Monthly Archives: May 2008

The Association of National Committees of the Blue Shield (ANCBS) expresses its sympathy with the victims of the recent earthquake in China and the hurricane in Burma/Myanmar


The Association of National Committees of the Blue Shield (ANCBS) expresses its sympathy with the victims of the recent earthquake in China and the hurricane in Burma/Myanmar and at the same time expresses its concern for the rich cultural heritage of these regions, which has probably suffered damage in many different ways as a result of the earthquake and the hurricane.

The ANCBS calls upon the organizations behind the Blue Shield network, covering cultural heritage sectors such as museums, libraries, archives and archaeological sites and monuments, to make use of their respective contacts with organizations in China and Burma/Myanmar to obtain information about damage to cultural heritage and what assistance may be needed from the international community in this tragic situation.

Leif Pareli

Chairman, ANCBS working group


Cultural Property at War: Protecting Heritage during Armed Conflict





General Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1945 inspecting art looted by the Germans and stored in the Merkers salt mine during World War II (behind him are General Omar N. Bradley, left, and Lieutenant General George S. Patton Jr., right). Photo: Courtesy of U.S. National Archives.

By Corine Wegener and Marjan Otter

At the end of 1943, as war raged in Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote to his commanders in Italy, clearly expressing his intent to spare cultural property from damage whenever possible:

“Today we are fighting in a country which has contributed a great deal to our cultural inheritance, a country rich in monuments which by their creation helped and now in their old age illustrate the growth of the civilization which is ours. We are bound to respect those monuments so far as war allows.”

This statement and other protective measures for cultural property were a direct result of concerted efforts by governments, the military, and cultural heritage professionals of many of the Allied nations to protect Europe’s cultural heritage during World War II. Nonetheless, countless icons of our shared cultural heritage were damaged, looted, or destroyed during the conflict. In response, the nations of the world gathered in the Netherlands to draft the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, in an attempt to ensure that such losses of cultural heritage during war would never again occur.

Click here to continue reading

Resurrecting the Baghdad Museum

Iraq Museum

Artifacts await unveiling in a newly refurbished hall of the Baghdad museum, which recently recovered hundreds of stolen pieces. Photo taken May 6, 2008. Mark Kukis for TIME

Wednesday, May. 07, 2008

By Abigail Hauslohner/Baghdad

In the shadowy halls of the Iraqi National Museum, the remnants of Babylon seem largely forgotten. The carved stone forms of 2,000-year-old rulers are scattered haphazardly throughout a maze of high-ceilinged, dusty halls; their silent expressions barely visible beneath even dustier shrouds of plastic wrap. Not a single tourist graces the building, where cardboard boxes and broken office chairs mingle with the treasure left in disarray.

The gloomy state of Baghdad’s national museum comes as no surprise if you know its recent history. During the lawlessness following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the museum, which once housed the world’s largest collection of Mesopotamian antiquities, was looted and ransacked beyond recognition. The event saw thousands of artifacts lost to international smuggling. For Iraqis the museum had been a showcase of their country’s 7,000-year old heritage and its fate was felt with great bitterness.

Yet, despite the museum’s current appearances, not all hope is lost. In fact, events of the past year, and especially recent weeks, would suggest the museum is making a comeback, albeit a slow one. Last week, the Iraqi government celebrated the return by Syrian authorities of more than 700 stolen artifacts, worth millions of dollars. Among them are gold necklaces, daggers, statues and pottery dating from the Islamic period to the Bronze Age. Negotiations with the Syrian government over the pieces took about three years, according to the museum’s deputy director, Mahsen Hassan Ali. But it represents the biggest homecoming of looted Iraqi antiquities to date, and was hailed as a significant victory by the Iraqi government.

Muna Hassan, the head of a committee working on the restoration of pieces returned by Syria, says that further negotiations are now in the works with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Italy and Germany. So far, Ali says roughly 4,000 stolen pieces have been returned to the museum — most of them confiscated within Iraq’s borders. Two days ago, an Iraqi citizen in the southern city of Nasiriyah offered the museum 643 artifacts, some of which he claimed to have excavated himself, said one museum official, who was not authorized to speak to the press. Many other items looted from Iraq’s museums are believed to have traveled outside national borders, and most are now suspected to be in neighboring Arab countries and Europe, Ali said. “We have valuable items in Saudi Arabia, in the United Emirates, in Kuwait, in Egypt, and in other Arab countries. In Jordan there is a massive quantity of 1,600 pieces,” he told TIME. On Wednesday, an Iraqi television network tied to the government announced that official negotiations with Jordan over those items had begun.

