Extent of Looting at Baghdad Museum Unclear
Only days after Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad fell to coalition forces in April, the world learned of the looting of Iraq’s National Museum, which housed thousands of priceless artifacts from ancient Mesopotamia. Scholars immediately called for the recovery of the artifacts, with many denouncing American war planners for failing to safeguard the museum’s contents. Several international and governmental bodies—including UNESCO, Interpol and the FBI—have mobilized to track down the looted objects.
Initial reports suggested that most or all of the museum’s 170,000 pieces had been looted or destroyed. According to later reports, however, that figure is excessively high. On April 29 the British Museum, assisted by Donny George, director of the National Museum of Iraq, released a list of 26 items that have been confirmed as missing. Among them are the famous 5,000-year-old Warka Vase, a 3-foot-tall alabaster vase decorated with reliefs of plants, animals, people and a temple scene; and an intricately carved ivory of a lioness attacking a Nubian, dating to the ninth-eighth century B.C.
Still unknown is the fate of many commercially less valuable pieces (though, encouragingly, hundreds have already been recovered) and of tens of thousands of cuneiform tablets in the museum archive, some of them barely studied by scholars. The gem of the archive was the world’s oldest intact library, the Sippar Library, discovered on its original shelves at a site 20 miles from Baghdad in 1986. These 800 texts included the prologue to the Code of Hammurabi, the 18th-century B.C. Babylonian legal code, and parts of a flood story similar to that contained in the Book of Genesis in the Bible.
The history and literature of ancient Mesopotamia are important contexts for the Bible. “The ancient Biblical writers were familiar with Mesopotamian literature,” Michael Coogan, a Bible scholar and editor of the Oxford History of the Biblical World, told BAR. “The most dramatic example of this is the flood story, which is found in multiple versions in cuneiform texts. It’s a kind of commonplace of ancient literature, so not surprisingly it also appears in the Bible.” As for Biblical history, Coogan said, “Many rulers of Babylon and Assyria [which incorporated much of modern Iraq] conquered or tried to conquer ancient Israel and Judah, and their records mention many kings of Israel and Judah.”
Experts on the ancient Near East are in near-unanimous agreement that the looting of the National Museum represents a serious loss to the region’s, and the world’s, cultural heritage. Just how serious, though, is a matter of some debate. “The looting of the Iraq Museum (Baghdad) is the most severe single blow to cultural heritage in modern history, comparable to the sack of Constantinople…and the ravages of the conquistadors,” reads a statement released by the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), the professional association of Near East scholars.
Some experts are skeptical of such claims. “The loss is unfortunate, but not tragic,” said Coogan. “First of all, most of this material has been well-documented. Second, the attention given to these artifacts has been disproportionate to the real tragedy, which is the loss of human life.”
Equally skeptical is Jerome M. Eisenberg, director of Royal-Athena Galleries, a major venue for the sale of antiquities, and editor of Minerva magazine. “These statements are grossly exaggerated—common sense alone makes the figures impossible,” Eisenberg told BAR, pointing out that since antiquities make up only 1.5 percent of the 12-billion-dollar art market in Europe and the U.S., the Baghdad items simply could not 019be worth billions, as is sometimes claimed. Eisenberg is fairly sanguine about the fate of the looted artifacts, at least those with a high commercial value. “The major pieces would be virtually impossible to sell, and the smaller pieces will come onto the market over the next hundred years.” But the cuneiform tablets may be lost forever. “There would be almost no way of identifying them” if the looters have removed their museum accession numbers, he said.
Who stole the antiquities, and how can authorities retrieve them? There is mounting evidence that the looters were professionals who likely organized the theft prior to the American and British attack on Iraq. A photograph taken in April shows a long row of empty display shelves, their glass walls mysteriously intact. Eisenberg speculates that members of Saddam Hussein’s regime may have coordinated the looting, and are holding on to the important pieces, possibly to use as ransom.
As the crisis at the museum has dwindled, another, possibly more severe, threat to Iraq’s heritage has arisen: the wholesale plunder of at least a dozen major archaeological sites in the southern part of the country. Armed bands pick through the sites looking for artifacts to sell, and given the lawlessness that has gripped postwar Iraq, no one can stop them.
Not surprisingly, events in Iraq have sharpened the debate between the archaeological community’s two camps—for and against the antiquities market. Art historian John Malcolm Russell, of the Massachusetts College of Art, commented shortly after the looting, “For some collectors, it’s a dream. You go through the [museum] catalog, pick the pieces you want and then wait for the opportunity.” Statements like this are hotly resented by Israeli antiquities dealer (and archaeologist) Robert Deutsch, who says no legitimate dealer or collector would seek to acquire items from Baghdad. “Those who are against the trade in antiquities make all the noise,” he told BAR.
