The Looting and Recovery of Iraqi Treasures The Director of Iraq's Museum of Antiquities talks about the looted treasures of Babylon, and the few that have made their way home.
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The Looting and Recovery of Iraqi Treasures

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The Looting and Recovery of Iraqi Treasures

The Looting and Recovery of Iraqi Treasures

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Scholars still argue about whether man domesticated wheat or the other way around, but there is no dispute that agriculture and civilization began in Mesopotamia, the land between the two rivers in modern Iraq. Many of the most important artifacts of early human civilization were collected in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, and then looted amidst the chaos of the American-led invasion two years ago.

Though quite a few of these objects have since been recovered, many more have not. Now a new book tries to create a virtual museum with stories and photographs of the treasures. It's called "The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad: The Lost Legacy of Ancient Mesopotamia."

If you have questions about the looting or the continuing recovery efforts, give us a call. We'd also like to hear questions on the stories that these objects tell about the creation of cities and empires, literature and art. Our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is

Donny George, director of the Iraq Museum, joins us here in Studio 3A today to talk about these lost treasures.

It's great to have you on the program.

Mr. DONNY GEORGE (Director, Iraq Museum): Thank you.

CONAN: I think we all remember the disturbing news of looters raiding the museum when Baghdad fell. Where do we stand now? How many of those objects have been recovered?

Mr. GEORGE: Well, if I may say, we had estimated about 15,000 objects were lost from the museum. Out of those 15,000, I can say about 50 percent have come back; not necessarily in Baghdad, but we have around 4,000 pieces back to the museum itself, but there are some more objects in the neighboring countries that we know about, and also some objects here in the United States, seized by the law enforcement, in Italy and some very few in some other countries. So this all makes about 50 percent of what was lost.

CONAN: And you expect that those objects will, in the fullness of time...

Mr. GEORGE: Of course. Yeah. Yeah. You know, this is about two years after the great loss, and we have recovered about 50 percent. And there's increasing awareness of the people in Iraq itself. They are giving us a lot of information. They are bringing material to the museum themselves. Some people are just buying these things and bringing them back to the museum. So it is a very large awareness of the people to bring back material to the museum.

CONAN: But, as you point out in the book, this is not just an Iraqi legacy. This is everyone's legacy.

Mr. GEORGE: Of course, of course. You know, it started there. When it started there, there was no Iraq, there was nothing. But that was the beginning of the history of mankind. So everything started there, you see.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. When you look at this book, there must be some pain as you look at some of these objects--pictures of them--that are still missing.

Mr. GEORGE: Yes, of course. For me, as an archaeologist--and when I first started in the museum, and that's over 28 years from now--so, you know, these pieces are just like my children, how you feel if you lose a child. This is a big pain, yeah.

CONAN: Give us an example, if you would. Is there a piece that is of particular significance that--or at least significance to you?

Mr. GEORGE: Well, at the beginning, you see, we lost some very, very important masterpieces, like the Warka vase, like the mask of the lady from Warka, but these came back. But now one of the most important pieces that is still missing is the headless statue, half-natural-size, of the Sumerian King Natum(ph), which--we still don't have it. And, by the way, this piece is inscribed on the back shoulder, and it could be one of the rare examples, the first examples, of this mentioning the word `king' in the history of mankind. So this is--I mean, every single piece has its own significance.

CONAN: We're talking with Donny George, director of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

You mentioned Sumer; this was an early, maybe the earliest, human civilization...

Mr. GEORGE: That's right.

CONAN: ...speaking a language that appears to have no relation to any language anywhere else.

Mr. GEORGE: That's right. Yeah.

CONAN: This is a great mystery and--but these were the people who first invented the hydrographic civilization that we emerged from.

Mr. GEORGE: That's right. I mean, modern scholars believe that the Sumerians are the descendants of the first people coming to Mesopotamia. Those were the people coming from the Neolithic period. Those were the people who started the villages. Those were the people who actually, with the villages, started the animal domestication and agriculture and a lot of--villages planning and, you know--but then, in about 4,500 BC, we learn that these are Sumerians. We don't have the writing then, but in about 3,200 BC we started having the writing, the inscription that they themselves invented at the beginning. It was a kind of pictographic.

And, you see, this is the greatness of the people: Out of nothing, they invent something, something very important, something that can exchange ideas and can accumulate ideas between generations and generations. That was the writing. Now we have it here.

CONAN: One of the great pictures in this book is, in fact, the examples of the different kinds of writing as you move through the history of this part of the Earth, through...

Mr. GEORGE: That's right. Yeah.

CONAN: know, the Akkadian periods and...

Mr. GEORGE: That's right. Yeah.

CONAN: ...various kings and empires and...

Mr. GEORGE: Yeah.

CONAN: The progress--it's interesting you mentioned the word `king' may have been inscribed on a statue that's still missing. Most of those early inscriptions--well, they were to, you know, record transactions. And then you get to an almost universal human trait, which seems to be `I'm the king, and boy, am I great.'

Mr. GEORGE: That's right. And, actually, in Sumerian, the sign for a king is a crown with a sign of a man. And they call it (Sumerian spoken): `This is the great man.' So, actually, he is the king. The great man of a city is the king of a city. So it was expressed in this way, you see.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. Mike is with us. He's calling from Ithaca, New York.

MIKE (Caller): Hi. Yeah, I wanted to remind everyone out there--you know, unfortunately, there's a tremendous bias in our culture to try to forget some of the things that people who aren't directly the ancestors of Western Europeans or Eastern Europeans of their contribution. And, Neal, long before there was Pythagoras, the people in Mesopotamia were aware of the Pythagorean theorem, and there's a famous tablet, the Plimpton Tablet, which is one of several which represents trituples(ph) of numbers that, if you put them together, like 3-4-5 or 60-61-11, they'd make a right triangle. But...

CONAN: Proof of the Pythagorean theorem--What?--thousands of years before Pythagoras.

MIKE: They haven't proved it yet; almost, though.

Mr. GEORGE: Well, almost 1,000 years before Pythagoras, and it was found in Tel Naml, now in Baghdad. Yeah.

CONAN: And is that tablet in the museum?

Mr. GEORGE: Yes. Yes, it's still there. And not only that--and some huge amount of tablets, yes.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Mike, thanks very much for the phone call.

MIKE: It--OK. Thank you.

CONAN: OK. Appreciate the idea.

Mr. GEORGE: Thank you.

CONAN: As you--at this moment--we just have a minute or so with you left--is the museum open at all, or is it safe to be open?

Mr. GEORGE: It's not safe to be open, but we are working inside. We are preparing the museum. We are preparing everything. In fact, I can tell you that the storerooms--I have steel padlocks on them. I have welded all the storerooms, because we're afraid that there might be another attack to the museum. In fact, we do have attacks by, you know, shooting on our guards, because the Haifa Street is just behind the museum. So the museum actually is in a hot spot in Baghdad. We are working there, but I think it's not the time now to open the museum.

CONAN: Donny George, all of us wish you good luck.

Donny George is the director of the Iraqi Museum and contributed the foreword to the new book, "The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad: The Lost Legacy of Ancient Mesopotamia." By the way, if you go to our Web site at, you can see some images of some of the objects that we've been talking about. Again, that's

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

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