Iraqi National Museum: Recovering History

July 3, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now, an update on what happened to Iraq’s antiquities, and to arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: For a time in the confused aftermath of the fall of Baghdad, it appeared the very cradle of civilization had been robbed. The plundering of Iraq’s national museum in early April drew headlines and recriminations around the world, as priceless artifacts spanning the Sumerian to Islamic civilizations appeared to be completely lost. The news media, including the NewsHour, reported that as many as 170,000 items might have been stolen or destroyed. U.S. military commanders and officials in Washington were condemned for failing to stop the looting. In the months since, it’s become clear that the loss, while real, was far less than initially feared. Just weeks after the initial looting, a U.S. interagency team working with Iraqi museum officials began an inventory of the museum.

Since then, thousands of valuable items believed lost have been recovered or otherwise accounted for: Approximately 3,000 items were returned or recovered in raids. One of the most studied objects in art history was returned: The Warka Vase, carved from alabaster in ancient Sumer before 3100 BC, was brought back in the trunk of a Volkswagen. Some treasures, it turned out, had been stored for safekeeping, some as far back as the first Gulf War; 8,000 items from the museum’s public galleries were found stored in boxes in a secret vault believed to be on the museum’s grounds. More than 6,700 pieces of gold and jewelry were hidden in a vault below Baghdad’s central bank. Sometime during the recent war, the basement of the bank had been flooded, burying much of the nation’s currency reserves along with the museum’s hidden treasure.

In May, a “National Geographic” team found three pumps and organized the draining of the vaults. Over three weeks, the team pumped out more than half a million gallons of water, recovering millions of dinars of wet currency, and boxes with precious gold and jewelry excavated from royal tombs in the ancient capital of Nimrud, and the royal cemetery at Ur.

DONNY GEORGE, Director, Iraq Antiquities Department: We’ve checked all the material, all the material is there, nothing is missing from all the things that we had from the museum in the vaults of the central bank.

JEFFREY BROWN: Still missing are precious items like a beautiful marble face of a Uruk woman more than 5,000 years old. In the meantime, many archeological sites outside Baghdad continue to be at risk. Last month, a team of archeologists reported that a “culture of looting” had taken hold in many areas and tens of thousands of artifacts have been dug up and smuggled abroad. In Baghdad today, however, it was a time of hope: A special one day opening at the National Museum, with the treasures of Nimrud on view.

JEFFREY BROWN: For more now on the hunt for missing antiquities, we’re joined from Baghdad by Marine Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, head of the U.S. team of military and civilian investigators trying to recover items taken from the Baghdad museum. A reservist now on active duty, Colonel Bogdanos is an assistant district attorney in New York and has a masters degree in classical studies. And in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Henry Wright, an archaeologist at the University of Michigan, and coordinator of a team of experts who recently visited Iraq for the National Geographic Society. Beginning with you, Colonel Bogdanos in Baghdad, now that you’ve had several months to look at what happened, how serious was the loss at the museum?

MARINE COL. MATTHEW BOGDANOS, Iraq Museum Investigation Team: Well, that’s both an easy and a difficult question to answer. The easy part is that, given the value of these items, a priceless piece, relics and priceless antiquities that represent our shared heritage, the loss of a single piece is an absolute tragedy. On the other hand, as we have gone through over the last two and a half months in the investigation and come to grips with exactly what is missing, we have learned that the originally reported numbers were simply inaccurate. The best way to do this is to divide the museum in half — the public galleries themselves containing some of the more historically significant items. From the public galleries, we have determined that there were 42 items stolen. Of those 42 stolen, ten have been returned, most notably the sacred vase of Warka, obviously the most significant piece the museum had. So that means 32 pieces from the public galleries or the museum proper, remain missing. Turning to the magazines or the storage rooms, which contain excavation site pieces and other small statuettes, pendants, cylinder seals, all important in their own right — well, in those storage rooms, we have determined that there were approximately 12,000 items originally missing. I should point out that, if you have a string of beads and there are 50 beads, those would count as 50 pieces. Of those, more than 12,000 pieces that are missing from the storage rooms, we have recovered almost 3,000 during the course of the investigation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Colonel Bogdanos, early reports were of organized looting, perhaps from outside, but with help from inside. What do you know about that?

