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June 21, 2003

Baghdad Museum: Corrected corrections re-corrected
Posted by Teresa at 03:54 PM *

Damn, damn, damn. I would so much rather have been wrong. According to The Washington Post, the count of artifacts stolen from the National Museum of Antiquities now stands at 6,000, and is expected to rise. That’s not counting artifacts stolen from other museums and known archaeological sites.

It’s a depressingly plausible-sounding story. The recent report that only 33 priceless artifacts and some 3000 lesser artifacts were stolen is looking culpably inoperative. The freeperati’s rush to publicize it, and demand apologies from those who criticized Rumsfeld et al., is looking worse.

Shall we sit back and see who prints corrections? Will we need more than one hand? One suspects the entire point of the earlier report was to get as much publicity as possible for the magic number “33”; and then, once they’d got it stuck in people’s minds, drop the story entirely. Many of the people who’ve heard that “33” won’t hear any subsequent versions unless the disinformationist conduits carry the story; or if they do hear them, they’ll assume that more accurate later estimates are those supposedly overinflated figures that were demolished by the magic “33”.

(Eighth bolgia, eighth circle, Andrew Sullivan. Canto XXVI. Just you remember.)

Back to the story itself:
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. …

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. …

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.
Looks like I guessed right.
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 added.
Previous posts on this and related subjects in Making Light:

12 April 03: Loss. Initial reports of the looting of the National Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad.
16 April 03: Reading comprehension, and other problems. The lie that destruction was the necessary price of freedom. The lie that freeing the Iraqis was our primary aim. Freepi: apolitical opportunists. Why we might not mind the looting. Why this is all Donald Rumsfeld’s fault. The addictive rush of cheap moral righteousness. Ostensible reasons we went to war viewed as codswallop. Looting, and other civil disorders.
16 April 03: And this is evidence of…? Initial reports of the burning of the Iraqi National Library and Archives, and the non-search for WMDs.
21 April 03: Why it’s a bad idea to burn old libraries. Nyekulturniy!
13 May 03: Excellent good news. Reports that a surreptitious salvage operation by the library staff saved most of the National Library and Archives, no thanks to us. On being willing to die in defense of libraries.
13 June 03: Recursive museum updates. Reported losses lighter than originally feared. Looting continues elsewhere. Freepi not entitled to collect on any of this. Andrew Sullivan presumed to be in state of mortal sin.

Comments on Baghdad Museum: Corrected corrections re-corrected:
#1 ::: Tim Hall ::: (view all by) ::: June 21, 2003, 05:34 PM:

And the chances of the likes of Sekimori 'puking up an apology' (to use her own words) is? Let's see if anyone can guess....

#2 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 21, 2003, 07:34 PM:

I'm wondering if there's a rule of thumb for how long news reports should be given to cool off before we take them seriously.

#3 ::: J Greely ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2003, 05:07 AM:

I was just thinking, "you know, it's about time for another complete turnaround in one of the Iraq stories. Which one will it be: WMD, Private Jessica, Saddam's pulse, the bin Laden connnection, the museum treasures, the missing uranium, what?"

Turns out the answer was "all of the above". I can't wait to find out what's true on Monday!

I'm starting to think that I should have treated this war the way I did the OJ trial: pay no attention at all until at least a year after it's over.

-j

#4 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2003, 10:18 AM:

See also the report over at Electrolite on the condition of at least one of the recovered artifacts: http://nielsenhayden.com/electrolite/archives/002710.html#002710

#5 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2003, 06:31 PM:

Anyone who thinks that's not a grievous loss must not care much about human beings. How can we hear the voices or see through the eyes of vanished peoples, unless it's by the things they leave behind?

#6 ::: Yonmei ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2003, 08:18 PM:

Two basement storerooms appeared to be untouched, including one containing most of the museum92s priceless collection of cuneiform tablets, Gibson said.

