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On the looting of the Iraqi Museum

By Fr. Paul Mankowski, S.J. (articles ) | Apr 13, 2003

Assyriologists will feel a sadness at the damage to the artifacts at the Iraqi Museum which, if not keener or more profound than that of others, is more sharply focused. A few remarks.

*England had much less warning of aerial bombardment and the threat of invasion in 1939 than did Iraq in 2003. Yet most of London's archeological treasures (including Mesopotamian ones) got moved to safety before the Battle of Britain started. Of course it may have been the case that in Baghdad such precautions would have been forbidden as displaying treasonous defeatism. This underlines the Elgin Marble Paradox: restoring national treasures sometimes means moving them from a country that can afford to protect them to one that can't. It's a tough call.

*Looting. It's heartbreaking to hear the reports of what has gone out the window. However, much of the booty will slyly find itself in other museums over the next twenty years. Assyriologists use the euphemism "clandestine excavation" for the practice whereby tablets and other portable objects are stolen (usually by laborers or village children) from archeological digs, sold to local fences, then bought by collectors and resold to museums. Museums that deal in this trade, as do art galleries that buy stolen paintings, abet the thieving they pretend to deplore. A third-millennium cuneiform syllabary from Tell Mardikh doesn't simply walk in off the street any more than a Caravaggio. The suggestion that museum employees may have nicked some of the pieces is plausible.

*Nothing said above explains or excuses the vandalism.

*Saddam Hussein, at least prior to Desert Storm, was very cooperative with foreign Assyriologists, encouraging scholarly research into Iraq's past. In part, this served his propaganda purposes: the military glories of ancient Babylon and Assyria were to be seen as reincarnated in the heroic figure of Saddam Hussein, the new Nebuchadnezzar. Many western scholars felt uneasy about possible complicity in a scam by accepting hospitality in exchange for publicity. Some pretended to see no dilemma.

*In sum, the moral compromises made by some scholars and tolerated by many more in the past 50 years mean 1) many artifacts were in Baghdad instead of Berkeley; 2) the looters had excellent reason to believe there will be a re-sale market; 3) their own efforts helped feed the intransigence of a megalomaniac; 4) the maniac in question might have acted to save the artifacts. No one comes out of the business well enough to point fingers at others. Lamentation, not moral histrionics, is the proper response.

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