter to the H-Diplo list from Jeff Tenuth, historian and chief cataloger at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis:
As an historian with twenty years experience in the museum field, I was astonished to read that the Washington Post is now an authoritative source on the number of artifacts missing from the Iraqi National Museum and other sites. While we may never know exactly how many artifacts are missing, it is certainly more than 33. And it is not just museums that have been looted, but important archaeological sites as well. Part of the problem lies in poor record-keeping on the part of the Museum itself. That is a common problem in the museum world. I doubt if there is a museum in the world that has an exact accounting of all its artifacts. A number of the artifacts may have been destroyed, hence they will never be found. It is also true that the United States government was warned that this may happen. Yet it did nothing to prevent the destruction and/or theft of artifacts that represent the beginnings of civilization. It is not only the Iraqi legacy that has been destroyed, but ours as well. We should all lament this loss. We have lost not only part of our history, but part of our humanity as well. For those interested in reading more on this topic, they may consult several websites including (The American Association of Museums),, and (the International Council on Museums). The ICOM site has recently published a “Red List” of twenty-five artifacts that head the list of missing artifacts. Other lists are in preparation. Some of the artifacts date back to the Ubaid period, the last pre-historic period before the advent of civilization in Iraq (i.e. before the invention of writing). It is also worth noting that ICOM has published a list of forty-two Iraqi museums that are compiling lists of artifacts that may be missing or destroyed. Among the most important clues to identifying missing artifacts are: 1) any object with a number on it or a number beginning with “IM” (Iraqi Museum), 2) any tablet or objects written in cuneiform, and 3) any object or tablet written in Aramaic. Also, the museum world is developing strategies to help prevent the export, sale, and acquisition of Iraqi artifacts that belong to the Iraqi people and the world.
Finally, whereas in the Washington Post of June 9, “Most Iraqi Relics Were ‘Safe and Sound’”, in the Washington Post of June 12 it turns out that “Worst Looting May Be In Remote Parts of Iraq”:
While considerable attention has been focused on the looting and damage to antiquities in Baghdad, the scale of damage may be far greater in the rest of Iraq, home to some of the most ancient sites of human civilization, according to the most comprehensive survey to date.

Tens of thousands of Iraqi artifacts were looted after the war from remote areas in Iraq, and many sites continue to be ransacked, a group of American experts said yesterday after making a systematic assessment of the damage to Iraq’s archaeological heritage. […]

Two teams of top archaeologists fanned out across northern and southern Iraq last month. Of 19 sites they visited, 13 showed serious evidence of recent looting. A separate survey of 13 sites, which included some of the same locations, found 10 with serious damage.

The scale of destruction means that archaeologists and historians studying ancient Mesopotamia — where the first human cities were started about 3500 B.C. — may have permanently lost clues into the origins of the first written words, complex agriculture, the first written laws, organized religion and science, said a statement by the National Geographic Society, which organized the survey. […]
And buried at the bottom, a further twist to the original National Museum story:
Responding to the conflicting reports about damage to the National Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad, McGuire Gibson, a University of Chicago expert on ancient Mesopotamia, said damage far exceeded the 33 items recently reported. That number, he said, reflected the items taken only from the main galleries. Three of five storerooms of the museum also had been raided, he said, and officials had already determined that more than 1,000 items were missing.
That’s an interesting correction to this week’s correction, and suggests that the full extent of the loss is not yet known. I’ll continue to hope for the best. In the meantime, “Will overeager Bush apologists now issue corrections?” as Andrew Sullivan has conspicuously not asked…
Comments on Recursive museum updates:
#1 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2003, 12:35 PM:

Ooooh, good stuff. Thanks!

There's a scrap about this on another board I frequent, and the resident Administration Apologists apparently just quoted this Sullivan dude rather than actually read news stories. One boson suggested "maybe there wasn't any looting at all." (Because, I guess, 33 is almost zero compared to 170,000?)

Very Good news: More artifacts are trickling back in. The AP is reporting that three guys turned in the Warka Vase.

#2 ::: Simon ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2003, 12:58 PM:

And what about the national library?

#3 ::: Michelle ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2003, 01:15 PM:

I have been fussing all week about the fact that some people are using this incident to tar the press and those who did not support the war.

What bothers me is that no one seems to be disturbed by the fact that the Iraqis felt they had to hide their national treasures in the first pace. And that it was only this distrust of incoming American forces that saved many books and artifacts.

It does not speak well of our administartion or the ability of our armed forces to keep the peace, that those who hid the books and artifacts were justified in their fears that the Americans would allow these buildings to be looted or destroyed.

