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Tales From The Vitrine: Battles Over Stolen Antiquities

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Author Topic: Tales From The Vitrine: Battles Over Stolen Antiquities  (Read 483 times)
Bianca
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« on: January 09, 2009, 02:22:21 pm »









There is no place on earth where questions of patrimony and preservation are more urgent than Iraq, which, according to archaeologist Gil Stein, is undergoing the wholesale "eradication of the material record of the world's first urban, literate civilization."

In Catastrophe! The Looting and Destruction of Iraq's Past, an exhibition catalog from the Oriental Institute Museum of the University of Chicago, Stein and other archaeologists and curators discuss the history of looting in Iraq and what is to be done about the future.

Under Saddam Hussein--until the 1990s, at least--Iraq did a good job of protecting more than 1,000 archaeological sites, such as buried cities and tomb complexes from the Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Akkadian empires. Saddam, who fancied himself the spiritual descendant of ancient Mesopotamian kings like Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar, provided ample funds for the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, and set a high penalty on looting. (This scrupulousness did not extend to his neighbors' treasures; after invading Kuwait in 1990, the Iraqi army made off with nearly every item housed in the Kuwait National Museum.)

Following the Gulf War, with the country's economic strength on the wane, the looting of archaeological sites became far more common and the enforcement of antilooting laws declined sharply. Nor did this much seem to bother the West. John Russell, an archaeologist and former cultural adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority, claims that "newly surfaced Iraqi artifacts were sold in the United States at venues to accommodate every price range: the major New York auction houses, brick-and-mortar galleries, online virtual galleries, and the burgeoning, anonymous, unregulated mega-market of eBay."

After the invasion, however, even beyond the piņata bash that was the Iraq Museum in the early days of April 2003, unlawfully excavated antiquities became as coveted on the black market as weapons. By May the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani had issued a fatwa against illegal excavations; the United Nations passed a ban against traffic in stolen Iraqi art the same month.

Still, an estimated 15,000 objects were stolen from the Iraq Museum, and more than half of these remain missing, including the museum's unique collection of Babylonian cylinder seals. Damage to the archaeological sites is unquantifiable, but through the use of DigitalGlobe aerial images, the Oriental Institute has assembled an extensive database cataloging the missing artifacts.

As Roger Atwood writes in Stealing History (2004), "Antiquities pulled from the ground...have no...records, no catalogue numbers or schematic drawings, and so it is that much more difficult to detect them as they move through the market and, if seized, to prove that they were plundered." Even if the objects are someday returned, much of their history, not to mention their value, is lost forever. Without archaeological context, as McGuire Gibson writes in Catastrophe!, objects

"are really just knickknacks.
Beautiful and intriguing,
but knickknacks."
« Last Edit: January 09, 2009, 02:54:17 pm by Bianca » Report Spam   Logged

Your mind understands what you have been taught; your heart what is true.


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