Museum officials hail success on another front as well. The past year saw a sharp drop in sectarian violence across the country due to the combined effects of a major milita’s cease-fire with the government, the expansion of Sunni tribal cooperation with U.S. forces, and the U.S. troop surge. Now, says one museum official, archaeologists are taking advantage of those gains. “After the events of 2003, there was no security. When stability returned to some of the provinces, we resumed excavations,” said the official, who added that 11 sites were excavated in 2007 across southern Iraq, in areas like Diwaniya, Basra, and Babil. “This year we have plans to excavate again in the town of al-Hathar, just outside Mosul [in northern Iraq], but the security situation there is still bad,” the official said.

The museum’s deputy director Ali says the institution lost an estimated 15,000 of some 200,000 artifacts during the days of looting and chaos that followed the U.S. invasion of Baghdad. In March UNESCO said that between 3,000 and 7,000 of those pieces are still missing. Nevertheless, some museum officials say the number of missing items is impossible to pinpoint because of lost records. “We have some of the records, but others were taken… Outside of Iraq, people want proof that the pieces were taken from the museum. That is the problem now because we lost some of the files… I don’t know the total number of artifacts before the looting. But we have 27 halls and they were all full,” said the official, gesturing to a passageway lined with empty glass cases.

Ali, who insists that the unique characteristics of Iraqi antiquities are known worldwide, says the process of reclaiming the items can take a long time due to each country’s regulations. “Each country has its own specific rule, and whatever they find in their country, they have a special law to deal with extracting it,” he said. As for how long that may take: “It depends on the politics of each country, and how much they’re willing to cooperate. Of course there are some uncooperative countries.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, funding is another obstacle. Rehabilitation of the museum ranks low on the government’s list of priorities in a country that continues to be wracked by violence, corruption and food scarcities. “It’s very little,” said the official of the museum’s annual allotment from the Ministry of Finance. “We need more.”

Indeed the museum’s recovery may take a long time, and few who witnessed the looting have forgotten the frustration they felt as Iraq’s riches were plundered. Five years after that catastophe, the centerpiece of Iraqi historical glory remains closed to the public. When it will reopen remains unknown. The larger stone pieces that never escaped the museum walls because of their weight remain in the shadows where they were left, some of them cracked from the failed efforts of looters to chip away chunks. But in one of the 27 halls, where intricately carved Sumerian wall panels depicting winged bulls beside kings were just too heavy to cart away, and where some repairs have been made to broken statues, the lucky visitor can catch a glimpse of the museum that once was — and what it may some day be again. “We are optimistic and we all have hope,” said the museum official. “God willing, whenever we get our artifacts back, it will be a joyful day for all of us.”

With reporting by Mazin Ezzat/Baghdad

Find this article at:,8599,1738136,00.html

U.S. Military Forces Have Damaged Babylon, Iraq Official Says

By Farah Nayeri April 30 (Bloomberg) — U.S. military forces and their allies in Iraq have damaged archeological sites including Babylon by setting up bases, using heavy equipment, filling sandbags and digging trenches, said an adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

At an impromptu press briefing organized by the British Museum in London today, the adviser, Bahaa Mayah, showed slides of the military presence at about a dozen sites. While the Babylon site has now been vacated by U.S. and Polish forces, he said, “we cannot reverse” the damage done.

“We need to stop this from happening again by any force, either Iraqi forces, or American forces, or British forces, or any forces in Iraq,” he said. “This has got to stop.”

Mayah said that until three or four months ago, the U.S. military “didn’t listen to us, didn’t take any action” when told that certain bases were in archeologically sensitive areas. Now, the U.S. military seeks Iraqi ministry approval before basing camps anywhere. “There is better cooperation nowadays compared to what we witnessed before,” he said.

“The coalition is committed to continue working with the citizens of Iraq and the ministry of culture to preserve Iraq’s cultural heritage,” said Lieutenant Colonel Mark Ballesteros, a U.S. Defense Department spokesman, in an e-mailed response to a request for comment. “Iraq’s treasures are not only of great importance to Iraq, but to the entire international community and civilization as a whole.”

Potholed Sites

At the press conference, Mayah showed what he called “very painful” aerial photos of potholed sites in Iraq where illegal digs had taken place. The photos made them look “like the surface of the moon,” he said. Mayah proposed a global ban on trade in Iraqi antiquities to stem the stealing.

“If they see no value, it will be a discouragement to dig again,” he said.

Further illustration was provided by Elizabeth C. Stone, professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University in New York, who has conducted research in Iraq and, since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, worked to help the country protect its sites.

She showed satellite photos, most of them several years old, of sites damaged by the allied military presence. She said Babylon was at “the heart of the camp” that U.S. and later Polish forces set up not long after the 2003 Iraq invasion. U.S. forces dug areas to fill sandbags there, and Poles bulldozed trenches, she said, pointing to photos.

While “they’ve been gone for some time now,” she said, damage has been done both through “contamination of added materials” and because of “removal of parts of the mound” which eliminated valuable archeological information.

A site from the time of Hammurabi, the Babylonian king, a few kilometers from the ancient town of Ur, was “bulldozed, completely obliterated” by the U.S. military, she said.

The looting that goes on in Iraq nowadays appears mostly aimed at digging up two kinds of antiquities: cylinder seals and cuneiform tablets, Stone said. All told, about 15 percent of the sites in southern Iraqi have been looted over the last 15 years, she estimated.

To contact the reporter on this story: Farah Nayeri in London at

Last Updated: April 30, 2008 15:55 EDT

What has happened to the archaeology of Iraq?


Times Literary Supplement Online

Mary Beard, May 12, 2008

Last week I reviewed an extraordinary book for the Times Saturday Books page. The Destruction of the Cultural Heritage in Iraq is a collection of essays about what has happened to the archaeology and museums of Iraq around, and since, the invasion. Where are the treasures of Ur, Babylon etc. now? Answer: many are lost, destroyed, or making a lot of money for antiquities dealers in the west.

The review was, in some ways, a stupid thing to take on. My Pompeii book is to be finished — bar the would-be elegant conclusion – on Tuesday (sic). But I have recently got very interested in the relationship between archaeology/culture and war. This is partly because of the bombing of Pompeii by the allies in 1943, which left many areas of the site a wreck (though thirsty travellers may be ironically grateful that it cleared the way for the site restaurant).

The book proved even more fascinating than I imagined, and more fascinating than I could squeeze into the 500 words I was given.

I hadn’t for a start properly appreciated the history of the Baghdad Museum, which had been founded by Gertrude Bell, as part of the British Mandate in the 1920s. Indeed it seems to have been Bell who started the practice of keeping some of the antiquities in Iraq, rather than sending them round the Museums of the Great Powers.

That said, given what has happened, one feels quite grateful – as I’m sure I’ve said before – that some of the Iraqi treasures were in the safe housing of the British Museum.

More than the history, the essays offered a marvellous galaxy of different perspectives on what had gone on in the battle for/looting of the Baghdad Museum in 2003. The Director – an able man called Donny George, and a pretty able self-publicist too, by all accounts – had obviously done a heroic job in trying to save what he could of the collection from the assorted and dangerous looters. A tragic amount of material was destroyed; but more than anyone expected actually came back.

But, as I said in the review, there was a slight tendency for the other archaeologists in the volume to be a bit starry eyed about what might be done to protect cultural heritage in the middle of a combat zone. One of the ex-military men writing, Matthew Bogdanos, was nicely hard-headed over the Museum itself. He did actually point out, unlike most of the archaeologists that it had not been open to the public since 1991, except to celebrate Saddam’s birthday in 2000. So maybe that explains why, it seemed for some Iraqis, fair game.

He also went through some of the reasons why the Coalition forces might have had trouble defending the Museum, even if they had had the will. “. . You cannot just hail a tank the way you hail a taxi. Unless you are requesting a suicide mission, you need a tank platoon. What those who have never been in combat do not understand is that a stationary tank is a death trap . . . one well placed round from an anti-tank weapon and you would need to use dog-tags to identify the charred remains of the four men inside.”

Got it boffins?

I was sad to see from the preface that one of my friends had refused to contribute to the volume, because he didn’t want to share covers with any soldiers. It seems to me that some sharing of that kind is exactly what we need.

Boffins need to know a bit more about tank-warfare. Soldiers need to know a good bit more about archaeology and why it’s important. Indeed, very quietly that’s exactly what some people in the USA are piloting. Brian Rose and the Archaeological Institute of America have been getting to GIs and explaining to them the importance of the land of Iraq for the whole of world culture.

It is at least a good try.



Mary Beard is a wickedly subversive commentator on both the modern and the ancient world. She is a professor in classics at Cambridge and classics editor of the TLS.