#4 ::: Dave Trowbridge ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2003, 01:30 PM:

Very good news.

Too bad the directors of the Tuwaitha Nuclear Facility weren't equally foresighted.

Not to mention the Bush administration. They're not off the hook, regardless of what war apologists may say about this bit of good news.

#5 ::: Jaquandor ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2003, 03:26 PM:

So, by Sullivan's logic, I suppose that if a drunk driver smashes into a minivan, but none of the six people in the van dies, we should apologize to the drunk driver for arresting him?

Sure, Andy....

#6 ::: Trish Wilson ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2003, 06:09 PM:

"... an obvious possibility. If I were the curator of the National Museum of Antiquities, and I knew I was facing a spell of civil chaos, I can only hope that I too would have the motherwit to stand up in front of the reporters and cry 93Alas! Eheu! Welawey! All the good stuff has been looted! The cheap stuff too! We92re stripped to the walls! There92s nothing left!94"

An equally obvious possibility -- the museum curators and archeologists all over the world already knew what to expect because of previous destruction and looting during the first Gulf War, including Basra's bombing in 1991. (Basra is considered to be the site of the Garden of Eden and Adam's tree.)

I knew about the flooded vault for quite a while; nonetheless, I feared that there was not enough time to stash away the Museum artifacts. I'm cheering the good news that so much has been recovered. I especially like your "these are not the droids you are looking for" explanation. Nice and cheeky. ;)

#7 ::: Nell Lancaster ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2003, 07:29 PM:

Simon asked about the national library. Teresa had a link here in mid-May to a Boston Globe story reporting that the contents of the library were taken to a Shia mosque nearby for safekeeping before Baghdad fell, and before the library was burned. I've been a little surprised that no other major papers have picked up on it, in their coverage of looting or of Shia organizing.

#8 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2003, 11:12 PM:

What say we determine a relative ratio of how right each side was? Let's see: the liberals are said to be wrong about the fate of 3,033 relics. For the sake of argument, we'll pretend that's right. I don't know how many total relics are still missing or trashed, so we'll approximate. It's more than zero, less than infinity... we'll call it N, a positive integer. Now, we simply divide N by the number of Weapons of Mass Destruction that our diligent searching has found so far..., my calculator keeps saying "Error." I blame the liberal media and the permissive mathematics of the post-Clinton era.

#9 ::: Scott Lynch ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2003, 11:25 PM:

What the heck is/are "freepi?" The Great and Powerful Google starts returning things like "" one page into a search for the term.

#10 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: June 13, 2003, 11:40 PM:

Google truly knows all.

#11 ::: lightning ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2003, 01:40 AM:

Is it just me or are too many people in the media graduates of the Indiana Jones School of Archeology? While the "big" artifacts are the attention getters, the really important stuff, from a scientific standpoint, are the smaller everyday items, and, especially, all those cuneiform tablets. Also, as important as the artifact itself is the documentation as to exactly where it was found. The info I've seen on the museums doesn't give that kind of data -- as if the most important job of an archeological museum was to put things in glass cases for tourists to look at. (I seem to recall a Sullivan piece that spoke sneeringly of "only some broken pottery and other such junk" being missing/destroyed, but I may be misremembering.)

There is also a bit of a philosophical question about the "conquest" of Iraq. Just what does that mean? I would think that it means securing critical parts of the country -- Government offices, infrastructure sites (power plants, hospitals), etc., so that the Bad Guys can't use them or destroy them. It looks like the army came into Baghdad looking for an army to fight, and, when it didn't find one, just sort of wandered around aimlessly.

#12 ::: the talking dog ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2003, 03:36 AM:

Freepi is the Latin plural of "Freeper", Freeper being the affectionate term for Neanderthal fans of the reactionary web site "Free Republic" (better termed "Bush Dictatorship"). Teresa's use is one of the first uses of the plural of that term that I have seen.

Well, look. I'm perfectly willing to say the museum story-- by itself-- reflects the loss of things, rather than people, and while thankfully less significant than first thought, should be viewed accordingly.

Then again, we did manage to kill at least 3,000 Iraqi civilians in this exercise, we failed to secure hospitals, power and water systems, WMDs and WMD sites, and amazingly, amazingly, did not secure the one thing Rummy (alldgedly) DID want to secure-- huge amounts of the oil industry infrastructure. (Of course, think of all the needs that can now be filled by Bechtel and Halliburton-- no really, think of them-- that's what this war was fought for).

