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As the war in Iraq marches into its third week, the combined hammering of armored personnel carriers, tanks and thousand-plus-pound bombs could result in an unintended casualty: several millennia worth of both documented and undiscovered archaeological treasures.






Posted on Sun, Apr. 06, 2003 

Iraq's archaeological treasures could become casualties of war


Knight Ridder Newspapers

FORT WORTH, Texas (KRT) - As the war in Iraq marches into its third week, the combined hammering of armored personnel carriers, tanks and thousand-plus-pound bombs could result in an unintended casualty: several millennia worth of both documented and undiscovered archaeological treasures.

Just beneath the war's battlefields lies a honeycomb of archaeological sites that tell a regional history that stretches from prehistoric man of around 500,000 B.C. through 3500 B.C., when the land of Mesopotamia was cultivating its status as the cradle of civilization, and beyond. Scholars estimate that the country has some 500,000 archaeological sites, only 10,000 of which are fully known and cataloged.

"There are so many archaeological sites in Iraq that it's like a dart game - wherever you throw a dart, you'll hit a site," said Samuel Paley, an ancient Near East specialist and professor of classics at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. "Frankly, at this point, wherever the war's soldiers move, they will be doing damage to archaeological terrain."

Iraq, with its archaeological sites and its world-class museums, possesses objects that provide some of the very first evidence of civilization - including tablets on which writing was first recorded some 5,500 years ago. These tablets, documenting everything from commodities transfers to recipes, serve as a priceless mirror on the Sumerian, Akkadian and Babylonian empires.

"These written records give us a wonderful picture of the past that we couldn't acquire any other way," says Frank Hole, professor of anthropology at Yale University. "They constitute a treasure trove of history just lying in the ground, waiting to be excavated."

Several rich archaeological sites, such as at Tell al-Lahm near Ur, at Assur and at Nasiriya, could be especially vulnerable to war-related damage. Looting of museums of irreplaceable objects also looms as a possibility.

"And remember that south of Baghdad, near today's village of Babylon, you'll find the remains of the ancient sites of the hanging gardens of Babylon and the remains of (Babylonian king) Nebuchadnezzar's palace," said Timothy Potts, director of the Kimbell Art Museum and a specialist in the art and archaeology of ancient Iraq. "I mean, if there is fighting in and around that, it would be unthinkably devastating."

Also running the risk of irreparable damage are Iraq's series of above-ground ancient structures. The Assyrian palaces of Nineveh and Nimrud, the standing minarets of Samarra, the 100-foot vaulted brick arch of the sixth-century A.D. palace at Ctesiphon (the ancient world's largest) and Ur's "ziggurat" platform temple tower dating from 2100 B.C. are all in the areas of combat.

"So many of these sites can be seen from miles away and are clearly important places - I just hope that people steer clear of them," said John Russell, an Iraqi antiquities specialist at the Massachusetts College of Art. "Unfortunately, it just won't take too many heavy bomb shock waves to bring down something that has stood for 1,400 years."

Museums located in combat hot spots Basra, Nasiriya and Mosul contain such varied artifacts as carved ivory, small statues, inscribed bricks and pottery. Also potentially in the line of fire are the important Assyrian bas reliefs that line the museum at Mosul.

Prior to the conflict's beginning, many of Iraq's museum inventories were reportedly transferred to underground storage facilities in Baghdad. Many of the monumental sculptural pieces (12-to-15-feet-high, 40-ton limestone figures of lions and bulls with human heads) are attached to some museum walls and, as a precaution, would be sandbagged.

Of particular concern to many in the archaeological community is the fate of Baghdad's Iraq Museum, the national archaeological and Islamic art museum. This world-class museum, whose antiquities holdings rival those of the British Museum, contains a priceless selection of objects including Neanderthal skulls, thousands of the earliest cuneiform clay tablets, a pure copper head of a king dating from 2300 B.C., and a series of 2500 B.C. royal tomb objects.

"Most of us are very concerned about the cuneiform clay tablets that are held in the museum but haven't been translated and published yet," said Elizabeth Stone, a professor of archaeology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. "If there is any instability in Baghdad, the danger of the museum being looted of this valuable material is very high."

If the war destroys any of Iraq's unique archaeological holdings, it will only compound the considerable loss the country suffered during and after the Persian Gulf War of 1991.

Along with some formidable combat destruction, such as the strafing of the majestic ziggurat temple at Ur, mass burning and looting ensued from the `91 war. This resulted in the theft or destruction of an estimated 4,000 priceless objects from nine Iraqi museums in seven cities.

"We are talking about postwar mobs that broke into the museums, smashing or stealing objects," said McGuire Gibson, an archaeological scholar of Mesopotamia at the University of Chicago, who met with the U.S. Defense Department in January to point out Iraq's most vulnerable archaeological treasures.

As a result of the collateral archaeological damage from the last gulf war, specialists have given the Pentagon a list of about 4,000 of Iraq's most vital sites and significant older buildings in the hopes that military bombers can avoid them.

Among the precautions reportedly being taken are painting a huge emblem of the United Nations Organization for Education, Science, Culture and Communications (UNESCO) on the roofs of certain ancient Iraqi structures, designating them as protected cultural property.

Despite these good-faith efforts, most devotees of Iraq's rich patrimony anguish that much of the country's treasures may be destroyed forever in the throes of battle or in the outlaw atmosphere that ensues.

"I hope the military has been instructed on how to avoid damage this time around," Potts said. "But in the heat of battle, we all know what the priorities are going to be, and it won't be any of these precious monuments. It will be to win the war."


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