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.
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.)Tom Tomorrow’s response was more colorful:
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.
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: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: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.
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 www.aam-us.org (The American Association of Museums), www.H-Museum.net, and www.icom.museum (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.And buried at the bottom, a further twist to the original National Museum story:
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. […]
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…