I hate to pick out a small thing to be grateful for, in the midst of such disaster, but I am grateful to hear this news. I had been wondering what, in all the chaos, had become of the 12 000 cuneiform tablets - of no material value to anyone, of infinite value to those of us obsessed with the earliest history of writing.

I'm glad to know most of them have survived.

#7 ::: JoeF ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2003, 10:19 PM:

One thing that's been left out of much of this discussion is the burning to the ground of the Iraqi National Library, with the presumed loss of all 12 million books and manuscripts contained within.

As I said on my blog, anyone that can dismiss these tragedies just proves themselves unworthy of any role in the protection of civilization.

#8 ::: joel ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 12:50 AM:

What really galls is the sense that creating chaos was the *plan*. Wipe out the golliwoggers history and their culture, upend the country so that civil society is destroyed... turn the place into a gigantic Pottersville.

#9 ::: Larry Lurex ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 06:48 AM:

Deeply saddened. I understand that some of the artefacts and books are completely irreplaceable. The point about Iraq is that *all* Western civilisation began there. That is where they invented writing. There is a clear line of descent from Iraq to everyone's blog/newspaper/book today. We owe Iraq a great deal as it was the cradle of civilisation, and one whose history we destroy at our peril. We need to find out as much as we can about our first literate ancestors so that we can make sense of their lives and perhaps make more sense of our own.

#10 ::: zizka ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 09:52 AM:

What JoeF said. There's never been a doubt that the whole library was destroyed. Baghdad was the center of western civilization for several hundred years (that's where the medival monks got their Aristotle from) and the center of Islamic civilization for many more centuries.

But the library was a one-time thing whereas the museum story could be recycled and minimzed by fake planted stories about "how many exactly?" The Library story just had to be ignored, and the fake museum stories helped divert attention.

The machinelike efficiency of the right-wing media spin teams, who deal with every situation "as a job to do" and every embarassing fact as an enemy to be destroyed -- plus the willingness of almost all of the professional media to play the game, and of most citizens to go along with what we're told, brings me close to giving up.

That's why I hate trolls on threads so much. Their these little unpaid volunteer kneejerk spin teams, and they pretend to be these thoughtful people who "don't follow the liberal party line". Fuck 'em.

I'm on record that we should play hard ball, since that's the game that's being played. BBut I don't think that we should start the lying. I just think that we should not treat our adversaries with any more civility than they deserve, and we should take them for what they are.

#11 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 01:24 PM:

zizka--

The library building was burned. The books? The percentages are up in the air, but there were links upthread on previous topics here at Making Light that talked about the librarians and imams attempts to stash many of the volumes in mosques. Of course, there's also the case where trunks and trunks of books were safely stashed, then our forces went and told people to take them back to the library, then two thirds of those trunks were stolen by the arsonists and the other third were burned with the rest of the remaining collection.

The library story isn't over yet.

#12 ::: Nell Lancaster ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 04:09 PM:

Kevin, if you have any links about the Library it would be much appreciated if you could post them here. Certainly seems that neither the museum or library story will be completely clarified for a long time...

#13 ::: Billmon ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 06:52 PM:

One thing that's been left out of much of this discussion is the burning to the ground of the Iraqi National Library, with the presumed loss of all 12 million books and manuscripts contained within.

As I said on my blog, anyone that can dismiss these tragedies just proves themselves unworthy of any role in the protection of civilization.

What he said. And here's Robert Fisk's account of another cultural atrocity that was conveniently ignored by the "only 33 items" propagandists:

When I caught sight of the Koranic library burning -- flames 100 feet high were bursting from the windows -- I raced to the offices of the occupying power, the US Marines' Civil Affairs Bureau. An officer shouted to a colleague that "this guy says some biblical [sic] library is on fire." 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.