Let me make this easy. People who OPPOSED everything Bush said and did so for no other reason than just because the compulsive- pathological-liar Bush said it are RIGHT; everyone else, no matter how smug and self-satisfied, is just wrong. As to the museum looting story, just think of Rummy's statement about the vase as one of the highlights of the Bush Administration, and you realize whch side of this argument owes the apologies to whom.

#13 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2003, 11:12 AM:

applause, all around.

#14 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2003, 03:29 PM:

I believe there's also the freeperati, such as Andrew Sullivan, who lead the call and response of the Republican echo chamber.

I noted how AS tried to abreviate the 3033 figure to 33, using the same logic that would be applied to discounting the theft of da Vinci's sketches and notebooks if the thieves had also netted the Mona Lisa in the same haul.

I find it at once apalling and highly entertaining that the Season 7 opening of Stargate yesterday showed more erudition and knowledge of archeology than the Bush administration or any of their little friends. One of the plot cruxes was that the crucial McGuffin holding valuable scientific data had been misclassified as a "decorative object" and packed away in the museum's warehouse for minor knick-knacks.

How many of those 3000 "minor" knick-knacks were, in fact, misidentified masterpieces, or held fragments of crucial data? I believe King Tut's tomb was only found because Carter found a souvenir cup from his wedding feast tucked away in the Cairo museum's warehouse. That's not "main display area" (where Tut's sarcophagous is now) but the warehouse for the so-called "lesser" treasures.

#15 ::: John Isbell ::: (view all by) ::: June 14, 2003, 09:55 PM:

Fine post. Sisyphus Shrugged refers to you as "Righteous" at one point, your succinct analysis of Sullivan.

#16 ::: Gary Denton ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2003, 02:14 AM:

Very fine post, fine comments, if my "new" blogger was working I would have digested it by now.

Easter Lemming Liberal News Digest

#17 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2003, 04:29 AM:

-some- of the National Library contents were moved. There's an utterly appalling description of looting and destruction perpetrated on documents which had been in a different facility.... and there were university libraries apparently burned in their entirety. There could be -millions- of destroyed volumes....

Regardon the appalling description mentioned above:


" 8 June 2003

"Nabil Al-Tikriti []

" University of Chicago

"[This report was originally distributed by e-mail and posted on the IraqCrisis
list. It is published here with the kind permission of the author.]"

"The events described in this report began at least two days after the 8 April entry of US troops into Baghdad and continued for several days -- until international media attention appears to have forced a policy change.
Although insufficient US forces were committed to control the entire city, the forces at hand were capable of providing security to any facility they
were ordered to protect.... Most of the facilities covered in this report were concentrated in two small areas which had a sufficient US troop presence (i.e. 2-3 tank crews) in the area to prevent the events described below. When US soldiers were asked to protect the facilities in question, the invariable
response was either that 93we are soldiers not policemen,94 or that 93our orders
do not extend to protecting this facility.94

[The discussion of the looting of 22 trunks of documents and burning of 10 trunks of the Awqaf collection, is particularly indicting of US dismissiveness/malfeasance and failure to provide protection which US archaeologists begged for weeks ahead of the invasion, and which Iraqi archaelogists and concerned citizens asked for....]

#18 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2003, 04:31 AM:

previous post -- the publication/attribution comment was part of the article, I didn't have permission other than fair use provisions, to quote from it.

#19 ::: Trish Wilson ::: (view all by) ::: June 15, 2003, 10:10 AM:

Lightening wrote:

"Is it just me or are too many people in the media graduates of the Indiana Jones School of Archeology? While the "big" artifacts are the attention getters, the really important stuff, from a scientific standpoint, are the smaller everyday items, and, especially, all those cuneiform tablets. Also, as important as the artifact itself is the documentation as to exactly where it was found."

I address these very points on my blog. The general public (sadly) probably wouldn't show the same level of interest in a few "unimportant potsherds" as it would something like the missing gold harp or Nefertiti's mummy. However, the "big" things are getting the issue necessary media coverage. I wish the coverage was not so politically tainted, but at least people are getting some exposure to ancient near eastern cultures that they otherwise would not have had. I suspect that archeologists may also need to rely on wealthy Indiana Jones wannabes for some of their funding. I would hope that it would take more than an "exciting" find to pique interest.

#20 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2003, 01:56 AM:

Big sigh. Charles Krauthammer (whose column-head portrait makes him look like a guy who sits behind a card table at the airport gathering signatures for a initiative to defund Head Start programs that don't teach abstinence) smugged about the "only 33 missing" items in today's column.

I'd write to the editor, but to steal one of my father's navy phrases, it would be like shoveling shit against the tide.