Deutsch believes the looting in Iraq, though deeply unfortunate, offers one valuable lesson for the archaeological community. “The most important thing is to publish your finds,” he said. “You never know what will happen to them.”
“First Cities” on Display at the Met
Opening just weeks after priceless antiquities were looted from Iraq’s National Museum in Baghdad, a new exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus” serves as a reminder of the towering role played by the Near East in world culture.
The exhibit, which runs until August 17, features more than 500 works of art culled from numerous museums, including the Met, the Louvre, the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the British Museum. Many of the statues, weapons, cylinder seals and tablets—some inscribed with the world’s oldest extant examples of writing—were created more than 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, the fertile area lying between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers in what is now modern Iraq.
Many of the objects uncovered by archaeologists from the region’s ancient temples, palaces and tombs are luxury items made of precious metals, ivory and lapis lazuli, created for the social elite living in mankind’s first urban civilizations. Artifacts from other early civilizations linked to Mesopotamia by trade or conquest are also featured in the “Art of the First Cities.” The 7-inch-high copper bull’s head, was recovered from a 4,000-year-old temple site in Bahrain. Terracotta figurines and jewelry laden with semiprecious stones from the Harappan culture of the Indus River valley and etched carnelian beads from the Aegean island of Aigina further demonstrate Mesopotamia’s widespread cultural influence.
Leon Levy, Supporter of Archaeology, Dies at 77
Leon Levy, a prominent collector of Classical and Near Eastern antiquities and a major financial supporter of archaeology in Israel and elsewhere, died of a heart attack on April 6. He was 77.
Since 1985, Levy sponsored the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon under the direction of Harvard’s Lawrence Stager.a Each year Levy and his wife, Shelby White, equally passionate in her interest in archaeology, history and art, visited the dig on the Mediterranean coast of Israel with their dear friend Philip J. King, former president of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) and co-author with Stager of the recently published Life in Biblical Israel.b The yearly Ashkelon tour of this quartet (White, Levy, King and Stager), often lasting a week or more, became a kind of ritual at the dig. No detail was too small to escape Leon Levy’s interest, while at the same time he was able to pose questions about the big picture that even the professional archaeologists had not thought of.
In 1997 Shelby and Leon, as they became known to their many friends in the archaeological community, established the Shelby White-Leon Levy Program for Archaeological Publications to fund research on old excavations that remain unpublished. The program has awarded millions of dollars to dozens of researchers, including grants through the Biblical Archaeology Society to Dr. Eilat Mazar to publish the excavations at the southern wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem conducted by her late grandfather, Benjamin Mazar. The White-Levy fund is administered through the Harvard Semitic Museum and is directed by King. The Publication Program has not been without its controversy, however. Some educational institutions—the University of Cincinnati is one frequently mentioned example—will not permit their faculty to apply for White-Levy grants because the couple are collectors of antiquities. In one prominent case, Professor Karen Vitelli of Indiana University, a leading figure in the Archaeological Institute of America, applied for and was granted $40,000 in research support. When she published her research, she took the occasion to castigate Ms. White and Mr. Levy for collecting antiquities.c
One prominent member of AIA and now of ASOR is said to have resigned from the White-Levy board because the funders were antiquities collectors.
AIA and ASOR share the same strong convictions against antiquities collecting. ASOR, nevertheless, made Levy an honorary trustee because of the financial support he provided the organization.
The issue is likely to arise again because the new president of AIA, Jane C. Waldbaum, of the University of Wisconsin and a staunch supporter of the AIA position, is a member of the staff at the Ashkelon excavation and has written a lengthy report supported by, and to be published with the assistance of, Ms. White and Mr. Levy.
In 1990, the Metropolitan Museum of New York featured an exhibit entitled “Glories of the Past: Ancient Art from the Shelby White and Leon Levy Collection.” A 280-page full-color catalog of the same name accompanied the exhibit.
Among Levy’s other gifts to support archaeology was a million-dollar grant to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) for conservation and restoration of the excavations at the southern wall of the Temple Mount.
Over the years, Mr. Levy made small grants to the Biblical Archaeology Society for the publication of two volumes of papers on the failure of archaeologists to publish the results of their excavations, entitled Archaeology’s Publication Problem (published in 1996 and 1999).
Mr. Levy acquired his wealth in the securities market. In 2002, he published his views on the market in a highly praised volume entitled The Mind of Wall Street. He contended the market is affected as much by psychology as economics. “There is a genius on one side of every trade and a dolt on the other, but which is which does not become clear until much later,” he wrote.
Leon Levy—In Memoriam
I was introduced to Leon Levy and his wife, Shelby White, more than 20 years ago by our mutual friend Philip King. Phil was then President of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), and Leon was interested in sponsoring an archaeological excavation. As was his wont, Leon was more interested in finding the right person than the right institution to support and encourage. Fortunately, Phil suggested me.
At Leon’s request I sent him some of my scholarly papers. But I was a bit fearful he would be lost in the technical details. He simply glossed over the technical bric-a-brac, however, and probed in his gentle but insightful manner to the main seams of my arguments, often posing penetrating questions that my colleagues steeped in the discipline had failed to ask.
Together with Shelby and Phil we much later settled on a site along the southern coast of Israel—Ashkelon, a seaport that flourished for thousands of years. In 1985 the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon was launched. For 16 seasons, Leon, Shelby and Phil, along with other friends, joined the excavation team for a week or so at the dig.
Shelby and friends liked to get down in the dirt and dig. Leon, however, didn’t have Shelby’s patience for delicate and meticulous digging. But he, too, loved the joy of discovery, seeing some artifact or building appear for the first time after being buried for thousands of years. Leon and Shelby were there when the famous statuette of the silver calf was discoveredd—which, by the alchemy of the popular press, became the “golden calf.”
I remember wandering around the site with Leon, looking at the “big picture.” Leon would imagine himself being there when the Canaanites and later the Philistines lived at Ashkelon. His musings were often sobering as we watched, over the years, one civilization after another being replaced and often reduced to little more than a few feet of rubble. Leon would remark about how this long-term view of history and civilization should caution us about our over-confidence in our own permanence in the larger scheme of things.
More than 1,500 young people from all over the world, including the White-Levys’ daughter Tracy, got a taste of archaeology from the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon. A number of those young volunteers have pursued careers in archaeology, art and history—including my daughter Jennifer.
My friendship with Leon went far beyond our mutual interests in archaeology, history, politics and psychology. Whatever new idea was suggested or unorthodox project proposed, he was there to encourage us and urge us on. He liked risk-taking in business as well as in scholarship. The subtle and compassionate ways in which Leon encouraged us to explore the great mysteries around us—giving us the wherewithal to pursue those sometimes half-baked notions without micromanaging the project—were great lessons in leadership. I hope I can pass them on to those I mentor.
In our last conversation Leon and I talked about the sorry state of the world and the fortunately happy state of our families. We talked about the progress of the planned ten volumes of final reports on the Ashkelon excavations and of the 70 or so volumes on other digs that will appear over the next few years thanks to the White-Levy Program for Archaeological Publications. We talked about this summer’s planned deep-sea project using robots for the first time to excavate the Phoenician shipwrecks we had discovered in 1999 off the Mediterranean coast. Finally, we talked about the role of intuition in both business and archaeology. (We happily agreed that we both still had it.) I said we would meet at Harvard in a few weeks where he was scheduled to lecture. But this was not to be.
We will continue the journey without him, but it will never be the same.
Shrine of the Book Closed for Repairs
Museum to Reopen in a Year
The Israel Museum’s Shrine of the Book, the building that houses the best-preserved Dead Sea Scrolls, is scheduled to reopen next spring, following a year of renovation. During the restoration, the scrolls will be featured in an exhibition, “Envisioning the Temple: Scrolls, Stones, and Symbols,” at the Israel Museum. The 28-foot-long Temple Scroll—the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls—will be on display, as well as other archaeological finds from the caves of Qumran in the Judean Desert, where the scrolls were first discovered in 1947.
The refurbishment will fully preserve the Shrine’s unique architecture. The fading white tiles of its signature dome, bathed in a continuous fountain-spray of water, will be replaced, as will the black basalt on the wall facing the dome. The white and black structures recall the tension between the worlds of the “Sons of Light” and the “Sons of Darkness,” a popular theme in the scrolls. New state-of-the-art display technologies will make the scrolls more accessible to the public.
What Is It?
Device from a smelter’s workshop
What It Is, Is…
Found in 1980 in the waters off Atlit (near Haifa) in northern Israel, this bronze artifact (weighing nearly half a ton) dates to sometime after the late sixth century B.C., when the three-pronged naval ram was first used in the Mediterranean. Capable of shattering the hull of an enemy ship, this ram was a major improvement on the earlier single-pronged version, which caused limited damage to the enemy and often broke apart. Three-pronged rams were used by Phoenician, Greek and Roman fleets. The so-called “Ram of Atlit” is the only known surviving example of its type. It is on display in the National Maritime Museum, Haifa, Israel.
Extent of Looting at Baghdad Museum Unclear