Robert Fisk in the Independent, April 15

#14 ::: zizka ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2003, 08:14 PM:

Hang on a minute. More objective reports say that the flames were only shooting 39 feet in the air when Fisk first saw them, and that they never at any time shot more than 82 1/2 feet in the air. Sort of what you expect from Fisk, isn't it? Heh.

/irony

#15 ::: Nell Lancaster ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2003, 08:25 AM:

Here's a site that follows news and commentary on the looting, by an archaeologist:
http://cctr.umkc.edu/user/fdeblauwe/iraq.html

It's calm and fair-minded. Bottom line seems to be that the focus on the museum and the changing assessments have diverted attention from the serious looting of archaeology sites.

The Wall Street Journal broke the National Library-holdings-stowed-in-mosque story in late April; the Boston Globe had it in mid-May, which Teresa blogged, and a current Time magazine article mentions it in passing. Other than that, no coverage. No triumphalist warbloggers saying 'nyah, nyah, you overreacted', very few antiwar bloggers picked up on it, and even several people in this thread write as if all the books were burned along with the building.

#16 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2003, 08:24 PM:

What exactly were the Marines supposed to be doing about a burning building where the flames were shooting 100 feet in the air and the smoke could be seen for three miles?

Even if they were a fully-equipped fire company, with water pressure in the hydrants, the most they could do at that point would be keep the fire from spreading to adjacent buildings.

"Half an hour later, there wasn't an American at the scene -- and the flames were shooting 200 feet into the air." Would he have been happier writing "Half an hour later, there were a couple hundred Americans at the scene -- and the flames were shooting 200 feet into the air"?

#17 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2003, 08:40 PM:

Oh, I don't know, there's this novel old concept called a fire brigade.

I don't have the full layout of the library complex, or its relation to the rivers, but it's an easy call that MORE could have been done to save SOME.

#18 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2003, 05:02 AM:

A Marine combat unit isn't a fire brigade. Even a fire brigade, given a fully-involved structure, would be hard-pressed to save anything. I'm sorry, but Fisk is very far out of line on this -- it looks like he's just trying to find a reason to blame the Marines for not doing something that they couldn't possibly do. So he gave them the map coordinates? So what? Where's the river? Who cares? Marines don't travel with pumpers.

#19 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2003, 05:02 AM:

A Marine combat unit isn't a fire brigade. Even a fire brigade, given a fully-involved structure, would be hard-pressed to save anything. I'm sorry, but Fisk is very far out of line on this -- it looks like he's just trying to find a reason to blame the Marines for not doing something that they couldn't possibly do. So he gave them the map coordinates? So what? Where's the river? Who cares? Marines don't travel with pumpers.

#20 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2003, 01:49 PM:

Who said anything about pumpers? The technology of the bucket has been around for a good long while, and a bucket brigade can still put out fires.

Blaming the marines for not guarding the library and stopping the arsonists seems about right, but worse, when the fire was going, they couldn't be bothered to even go and see if the situation was out of control.

Which I doubt it was. Baghdad is a modern enough city to have firestations, even if no one was manning them, and being a desert city, you can bet there'd be garden hoses.

If the marines could cobble together the means to pull down an ugly statue, they could certainly found something to put out the library fire.

They didn't, so it stands to reason that they were ordered not to, the same as it stands to reason that they were ordered to pull down the statue.

So I blame their leadership for a warped set of priorities.

#21 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2003, 10:38 AM:

New corrections, as of 7/9/03 (thanks to Tom Tomorrow for the link):

"Looters smashed many artifacts, making it difficult for the 44 staffers at the Baghdad museum to reassemble them and determine what has been stolen and what is damaged, said Nawal al-Mutawalli, director of Iraq's museums.

"She said the list of items missing from storage rooms of Baghdad's museum alone now stands at 13,000. In addition, 47,000 pieces are missing from the museum's exhibition hall, several of them major masterpieces.

"Staffers had so far only checked half the items in the storage rooms. "We expect the number of missing items to rise," al-Mutawalli said."

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