Maybe I'll feel more inspired tomorrow.

#21 ::: Atrios ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2003, 05:22 AM:

"freeperati" it!

#22 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2003, 07:45 AM:

Stefan, Avedon Carol's "The Sideshow" had a somewhat inspiring paragraph or two about writing to the editor. It really can make a difference. I finally got irritated enough to write in after some executive passed on the talk-radio version of the "McDonald's Scalding Coffee Lawsuit" story, and the paper noted that my facts were correct. The plan is to start writing in about more important things (though this is at least somewhat important, as the story is used as ammo against lawyers for a political reason).

With e-mail, it's easier and faster to do what used to be a fairly odious chore, and most any of us can write a pithy epistle without our lips getting tired. It's time to fight the astroturf. (So sez Mister One Letter So Far.)

#23 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: June 16, 2003, 07:52 AM:

'Scuse me; here's Avedon's bit, as mentioned above:

#24 ::: mark ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2003, 01:22 AM:

Great post. All of it.

#25 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 19, 2003, 09:28 PM:

Thank you all.

Atrios, I figure Sullivan is a member of the freeperati. The small swarming followers who turn up in our comments threads saying "What you people have obviously failed to understand --" are freepi.

I tried to post a comment about this in your weblog, but couldn't -- some kind of technical problem affecting several other weblogs as well as yours -- so I've switched to a different browser; but your weblog moves so fast that the time for a comment there has passed.

Dave, the crew that saved the library did the moving and stashing themselves. I can't blame the guys at Tuwaitha for not doing the same. The worst you'll get out of overexposure to old documents is an allergic reaction.

Scott: Cripes, you're right -- googling on "freepi" does turn up sites about shagging animals. Who knew?

Lightning and others: Like you, I'm uncomfortable with this oddly precise determination that 33 of the artifacts were priceless and 3,000 were of lesser value. That's the language of art dealers, not archaeologists.

This may or may not turn out to be relevant, but I keep noticing these disturbing little bits and hints of connections between Bush & Co. and the high end of the international art and antiquities trade. Maybe so, maybe not. The more important point is that we're the only ones who're in a position to protect Iraqi antiquities from wholesale looting, and we're not minding the store.

This is all too predictable. A few years ago, when we were visiting Jane Yolen and David Stemple in St. Andrews, Scotland, Patrick and I went with them to an exclusive antiques show: ticketholders only, heavy security, high-end merchandise. Not something we'd done before, but very interesting. At one point Patrick was trailing along behind an antique dealer who was telling some friends about a recent trip to Yugoslavia. The guy had nipped in right after some of the worst of the violence, and was full of tales of the great antiques to be had at rock-bottom prices from the newly impoverished and shell-shocked locals.

Patrick said he'd had a momentary urge to pick up one of the very expensive nearby objects and bash in the guy's head.

As I said in one of my posts about looting, back in April, every society has people who only behave when they think misbehavior will be detected and punished. Part of the work of civilization is minimizing the incidence of such people, and another part is protecting everyone else from their depredations.

If you demolish the existing systems for maintaining social order, and make it clear that you're not going to take responsibililty in your turn, you effectively give those people permission to loot, pillage, trespass, despoil, vandalize, and commit all manner violence and molestation.

We made this our problem the minute we invaded. When you take over a country, you inherit all the problems and complexities of governing it. If we weren't prepared to do that, we should never have crossed the border.

#26 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: June 20, 2003, 03:27 AM:

Paul Harvey in the particular vile gloat-o-matic voice implemented by him to also attack feminists, liberals, etc. etc., announced as how only 33 items were missing/destroyed in the Iraq Museum, which he of course was using in part of diatribe about the vile malevolent Bush-bashing slimola exaggerators....

Of course, those stations -- Paramount/Viacom -- perpetrating him upon the airwaves, I rather doubt will EVER provide a retration or rebuttal time or acknowledge any obligation or relevance for correcting his untruthful calumny....

"Freedom of the press belongs to those who own the presses."

Freedom of speech belongs to those with the information mass distribution systems....

#27 ::: Keith ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2003, 01:58 PM:

It still blows my mind that anyone would just shrug off the notion of a mere 33 pricelss items going missing. This is insane! Imagine if 33 priceless items went missing from the Smithsonian or MOMA!

Rummy to the school children of America: Sorry kids, the Air and Space Museum is closed because someone stole the Spirit of Saint Luis, the Wright Flyer and Apollo 11. But hay, they were just old junk anyway. Who wants a ride in my SUV?

This shameless disregard alone shouldl be considdered a crime against humanity.

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