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September 20, 2003

Briefing on the Investigation of Antiquity Loss
Posted by Teresa at 07:51 PM *

On Wednesday, September 10, Marine Colonel Matthew Bogdanos gave a Briefing on the Investigation of Antiquity Loss from the Baghdad Museum, with accompanying slides. Bogdanos has the sound of a man who’s telling the truth and cares about his subject; and the story he tells has the kind of unpredictable human complexity, overlapping motivations, multiple approaches to problems, unlikely factors coming into play, and moments of foolishness and ingenuity, that you’d expect from an event of this size. For instance:

Turning now to the chronology of events.a0Years before Iraqi freedom, most of the gold and jewelry that was kept at the museum was removed to the Central Bank of Iraq.a0It was moved in 21 separate boxes.a0 Sixteen of those boxes contained the royal family collection of gold and jewelry, approximately 6,744 pieces, placed in one of the underground vaults of the central bank.a0 A second set of five boxes contained the fabled Treasure of Nimrud and the original golden bull’s head from the Golden Harp of Ur. The vaults themselves were flooded prior to the team’s arrival in Baghdad, but with the assistance of Mr. Jason Williams and his National Geographic crew, we pumped out the water—took three weeks to pump out the water from the underground vaults—and ultimately were able to gain entry into the vaults.a0 And in a moment that can only be characterized as sheer joy, we opened each of those boxes and found the treasure of Nimrud completely there, intact.a0 And ultimately it was able to be displayed at the one-day opening we had on the 3rd of July.
And here’s a story about an attempted but only partially successful inside job in a basement storage area. I believe this one. They’d have to have a mad genius in the propaganda dept. to make this up, and a madder genius to have faked the evidence; and if they were of a mind to do such things, they could have come up with WMD evidence (or anything else they wanted to manufacture) by now:
Turning to the basement-level storage room, on the other hand, the evidence here strongly suggests not random looters, as in the other magazines, but rather the evidence here suggests thieves with an intimate knowledge of the museum and its storage procedures.a0 I have a diagram of the basement up here for you.

It is here, in the basement magazine, that they attempted to steal the most traffickable and easily transportable items stored in the most remote corner of the most remote room in the basement of the museum.a0The front door of this basement room was intact and unforced, but its bricked rear doorway, accessed only through a remote, narrow and hidden stairwell, was broken and entered.a0 This storage area actually has four rooms, three of which96-(talking to himself) that doesn92t work,a0 you can see the L-shaped rooms. (Showing slides.) On the far side, if you start from the far side and you count one, two, three, four, the L-shaped, it’s the second room that was entered.a0 The other three rooms, containing tens of thousands of priceless pieces, were simply not touched.

However, the fourth room was also virtually untouched, except for one remote corner where 103 small plastic boxes originally containing cylinder seals, loose beads, amulets, small glass bottles and jewelry had been emptied, while hundreds and hundreds of surrounding larger, but empty, cardboard boxes 96 (to staff) next, please—as you see there, were completely untouched.a0The thieves here had keys that had previously been hidden elsewhere in the museum, not the keys that were in the museum director’s safe; a separate set of keys that was established by the museum as a safety procedure to have a second set of keys for these cabinets.a0They were hidden elsewhere in the museum.a0That hiding place was known to only several people in the museum.a0Whoever did this had those keys.

These keys were to 30 storage cabinets that lined that particular corner of the room. It’s the brown storage cabinets that you see before you.a0Those cabinets contained arguably the world’s finest collection of absolutely exquisite cylinder seals and the world’s finest collection of Greek, Roman, Islamic and Arabic gold and silver coins.

Ironically, the thieves here appeared to have lost the keys to those cabinets by dropping them in one of the plastic boxes that lined the floor.a0There was no electricity at the time in the museum during this period, so the thieves lit the foam padding for light.a0After frantically and unsuccessfully searching for the keys in the fire-lit room, breathing in the noxious fumes from the foam and throwing those boxes in every direction, they were unable to gain access to the storage cabinets.

