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Iraq and Ruin

Archaeologists have been piecing Iraq's past together for centuries. Now they're at it again.

By Mary WiltenburgStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 24, 2003

Making sense of the ruins will be slow, dirty work. When the first wave of outrage at the looting of the National Museum of Iraq burns off, when politicians seem not to care and angry headlines speak of some new outrage, the job of piecing together civilization's past will likely fall where it always has: to archaeologists.

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Worldwide outcry over 7,000 years' worth of artifacts smashed or stolen two weeks ago - and over US troops' failure to protect them - has galvanized heavy-hitters in the antiquities and policing worlds. UNESCO wants to send a team to Iraq to assess damage, Interpol has alerted police in 181 countries, and the US has pledged the FBI's help.

But if hard answers prove elusive on Iraq's shifting sands, it may take the patience of those who have spent their lives digging in the desert for broken clues to begin to put things right again.

Worldwide, archaeologists who study Mesopotamia - the civilization in ancient Iraq that more than 7,000 years ago saw the world's first cities, first written language, first laws - are a tight-knit bunch. Never in their lifetime has the field of study received such attention.

Never, they say, since the burning of the library at Alexandria, the sacking of Constantinople, the Conquistadors, the Mongols, the Vandals, and the Visigoths, has any destruction of cultural artifacts compared to what happened in Baghdad.

Now, as international anger throws a spotlight on their beloved region, Iraq specialists are aching to be of use. Archaeologist Elizabeth Stone, of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, says archaeologists from London to Chicago to Paris are waiting for word from Baghdad to mobilize potentially hundreds of researchers to begin reconstructing the museum's records online, or to help repair or replenish the collection itself.

Growing energy, lingering fear

Museum officials say in recent days embarrassed Iraqis have begun returning small pilfered artifacts to local mosques, to US forces, and to the museum itself. On Saturday, the Jordanian government announced it had recovered 42 paintings from smugglers trying to cross its border.

But since some of the museum looters are thought to have been professional art thieves - equipped with glass cutters, keys to museum vaults, and perhaps orders to steal particular pieces - many of the missing treasures will not be quick to surface, if indeed they ever do.

Meantime, experts say, strange as it may sound, the world's loss of priceless cultural artifacts could in one sense also prove its gain. Many around the world - particularly Americans - seem to be waking up to the significance of what was lost.

"There's more interest in Mesopotamian archaeology now than there ever has been," says archaeologist Paul Zimansky of Boston University. "That energy could be harnessed."

It must be, if Iraq's remaining treasures are to be saved, Iraqi archaeologists and curators say. Two weeks after the destruction of the National Museum, many say that while the museum itself is now guarded, ancient sites like Nineveh and Babylon are still in jeopardy.

In Babylon, the famous city of the biblical King Nebuchadnezzar, the local museum's curators sent its most valuable pieces north to the National Museum in Baghdad to protect them from bombing during the war - only to see them stolen in its aftermath. Looters also cleaned out the few artifacts left in the local museum. This past weekend Ahmed al-Ibrahim, a local archaeologist and guide, told a Monitor reporter that he and his colleagues fear for the site's few remaining marvels.

Pointing at the famous "Lion of Babylon" sitting outside in the dust, an immense beast whose paws pin down what appears to be a struggling soldier, he said, "We think she is next. There are people plotting to steal her, but the statue weighs several tons and isn't easy to lift."

First step, political triage

Archaeologists say the protection, repair, and recovery of Iraqi artifacts will need to unfold in several stages. The first, clearly, is political triage.

"You need some kind of public order, basic policing, before you can even talk about protecting this stuff," says James Armstrong, assistant curator of the Semitic Museum at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

If US forces secure even a few of Iraq's 10,000 registered archaeological sites, local curators can begin to assess what they lost to looting. Lists from around the country can then be compiled into an online database of missing Iraqi antiquities like that proposed by University of Chicago Mesopotamia specialist MacGuire Gibson at a meeting of experts in Paris last week.