MARINE COL. MATTHEW BOGDANOS: Well, the evidence has suggested throughout the course of the investigation at least three different dynamics that interacted during the looting period. You have first individuals who appear to have known what they were looking for and precisely and selectively chose those items as if from a shopping list. Those are primarily the pieces from the public galleries that we spoke about. Then you have, in the old storage rooms, or old magazines, you have what clearly appears to be wanton, indiscriminate looting. Entire shelves appeared… arms appear to have swept across entire shelves, emptying those shelves into bags and boxes that were then taken away. But you also see pieces strewn about or pieces that were stolen from one end of the storage rooms and dropped in another. These pieces tend to be, for the most part, excavation site pieces, as I spoke about, pottery shards, smaller statuettes and those types of things. Then you turn to the new magazines, an annex that was built in 1986, and this is — the evidence that we found here is the most troubling of all. In the farthest corner of the farthest room of the most remote part of the basement, there is an area that contained the most priceless collection, or one of the most priceless collections of coins, Hellenistic, Greek, Roman and Arabic coins, and cylinder seals, truly a remarkable collection. Well, that… the individuals that entered that particular storage room, not only needed to know exactly where the items were kept, but they also had the keys with them to all of the storage cabinets. Ironically, the individuals who… individual or individuals who were down in that particular area dropped the keys. Remember, there was no electricity, there were no lights, so a true catastrophe was narrowly averted. However, there were a series of 103 plastic fishing tackle-sized boxes that were down in the new magazines, and in those boxes there were almost 10,000 pieces stolen. And as I have said, the evidence clearly suggests that the individual or individuals who did that had to have had an intimate knowledge of both the museum and its storage practices.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Wright, in Michigan, what’s your assessment of the damage at the museum? And I know that you’ve been looking at a number of the sites outside of the city around the country.

HENRY WRIGHT, University of Michigan: As an external figure, my assessment of the losses in the museum are that they are really quite serious, even if they’re not as serious as we had at first feared. In a given excavation season on a systematic archeological excavation, you are lucky to see ten cylinder seals. And yet a large number were taken. These are our best indication of the structure of ancient political hierarchies, the positions of powerful priests and merchants. These are the items with which they seal tablets of legal sort, with which they send messages, with which they seal storerooms. They are a remarkable index of how these earliest urban societies operated and to lose any number of them is like tearing pages from the book of history.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about the sites around the country? Hundreds, thousands of sites around Iraq, particularly in the South I’ve heard there’s a lot of looting.

HENRY WRIGHT: We found that in the North, the looting was relatively minor. There’s been a lot of damage from the digging of trenches, preparatory to military action that, fortunately, didn’t happen in that region. And we found that in many cases, the U.S. Military authorities had put 24-hour guards on the important sites in the North. In the south, the situation is much more grave. In half the sites, the site guards representing the very competent Iraqi apparatus had stayed on the sites and protected them. But in more than half the important major urban centers the guards had not held. There were in some cases hundreds of people digging away, looking for valuables. We have no idea of exactly how much is leaving the country, but one can speculate that thousands of objects were taken out every day, and that in the course of any week, probably as much left the country from these illegal excavations as left the museum when it was looted.

JEFFREY BROWN: Colonel Bogdanos in Baghdad, how are you actually getting the pieces back? Give us a sense of how that’s working, both through force and through cooperation.

MARINE COL. MATTHEW BOGDANOS: The first thing we did was to establish and announce an amnesty or no-question-asked policy through community leaders, religious clerics, walking from marketplace to marketplace and simply putting out the word to the community that anyone could return items without any fear of retribution or prosecution. The second component to the methodology was to develop and continue to develop that rapport with the community so that we could have sources and informants in the community who would give us information about a possible location of particular stolen pieces of antiquities or artifacts from the museum, and then we would act on that information, conducting really law enforcement, classic law enforcement raids in and around Baghdad. They come to the gate, a statue of Shal-Manasser, from the 9th century BC, 7,000-year-old pot someone who walked up to the gate. We have through the amnesty program recovered almost 1,500 of the pieces from the museum. In addition to that, we have also recovered slightly more than 1,400 pieces pursuant to both investigative raids that we have conducted in the area, and also through the assistance of the international law enforcement and art communities through seizures in several countries throughout the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Wright, I wonder, are you hopeful that most will be recovered? Is it possible or even likely that much of this will never be recovered?

HENRY WRIGHT: It’s possible that important items will never be recovered, but we can hope for lucky breaks. We have to strengthen the international system for guarding against the movement of illegal antiquities. There’s a bill in the House now, House Bill 2009, which will strengthen our capacity to block the import of archaeological material from Iraq into the states. Other countries are taking similar measures. There is hope to get much of it back, and the problem is will we get it back with the numbers still on so that things can be put back in their proper documented position where they’re helpful to future research or not.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Colonel Bogdanos, are you hopeful? How long do you expect your investigation to go on?

MARINE COL. MATTHEW BOGDANOS: I’m a Marine. I expect to recover these items, no matter how long it takes. And again, I agree as I usually do with Professor Wright, it is going to take a long time and it requires patience. To those who have taken the items, I urge them to listen to their conscience and their sense of duty in returning those items. And to those who need to be guided by emotions other than those, my message is simple: We will find you, no matter how long it takes and no matter where you are, we will find you and we will recover this property.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Colonel Matthew Bogdanos and Professor Henry Wright, thank you both very much for joining us.