We ultimately found the keys under the debris after a methodically, fully lit and hours-long search.a0Upon inspecting those cabinets, and opening each one with absolutely bated breath, we learned that not a single cabinet had been entered and a catastrophic loss narrowly averted.

However, the contents of the plastic boxes were taken by the thieves.a0Those boxes, while—the contents, while not of the same caliber as the items in the storage cabinets, were nonetheless valuable in their own right.a0 All together from those boxes, there were 4,997 pins, beads, amulets and pendants, and 4,795 cylinder seals.a0An additional 500 smaller pottery pieces and bronze weapons from the shelves were also taken. So, from this room alone, 10,337 pieces were stolen, of which, 667 have been recovered.
Okay. Some losses. But I like the idea of the thieves dropping their keys into the litter of plastic boxes on the floor which they themselves had created, scrabbling around in the dark as they tried to find them again by the light of burning foam padding, all the while breathing in the increasingly noxious fumes … which I hope left them sick as dogs. The whole episode is utterly believable, in that dumb human way that’s so very hard to fake. (via Kathy Li)

Addendum: Happy news: the Lady of Warka has been recovered.

Comments on Briefing on the Investigation of Antiquity Loss:
#1 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2003, 03:25 AM:

I noticed almost nothing got said about objects smashed/damaged, and the extent of the damage.... just because something wasnt -stolen- doesn't mean that it's intact and retaining its details, lettering, etc. What about all those clay tablets that the museum had, what percentage that had been intact or readable, remain legible?

I read one of the reports of the briefing that was on the web, and was wondering about smashed and damaged, versus looted artifacts. The only real condition mentioned was of the Warka vase, which had suffered significant damage in an artifact which had been been damaged before archaeologists took possession, and restoration work done on it when in possession by archaeologists.


Restoration is never completely without controversy and issues -- my father did museum-quality furniture restoration work. Cleaning something usually doesn't involve a whole of controversy, except consider the controversy over the cleaning of windows at Chartres and the restoration work done over the centuries at the Vatican. Even just removal of dirt and grime changes the color of objects, and if people have gotten used to the effects, as at Chartres, and come to expect that, the change isn't uncontroversial.

Refinishing can get iffy -- taking a piece of furniture and running it through a tank of stripper chemicals takes the original finish off, and often bleaches the piece of furniture out.... it changes the appearance drastically. My father used to comment that the only way to really tell if a piece of furniture was actually old or not, was "to knock it apart" and look at the wood where it had been joined together, and the construction of it, etc. People have been doing faking of furniture and other objects to make them look older, for probably as long as people have valued "old" objects...

But getting back to Mesopotamian heritage, restoring smashed cuneiform tablets, and trying to decipher whatever's left of disintegrated clay, means -guessing-, assuming that there's enough left to decipher to guess as what damaged and missing marks are.... and again, I didnt' notice the speaker talking about things like cuneiform tablets. The Warka vase is more visually impressive, but what about the drab tablets that held records and words that hadn't yet been translated, or translated only partially>

And what about the libraries and document collections? The web page that focuses on the status of the libraries of Iraq, some of them collections of documents unduplicated elsewhere, in what had been essentially unbroken lineage since the founding of Baghdad, seems to have been last updated in July. At that time, the status of some collections was unclear, some had been preserved in their entirety or near entirety, and some were thought to have been destroyed. What's the status now? Why didn't the briefing talk about -books- and records that had gone back over a thousand years?

The speaker was very polished, and slick, and... I don't trust it when there are things missing, such as "how much damage was done, to what didnt' get looted? What was all that rubble from?

#2 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2003, 08:04 AM:

Paula, if he's lying, he's doing a first-rate job of it. My sense is that I don't know whether he's leaving things out, but what he does say sounds real. A Marine Colonel who studied classics and who's been a NYC homicide detective is a pretty good match for that job.

