The galleries of Iraq's National Museum, located in the heart of Baghdad, were filled with some of the world's oldest art. In the storerooms below were shelves holding human's earliest writing, painstakingly cataloged through decades of study and excavation in the river valleys where civilization began.
In just hours, it was all gone. The towers of smoke and the sound of millenniums-old pottery shattering were ignored in the chaos that followed American troops into the Iraqi capital. When order returned to the streets, Iraq's National Library, the National Museum in Baghdad, and even the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which held rare early copies of the Koranhad been ransacked. Scholars around the world were stunned, some comparing the devastation to losing the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the same time.
The most dramatic pictures last week were from Iraq's National Museum, whose collections housed the fruit of decades of research in the "cradle of civilization." Since the 1920s, archaeologists excavating the country's thousands of sites deposited their finds at the museum; foreign teams were only allowed to take home photographs and copies.
Today, those photos may be all that is left. For archaeologists searching for clues about the world's first civilizations, they are no substitute. "There's a wealth of detail on a cuneiform tablet a photograph can't capture," says Boston University archaeologist Paul Zimansky. "You really need to sit and hold the tablets, turn them in the light. No scholar would want to publish conclusions on something they only saw in photographs." Once stolen and stripped of contextual clues, objects lose much of their historical value.
The looting last week seemed almost calculated. Items of value were taken first, even as American troops were fighting their way into the city. According to many reports, thieves had inside knowledge and access to sealed vaults and storerooms. Later waves were indiscriminate, stealing and destroying entire galleries and storerooms. Finally, decades worth of scholarly records and material were torched, compounding the nation's loss. "When you're done looting, you throw a match. Once it's all burned, who's to tell if you've stolen anything?" says Andras Riedlmayer, an Islamic art expert at Harvard University.
To archaeologists and museum officials, the most painful part of the destruction is how preventable it seemed. "The coalition succeeded in protecting the oil fields but didn't succeed in protecting these other irreplaceable aspects of the country," says Bonnie Burnham, president of the World Monument Fund. Burnham and others, including Maxwell Anderson, head of the Association of Art Museum Directors, met with officials at the Pentagon and the State Department in January to emphasize the museum's importance. "It was my impression that the Department of Defense had made provisions for the safeguarding of monuments and museums as part of the planning for a takeover," Anderson says.
With so much damage already done, experts are searching for ways to stem the flow of Iraqi antiquities onto the world's black market. One option is a buyback program combined with a no-questions-asked amnesty for anyone returning stolen artifacts. Much of the stolen material may still be in Baghdad, particularly large, difficult-to-smuggle items or smaller items with no clear value. UNESCO officials met late last week and called for an immediate ban on the export of antiquities and art from Iraq and an international ban on any trade in such items, pointing out that the world's richest countries are the most likely markets. The FBI said it would send agents to Iraq to begin the process of tracking down stolen objects.
Finally, archaeologists and others are trying to document what may have been stolen, since better-known pieces are less likely to sell on the black market. At the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, archivists and graduate students are working to post photos and information about thousands of items known to be in the museum. "It's not yet known what documentation remains," says Oriental Institute archivist Charles E. Jones. "We are trying to facilitate identification if any of this stuff ends up on the international market."
But there's no escaping the magnitude of the loss. "On some level, this is irremediable," Anderson says. "It takes decades to build a museum like that, and rebuilding will take at least that long."