As it turns out, some of the very same people who were accused of the "inside job" were actually working to protect Iraq's historical treasures. While the actions of the directors are definitely
and it's generally agreed that at least some of the directors were at best, complacent and quite likely directly involved in the looting, the majority of the museum's staff worked silently and diligently during Hussein's reign, and during the chaos which followed, to protect the priceless relics from greed and revisionism. In fact, the history which has been waiting to be discovered for 25 years in the museums, hiding places, and archaeological sites around that country may soon give the world a new perspective upon its earliest civilization - a perspective and knowledge which was previously known only by an elite few. Correctly rewriting history, or at least making it more complete, seems to me to be one of the few things worthy of fighting for in this "liberation".
In the year that has passed since the looting frenzy died down, a great number of dedicated and concerned people from all over the world have collaborated together to help sort out the mess which was made, not only by the looting, but also by stray shells, shock waves, bulldozings, and insurgent-hunts, and space and logistic requirements of the occupying force. While the damage has indeed been great, the cleanup and restoration effort has been a shining example of communication, cooperation, and dedication between and among Iraqis, Americans, Italians, and many, many others.
According to the
however, more than 15,000 artifacts remain unaccounted for from the Iraqi National Museum, and at least 24,000 have been damaged. That's roughly 8 percent of the 500,000 or so artifacts which were known to be kept there. Of these missing pieces, the greatest number (17%) were taken from the museum's display cases, as expected. The pleasant surprise comes from the storage rooms at the museum, which were initially thought to be utterly desecrated. It turns out that, of the 491,000 items kept in storage, only 3 percent were taken, and 5 percent damaged. Elsewhere, at a secret site - reportedly an unused bomb shelter - a apparantly clandestine effort sponsored by the museum's staff and protectors brought together an additional eight thousand relics which were untouched by looters, and suffered only slightly for their efforts.
The biggest surprise, and surely one of the few bright spots in the entire Iraq story so far, is what happened at Baghdad's Central Bank, where nearly everyone feared that the
had occurred. During Saddam's reign, many of the most valuable artifacts were moved to the vaults beneath the bank, although the motivation for placing them there remains unclear - it was either for protection, or an effort at hoarding and eventual theft. Regardless, exactly none of these great treasures, and especially not the
were successfully removed by looters, nor by the "gangs" of Latif Nusayyif Jasim (Saddam's culture minister), as widely reported. There were several dead bodies found in the museum after the flood waters were pumped out, and it's speculated that these folks died in an attempt to break in with a rocket-launcher - but the doors held. The flooding, however, was quite bad at the bank, and as much as 3 percent of the items stored there were damaged. All in all though, the greatest fears of archaeologists and other concerned individuals were not realized.
And the good news doesn't end there. As mentioned, during the past year, a large and "eclectic" group of people have
to repair, restore, rebuild, and eventually, reopen the National Museum of Iraq. Everyone from archaeologists to administrators, detectives and police, sheiks and clerics, and probably even a few long-haired hippie art lovers are on the case - hunting for the missing artifacts on the ground, in the black market, in Iraqi's homes and hiding places, and even on eBay. Some reports even tell of Muslim clerics urging Iraq's women to shun their men, until they bring back the items which have been taken - and the efforts seem to be working well. The Italians, who are less feared and more trusted than Americans, have retrieved thousands of artifacts from Iraqis - without ever looking at their faces - no questions asked. The rebuilding of the museum is also progressing nicely, although it remains unclear exactly when it will reopen officially.
(subscription required) which originally appeared in the LA Times, the reporter even goes so far as to call the looting of the National Museum an "inadvertent blessing" - since the result of the restoration and rebuilding will finally give access to the massive history lesson which can be learned there. The museum has been closed to all but a very limited group of Saddam's preference during the past 20 years, severely limiting the study and debate over the relics stored there. Indeed, some experts are convinced that just a few years of research into the relics of Iraq could force a rewrite of many widely-accepted Archeology texts - even rewrite history. In that vein, a group of Italian archaeologists began a project this month to assess the condition of the Cuneiform archives, mentioned previously, with the intent of eventually making them available on the internet with both pictures and translated text - potentially yielding more than a few new insights.
During the initial period of looting and fighting in Iraq the US House of Representatives put forth a
which called upon the military to be mindful of sacred sites and treasures there, and on March 4th of this year the Senate passed a law (S.671) which closed a loophole which inadvertently allowed stolen Iraqi treasures to enter the US. Another measure, no longer under consideration, was called the "Iraq Cultural Heritage Protection Act," (H.R. 2009), while it was apparently considered too stringent, this follow-up bill, S.671, also called the "Emergency Protection for Iraqi Cultural Antiquities Act of 2004." has now been passed by both houses, and awaits appointment of conferees for final passage. According to those in the know, this bill
needs your support, to get it through the final bureaucracy in a timely manner. Clearly, lawmakers in the US and around the world are working to make it very difficult to possess Iraqi artifacts, whether they be looted from the Museum, or from any of the archaeological sites around the country - but more needs to be done to fight these thieves of history. Especially on the ground in Iraq, a much more vigilant watch must be kept upon these sites, many of which have seen extensive theft and desecration just since "Mission Accomplished".
Laws and resolutions are certainly a positive sign, but real differences will also be made by financial support and actual research. To that end, millions of dollars have been appropriated from public and private sources in the US and around the world, with the intent of rebuilding, restoring, excavating/documenting, and protecting Iraq's treasures. Earlier this month, for example, the National Endowment for the Humanities
$559,000 to various projects dedicated to "Recovering Iraq's Past".
Clearly, what was only a year ago thought to be history lost may eventually come to be known and understood far better than we had hoped. It's also clear that a
of the native language documentation concerning the modern history of Iraq has indeed been lost forever, documents which covered the period of constitutional democracy in the land. And while there's no doubt that many, many valuable bits of history will never be found and made available to the public, I submit that what has been done, and what is on the way to being accomplished (given a successful transition) with Iraq's historical treasures could give some additional meaning, and indeed, glory to all of those who've given their lives and limbs in the conflict, whatever their nationality may be.
Resources worth investigating:
- Iraq War & Archaeology - likely the best site available for information and news surrounding the ongoing efforts to protect and restore Iraq's treasure. Created and updated by the dedicated efforts of one Francis Deblauwe, Ph.D. Includes a long list of external links, as well.
- Iraqcrisis a mailing list moderated diligently by Charles Jones of the University of Chicago, which also sponsors the list. This list provides a steady and up-to-date stream of information and news regarding Iraq's treasures. Subscribe and follow along.
- The Secret of Nimrud - a fascinating and vivid collection of recently available photographs illustrating the recovery and unpacking of what is widely considered to be the most valuable treasures in Iraq which were not taken, the Nimrud artifacts. An extraordinary documentary record of Americans and Iraqis working together for good. (Link goes to the Iraq Museum International website - click the Secret of Nimrud link to see the slideshow)