There was undeniable damage. Some major pieces are still missing. A whole lot of cylinder seals -- small, but those things are cumulatively full of information -- got up and walked. Some stuff was smashed, including some notable artifacts. Some other stuff may have lost its provenance. There's more damage going on all the time at unguarded archaeological sites all over Iraq. And of course, this report only covers the museum in Baghdad. I'm still waiting to hear a comparable report on Warka.

I don't know about the libraries overall. I know that some major stashes of old documents got dragged off and hidden by librarians. But they didn't get all of them by any means, and a couple of libraries burned. Other institutions and offices got hit hard. Figuring out what happened there, and what was lost, is going to be a long complicated task. I expect the Iraqis will have a lot more to do with that than we will.

#3 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2003, 05:01 PM:

[uh-oh, soapbox below....]

I think he's going that 95% job, and given who his masters are, that's way above and beyond.... I want to know about what's been left out of what looks like to me very carefully words and description. I don't trust spinmeisters, and there seems to me to have been some -very- careful spin control done. Again, I want to know about the status of the libraries, and damage, not just "there's a lot more that didn't get stolen than was feared and than the early reports gave out, and some of what's stolen has come back."

That something didn't get walked off with, doesn't mean that it didn't get destroyed, severely damaged, or rendered deprived of much of its archaeological value -- there are some very beautiful artifacts in the world, that the archeological context of, and therefore most of the value carried -about- the artifact, other than its beauty, is unknown.

Consider a book. If the book has a signature and inscription in it, and has attestation that X owned this, Y gave it to them, Z gave it to Y, etc., the book is much more valuable, than an undated similar looking edition of the book. Roger Zelazny parodied some of that in _This Immortal_ particular ["I was afraid to look in the bathroom [lest there be a historical plaque K did X here..]," but generally, keeping provenance known and condition as undeteriorated (and unvandalized beyond that which occurred historically] is more valuable than "prettiness" and gold and silver....

How much of the documentation about where the artifacts came from is left? Objects without context, are like those cluttered stereotypical Victorian era Collections of stuff, without there being knowledge that makes any of it more than "stuff that Sir Sidney thought Interesting." That's what those collections mostly had in common -- either the collector was a dilettante picking for personal aesthetics and carrying little for the cultures that had mad the objects and what they were supposed to meanto anyone else if anything, -or- the collector collected them to impress other people -- like the description of the collections of leatherbound books in an Ellen Kushner novel I can't think of the name of, where people ordered expensive bound leather books by the yard as decor, and had no interest in actually reading them or paying attention to what the books were or what was in them, other that having titles to look impressive on the shelf, with the -pretence- [or caricature....] of erudition...

So to me, -some- of what was said came off as mollification to those who observe the appearance of culture and learning, measured as "look at all the -stuff- this museum has!" The question of whether the "stuff" has archaeological value telling about the culture which made it and human history/prehistory, or are baubles for viewing "made by people somewhere, somewhen" of unknown provenance/devoid of it, is something that got glossed over.... The well-known pieces from published digs, the provenance exists for. All those cuneiform tables and such though, as opposed to the gold and silver that looters since prehistory have robbed tombs and pillaged the living to strip off/out of grave goods, houses, people's teeth..., have value for what they say, not how pretty they are--and the focus of the talk, to me, seemed to be on the showy pieces, the vase, the "treasures" that are the spectacle -- but not the drabber artifacts that tell of daily life and the people and values and the society of past civilizations.

But then, my ancestors have been diaspora'ed over most of the known word for the past 2500 years, clinging for identity to -books-, and holding them sacred above all else, with silver and gold and glass and silk, adornments for covers for the books holding the words.... a Torah scroll is not a text with gold and silver and powdered gemstones as illuminations, it's unadorned handprinted ink on unadorned sheepskin... because for my lineage, the words and the ideas are what are most important, not gold, not silver, rubies, diamonds, pearls.... theyr'e adornments -- but it's knowledge that's the true treasure, and my concern is the knowledge, lost with the books and the research notes and smashed cuneiform tablets -- and the Colonel said nothing about -knowledge-, he focused on -things-, and not the knowledge-value of them, but was was -stolen- versus was wasn't -- and not what was -otherwise- lost, through burning of documents, and damage to objects that the study notes don't exist for, and which the stories they could have told, can no longer be read.

