On 5th Anniversary of Iraq Museum’s Looting, New Attention to Antiquities Trafficking

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


iraq-artifacts.jpg Iraq’s National Museum, home to artifacts of the world’s oldest civilization, was looted five years ago tomorrow. A collection of academics, lawyers, law enforcement officials, and former military personnel commemorated the anniversary with the release of a new book, Antiquities under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War, and an event for interested parties at the National Press Club. That included me.

The invasion of Iraq actually did surprisingly little damage to Iraq’s historic sites, in part because McGuire Gibson, an expert on ancient Mesopotamia based at the University of Chicago, gave the military coordinates of thousands of sites it should avoid on its way to Baghdad. “Iraq is Mesopotamia,” said Gibson, who spoke at the Press Club. “It is the root civilization for all civilizations.” The military did make mistakes, however. On April 10, looting of the Iraq Museum began and, due to a lack of postwar planning (and due to the Bush Administration’s unwillingness to treat culture like a legitimate facet of post-war reconstruction), it took six days for American soldiers to show up to help museum staff defend the premises. In all, 15,000 items from the Museum’s collection disappeared or were damaged. Theft and vandalism occurred at archaeological sites across the country.

Matthew Bogdanos, a Marine colonel, led the effort to investigate the looting of Iraq’s artifacts and to secure their return. Speaking at the Press Club today, Bogdanos showed slides of stolen or damaged artifacts from the Iraq Museum — the first naturalistic depiction of a human face in stone, for example — that could be found nowhere else in the world. Speaking of the unique nature of Iraq’s treasures, Bogdanos said, “Everything in Iraq can be prefaced with the word ‘first.'”

The reason why people like Bogdanos are needed to investigate the looting is because theft by neighborhood thugs is only the first step is a sophisticated chain that eventually puts fine artifacts in the hands of wealthy buyers in New York, London, Paris, and Tokyo. Smugglers who traffic guns and drugs across the Middle East also carry high-value historical treasures: Bogdanos identified one artifact that had traveled from Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut and then to Geneva. Tracing that network and working to end it is a full-time job for units within the American military.

Many of the artifacts from the Iraq Museum have been recovered and restored. The point, the speakers at the Press Club agreed, is not Iraq. The point is calling attention to antiquities trafficking and its ability to destroy a nation, likely already ravaged by war, by stealing its history and culture. The book provides procedures and strategies that can protect historic sites and artifacts in future war zones. The world’s preservers of culture — monuments, museums, libraries, and archives — are an underlooked casualty of war. The group behind Antiquities under Siege aim to change that.

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate