A Sneak Peek At The Soon-To-Reopen National Museum Of Iraq

National Museum of Iraq
The National Museum of Iraq is as battered and defiant as the country it represents. Battered because it has suffered looting and neglect, defiant because its staff fought to protect it. Now they’re rebuilding and the museum will soon reopen.

I got a sneak peak while visiting Iraq and was overawed. I knew I would be. Here is the treasure house of the dawn of civilization. Giant statues of Assyrian guardian demons stand next to cases filled with wide-eyed Sumerian statues pleading with their gods. Detailed bas-reliefs from excavated palaces show scenes of war and hunting. Cases full of cylinder seals show scenes of Babylonian life in miniature.

My favorite was the writing. The first scribes developed a simple system around 3300 B.C. or even earlier. Clay tokens represented objects such as sheep or jugs of beer. These were often sealed in clay envelopes with an impression of the tokens on the outside, thus creating the first contracts. Soon tablets were used with a system of writing that was mostly pictorial – a bull’s head represented a bull, etc. As the needs of the developing civilization grew more complex, so did the system of writing. The pictures morphed into almost unrecognizable collections of lines, and words for abstract ideas appeared. The writing was done with a stylus on soft clay to make a series of wedge-shaped impressions called cuneiform.

Looking at these ancient texts was hypnotic. The same process we’re engaged in right now, with me writing and you reading, was going on 5,000 years ago in a vastly different culture. We don’t have to know each other or even be in the same country to communicate. It was an incredible innovation that opened up countless possibilities for the human race.

As I studied the galleries I was amazed that anything survived the chaotic days after the fall of Baghdad in 2003. The Coalition troops hadn’t been given any instructions to protect the museum, so looters broke in and ransacked the place. Museum staff came back in force and drove them off, a brave act considering the looters were armed. Eventually the museum workers convinced the U.S. Army to post some guards.

It was too late. Thousands of priceless artifacts had been stolen. Some were later recovered but most have disappeared into the private homes of “collectors.” Luckily, the museum staff had hidden some of the best artifacts in secret locations. They told no one, not even the Coalition, about their existence until the situation had stabilized.

%Gallery-170304%Now workers are busy finishing up the displays. Twenty-two galleries have been completed and there are five more to go. Some rooms survived the war relatively intact and will look familiar to those who were lucky enough to visit before the war. Others have been completely remodeled. The museum officials didn’t allow me to photograph those. It seemed an odd restriction. Wouldn’t they want people to see their hard work? When traveling in Iraq, you get used to random rules. You just have to shrug your shoulders and move on.

In one room I found a member of the staff restoring an Abbasid sarcophagus made of teak. As I studied the intricately carved designs he explained in perfect English that he was filling in the cracks and chips with a paste made from powdered teak and “micro balloons,” tiny polymer spheres that act as a chemically inert adhesive. I asked if I could take a picture of his work and he said no.

“That’s the museum’s rule, not mine,” he said apologetically.

He and his coworkers have done a good job. The difference between the traditional galleries and the remodeled ones is astounding. The new galleries have better lighting and signage and show off the museum’s artifacts to much better advantage. All the galleries, both new and old, have signage in both Arabic and English.

The National Museum of Iraq is due to have a grand reopening in two months. As with everything in this struggling nation, the date is subject to change due to security issues and funds not getting to the right place at the right time. The work is almost done, though, so one of the greatest museums in the Middle East will almost certainly reopen in 2013 to teach a new generation of visitors about the wonders of Iraq’s past.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Ghosts Of A Dictatorship: Visiting Saddam’s Palaces!”

All photos by Sean McLachlan

Syrian Civil War Fueled By Illegal Antiquities Trade

Syrian Civil War
We’ve reported before here on Gadling how the unrest in Syria has led to the damage of much of that nation’s archaeological heritage. Now Time magazine reports that the Syrian Civil War has led to a huge trade in illegal antiquities that may be lengthening the war.

Smugglers and antiquities dealers in Lebanon told the magazine that both the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian government are trading looted antiquities for weapons. One smuggler even claimed that the Free Syrian Army is organizing a special team to more systematically locate archaeological artifacts to sell. The Free Syrian Army denies the claim but admits that some of its members have engaged in looting.

While the destruction of Syria’s past may seem of little importance when compared with the 20,000 or more killed and the countless injured and displaced, the fact that the trade in looted antiquities may be fueling the conflict is troubling. It will also make it harder for Syria to recover once the war is over. It used to earn 12% of its national income from tourists attracted by the country’s many ancient and medieval sites.

There may be little left to see, with all six of its UNESCO World Heritage Sites damaged, and countless museums, archaeological sites and historic buildings looted and damaged.

One good source of information on the continuing destruction of Syria’s past is the Facebook page Syrian Heritage under Threat – grim but important reading.

[Photo of checkpoint in Damascus courtesy Voice of America]

Destruction, Looting Of Syria’s Ancient Heritage Continues, Report Says

The upheaval in Syria has been going on for more than a year now, and in that time thousands of people have been killed, including many civilians and children. Syria’s many ancient sites are also getting damaged. Previously, we’ve talked about how the Syrian army has shelled the ancient city of Palmyra and the Crusader castle Crac des Chevaliers. Both of these are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, of which there are six in the country.

A report by the Global Heritage Fund states that these and many other sites and museums, are getting damaged and looted in the chaos. Sites like Tell Sheikh Hamad, pictured above in this Wikimedia Commons image. This Assyrian town was inhabited for several centuries and archaeologists have found numerous cuneiform inscriptions there. Recently it became a battleground between the Syrian army and deserters. An Assyrian temple reportedly collapsed when it got hit by shellfire and the rest of the site likely suffered serious damage as well.

The medieval citadel of Hama has also been shelled, as can be seen in the video below.

Besides the fighting, historic sites are getting damaged by troops digging trenches, tanks rolling over fragile areas, and snipers building positions atop historic homes. Not even mosques have been safe, with several historic mosques suffering damage.

Looting is also a serious problem since members of museum staff are often not around to guard their collections due to the fighting. In Crac des Chevaliers, looters kicked out the staff at gunpoint and started digging.

With no end in sight for the Syrian Civil War, it’s certain that more of the nation’s previous heritage will be destroyed or stolen.

Native American Burials Looted At Illinois State Historic Site

Native American, Kincaid Mounds
Native American burial mounds at Kincaid Mounds State Historic Site have been illegally excavated and driven over in the worst desecration of a state historic site the state has seen in years.

The Chicago Tribune reports that someone has dug holes into one of the Native American burials. In a separate incident, someone drove a vehicle over one of the mounds. It’s unclear if anything was taken.

The site dates from about 1050 to 1400 AD, during the Mississippian period, a high point in pre-Columbian civilization in the area when large towns created elaborate art and traded across North America. Kincaid was a large town and religious center. The Mississippian people often buried their dead with beads, arrows, pots, and other grave goods. These fetch a good price on the illegal antiquities market and were probably what the vandals were after.

Such crimes come with serious penalties. Disturbing an archaeological sites or human remains on state land carries up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine. Unsettling of burials on public land can also be a felony punishable by up to three years behind bars and a $25,000 fine.

Painting by Herbert Roe courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Ivory Coast national museum ransacked

Ivory CoastDuring the civil war earlier in the year, the national museum in Abidjan, capital of the Ivory Coast, was nearly stripped bare by looters, Art Daily reports.

An estimated $8.5 million worth of art and artifacts were taken while the city suffered bitter warfare between political factions. Some of the most severe fighting swirled around the museum itself, which was used as a sniper’s nest.

Once famous among African museums for its fine collection of art, it is now a pale semblance of its former self, with all the most valuable artifacts gone. The Ivory Coast is home to a rich variety of cultures and a long history of ancient civilizations. A wide variety of arts are practiced there, including making masks like the one shown in this photo courtesy Guérin Nicolas. Luckily, this particular mask is in the Museum Rietberg in Zurich where it remains safe.

Civil unrest and cultural looting go hand in hand. In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, criminals have taken advantage of the chaos and lack of law enforcement to steal their own heritage and sell it on the international antiquities market. By doing so, they take away evidence of their common history, thus making it easier for factions to emphasize their differences and renew the cycle of violence.