Nasty and suspicious and small-minded of me? Maybe it is, but when I heard nothing said, the first question that occurs to me is "why?" I spent fourteen years of my life dealing with the government, including being in the military, and what' -not- being said, often is even more important, that what does get said....

The occupation forces are trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, and more willing to talk about the looted parts and the returned of looted parts, than if there were pieces smashed beyond recovery, and how many of them there might have been, or about Humpty Dumpty's pillaged and plunder document collections....

#4 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2003, 05:22 PM:

Addendum -- the fellow's doing what he can, within the constraints on him. The fellow sounds competent, hard-working, concerned, dedicated, etc., and trying to do the best he can, within, again, those constraints. He's not the focus of my ire, the situation is, and those who are responsible for the constraints, and who couldn't be bothered to pay attention to the warnings and advice of archaeologists and government experts and retired military and senior level military, etc., that there needed to be more troops, the Iraqi government offices and that museums, libraries, power stations, power distribution facilities, etc., needed to be secured early with troops and security forces, and protected against looters and saboteurs and anarchists.

Humpty Dumpty didn't fall off the wall, he was pushed by a combination of professional looters, Ba'athists melted back into the population (what, no POW taking and processing, to separate out the thugs enjoying carrying out Saddam's reign of terror versus unwilling military inductees averse to committing atrocities?), rioters using an excuse of no civil control and policing by anyone to loot and pillage and set fires and steal, and US Executive Branch of government indifference to the idea that Washington DC isn't the only city in the world where the police and policing helps deter/keep a lid on the larcenous/destructive/avaricious tastes of a certain segment of the world's population.

#5 ::: Sweet Lou ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2003, 05:44 PM:

His "masters", Paula? Pardon me. Until I read the comments, I had thought that this posting made a good break with the snotty tone of former commentary on this subject. Silly me.

I just assume that when someone spends so much time around the artifacts of refined culture and civilization, one picks up a certain amount of refinement and civility -- Certainly enough to understand the differences in how one refers to an intelligent, dedicated, self-sacrificing human being and how one refers to a dog.

Please, make no mistake. Coming from Texas, I have no problem with people who regard dogs as if they were human. It is the ones who regard humans as if they were dogs that set my teeth on edge.

#6 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2003, 08:20 PM:

Sweet Lou, why does the use of the word "masters" in reference to a soldier make you think Paula was regarding him as if he were a dog?

Off the top of my head, in addition to dogs, slaves, servants, apprentices, English schoolboys, and ships all can have masters. I'm sure other people can too; there are plenty of compound words with master, such as webmaster, quartermaster, dungeon master, dancing master, concertmaster, etc. Ever heard the expression "No man can serve two masters"? Was Jesus comparing people to dogs, too?

Would you have been less irritated if Paula had used the word "superiors"? Somehow, to me, referring to someone's superiors sounds like more of a put down than referring to their masters.

#7 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 05, 2003, 11:19 PM:

Lou, all I know is that I wouldn't correct Paula's usage in that context. I'm not a veteran. She is.

How about you?

#8 ::: Sweet Lou ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2003, 06:08 PM:

I am, and I will, thank you.

#9 ::: Sweet Lou ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2003, 06:18 PM:


When it was my privelege to serve, I learned that those who wear the Eagle, Globe and Anchor have a saying:

Don't piss on my leg and tell me that it is raining.

Given the high level of intelligence and mastery of the English language invariably posessed by those who frequent Teresa's blog (no, I am not being sarcastic), I do not feel the need to explain.

