This week US Marines Col. Matthew Bogdanos gave a Long Now talk on his experience in Iraq leading the efforts to recover the priceless artifacts looted from the Iraq National Museum in April 2003. Here’s my summary of the talk:
Iraq’s National Museum in Baghdad had been closed to the public by Saddam Hussein for over two decades when his regime fell in April 02003. Iraqis felt no connection to the world renowned cultural treasures inside. Like every other government building, it was trashed and looted.
Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos, then in Basra leading a counter-terrorism group, volunteered part of his team to attempt recovery of the lost artifacts. He arrived at the museum with 14 people to protect its dozen buildings and 11 acres in a still-active battle zone. Invited by the museum director, they took up residence and analyzed the place as a crime scene.
Missing were some of civilization’s most historic archeological treasures. From 3200 BC, the Sacred Vase of Warka, the world’s oldest carved stone ritual vessel. From 2600 BC, the solid gold bull’s head from the Golden Harp of Ur. From 2250 BC, the copper Akkadian Bassetki Statue, the earliest known example of lost-wax casting. From 3100 BC, the limestone Mask of Warka, the first naturalistic depiction of a human face. From 800 BC, the Treasure of Nimrud— a fabulous hoard of hundreds of pieces of exquisite Assyrian gold jewelry and gems. Plus thousands of other artifacts and antiquities, including Uruk inscribed cylinder seals from 2500 BC.
Bidding on the international antiquities black market went to $25,000 for Uruk cylinder seals, $40 million for the Vase of Warka.
Since the goal was recovery, not prosecution, Bogdanos instituted a total amnesty for return of stolen artifacts—no questions asked, and also no payment, just a cordial cup of tea for thanks. Having learned from duty in Afghanistan to listen closely to the locals, Bogdanos and his team walked the streets, visited the mosques, played backgammon in the neighborhoods, and followed up on friendly tips (every one of which turned out to be genuine). 3,000 items had been taken from the museum by random looters. Local Iraqis returned 95% of them.
The prime pieces stolen by professional thieves took longer to track down. Raids on smuggler’s trucks and hiding places turned up more items. The Bassetki Statue was found hidden in a cesspool; the Mask of Warka had been buried in the ground. Some pieces began turning up all over the world and were seized when identified. (Bogdanos noted that Geneva, Switzerland, is where that kind of contraband often rests in warehouses that law enforcement is not allowed to search.)
It turned out Saddam himself had looted the museum of the Treasure of Nimrud and the gold bull’s head back in 01990. Tips led to a flooded underground vault in the bombed-out Central Bank of Iraq, and the priceless items were discovered.
Everything found was returned to the Iraq National Museum, where the great antiquities are gradually being restored to public display. Iraq, and the world, is retaking possession of its most ancient heritage.
Bogdanos quoted Sophocles: “Whoever neglects the arts… has lost the past and is dead to the future.”
(This talk was neither recorded nor filmed, because material presented in it is part of a still on-going investigation. You can get the full story from Bogdanos’ excellent book, Thieves of Baghdad.)