Protecting Ancient History in Iraq

Archaeologists Worry Antiquities, Artifacts Will be Lost in War

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Head of a gateway colossal guardian sculpture

The head of this gateway colossal guardian figure has been sawed apart by looters. The figure, dated from 725 B.C., was located in the ancient Assyrian capital city Khorsabad, located just northeast of present-day Mosul, Iraq. Photos courtesy John M. Russell, Massachusetts College of Art hide caption

itoggle caption Photos courtesy John M. Russell, Massachusetts College of Art
The museum of Sennacherib Palace after its roof was stolen and sculptures plundered

This 2000 photo shows the museum of Sennacherib Palace, circa 700 B.C., located in Nineveh in northern Iraq after its roof was stolen and sculptures plundered. hide caption

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At the Sennacherib Palace site museum, a relief sculpture portraying Assyrian soldiers marching into battle, is shown in this 1989 photo. hide caption

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Slab is missing after looters plundered the museum.

But a return visit in 2000 showed the slab missing after looters plundered the museum. hide caption

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A fragment of the slab, showing an Assyrian archer marching into battle.

A fragment of the slab, showing an Assyrian archer marching into battle, is seen in a 1995 photo offering the item on the art market. hide caption

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With a U.S. invasion of Iraq looming, archaeologists and art historians are growing increasingly concerned over what will become of ancient monuments and artifacts in the "cradle of civilization" when bombs begin falling. They're also worried about looting of ancient artifacts after a war ends, NPR's Jason DeRose reports.

The Archaeological Institute of America is urging the Department of Defense to consider historic sites in Iraq when planning U.S. military strategy. In a letter to the Pentagon, the AIA expresses its "profound concern about the potential for damage to monuments, sites, antiquities, and cultural institutions as a result of war."

Six thousand years ago, the place known today as Iraq was Mesopotamia, which rose along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

"It's the cradle of civilization," says McGuire Gibson, who teaches Mesopotamian archaeology at the University of Chicago. "It's the place where we get the first cities, the first writing, the first thoughts about what's man's relationship to God. It's the first sort of ideas about death. It's the first recorded literature that we have."

Gibson and other archaeologists are quick to say their first concern if war comes to Iraq is the loss of human life. But with nearly 100,000 archaeological sites at stake, they're also concerned about the loss of human history, DeRose reports. Gibson says the 1991 Gulf War literally chipped away at a priceless past. One example is the massive 4,000-year-old Ziggurat at Ur, in southern Iraq. The temple pyramid was hit by at least 400 shells that took out "big chunks" from the structure, Gibson says.

The future of the 2,000-year-old ruin at Ctesiphon — just outside Baghdad — is a chief concern of Zaineb Bahrani, who teaches at Columbia University. The site includes the remains of a palace with one of the oldest, tallest brick archways in the world. It was indirectly damaged in 1991 and Bahrani says another nearby bombing could cause the arch to collapse.

Monuments aren't the only potential targets of concern. Elizabeth Stone, an archaeologist at the State University of New York at Stoney Brook, says cuneiform tablets provided legal records — and personal stories — from the ancient past. One of the tablets she translated was a divorce case "where a guy had married an heiress where he was accusing her of being a nag. She was accusing him of never having slept with her," Stone says.

Records such as the divorce tablet are made of unbaked mud. The weight of a tank or the shock of a bomb can turn these fragile artifacts to dust, DeRose reports.

However, some art historians and archaeologists are more concerned about what will come after a military campaign, when they say social and economic chaos will most likely lead to looting.

John Russell at the Massachusetts College of Art cites the palace of the Assyrian ruler Sennacherib at Nineveh in northern Iraq. Prior to the 1991 Gulf War, Russell visited the palace of the king who plotted the siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C. In the palace, Russell photographed 2,700-year-old sculptural reliefs depicting religious offerings, laborers and death. In the mid-1990s, Russell began seeing pieces of the same sculptures being offered on the art market.

A Department of Defense spokesperson says an internal Web site has been set up to help military planners avoid historic sites in Iraq. He says the United States also plans to help the post-war Iraqi government establish protections for cultural property.

But with tens of thousands of archaeological sites throughout Iraq, Boston University archaeologist Paul Zimansky doesn't hold out much hope about protecting this ancient culture. "The Mesopotamians themselves were aware of the impermanence of everything they did," Zimansky says. "And there's a deep pessimism that runs through the literature of Mesopotamia. And perhaps that's carrying over to the modern day — that everything does seem to turn back into mud."

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