#10 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 06, 2003, 09:15 PM:

In my experience, when honest people tell you they don't understand, and ask you to explain, they're always right.

#11 ::: Sweet Lou ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2003, 01:24 PM:

Quite right, Teresa...I was ambiguous and the confusion is my fault...

I intended to communicate that I saw no need to explain the saying "Don't piss on my leg and tell me it is raining", not Jeremy's question about the difference between a superior and master.

Jeremy, as for the difference between superior and master, I am reminded of the old joke:

Q: What is the difference between an egg and an elephant?

A: If you don't know, I am not sending you out for a dozen eggs!

Similarly, if you are unsure of the difference between a superior (or senior) and a master, I would suggest you refrain from discussing chain of command with any large group of Marines.

Master implies complete dominance and ownership, as in relation to a slave or a dog. Superior is used in the sense of being of higher rank or authority.

I believe your question arises because Superior can also be used in the term of being of greater value or worth, or of higher nature. Such is NOT the context in which it is used when discussing military rank.

Seemingly minor distinction, yet a core tenet in the service.

(And now, I know, I am channeling Frasier Crane. Forgive me.)

One is not required, or even able to refuse orders from a master. A superior, however, is obeyed only within the scope of his authority. Not only can orders outside that scope be disobeyed, they must be disobeyed. As such, a member of the United States Armed Forces, whether a Private or a General, is an agent with final responsibility only to the constitution and citizenry of the United States of America, obliged to follow orders as are given within, and only within, proper scope of authority. To imply that a serviceman serves a master -- other than the constitution and citizenry of the United States -- is in my book a grave insult. One who has not served might be excused such an insult on grounds of ignorance. A veteran has no such excuse.

One more thing -- "I was just following orders" is not in and of itself a defense of an action. It must also be proved that:

a) Such orders were, to the knowledge and understanding of the person following the orders (NOT the person giving them), legal and within the scope of authority

b) It is assumed that the person following the orders has a certain responsibility for knowing whether orders are legal and within scope. Thus, a Private might be excused for following orders regarding the destruction of military property, even if the order were illegal, presuming that the Private thought the order to be legal. On the other hand, since looting prisoners is a big no-no which is taught in basic training, the looting of prisoners would not be excusable even if ordered by a Superior.

Does this better answer your question?

#12 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: October 07, 2003, 03:07 PM:

Lou, I think I understand a little better, thanks for the explanation.

It sounds to me like you have one particular definition of the word "master" in mind, while I read Paula's post with a range of other definitions in my mind.

You're right, if you take "master" in the sense of "no man may serve two masters", then it's incorrect and insulting to refer to a soldier's superior officers as his "masters". I suspect Paula meant it in the looser sense in which I read it, where "his masters" was just a shorter way of saying "the people who decide what his objectives are, the people a few steps above him in the chain of command".

I understand your explanation that "superior" has several meanings, and the military sense of "superior officer" doesn't connote value or worth. I'm afraid that with my lack of military experience, I tend to read "superiors" as "betters" at first glance, but I do realize that that's not always what it means.

You suggest that in the Marines, one and only one definition of the word "master" is ever used. I don't think I've ever discussed chain of command with a Marine before, so I have to plead ignorance. Must a Marine master sergeant's orders always be obeyed? Or is that a different meaning of the word "master"?

So I understand why Paula's use of "master" offended you, though I'm reasonably certain (based on the rest of what she wrote) that she didn't intend the meaning you got. My impression was that the sentence in question was saying "I think he's going that 95% job, and given who some of the people several steps above him in the chain of command are, that's way above and beyond...". I thought Paula was saying that some of Col. Bogdanos' superiors were not really interested in the fate of the antiquities in question, and given that it's generally not a good career move to too zealously pursue objectives your superiors don't care about, she was impressed with how thorough and effective he was.

I think you were unfair to assume that Paula meant the insulting interpretation you saw.

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