Local scholars met this week to discuss the antiquities looting in Iraq, calling it a devastating blow to the world’s cultural heritage.
Attendees of the teach-in viewed slides of towns, buildings, sculptures, jewelry and other artifacts from the land once called Mesopotamia, a civilization dating back to 8,000 B.C. that is believed to have given rise to the first cities, written language, codified laws and elaborate religious beliefs.
Seventy people came to the forum in UC Berkeley’s archaeological research facility.
Much of the destruction of this civilization’s remnants began in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, but archaeologists who have explored Iraq are saying that the latest events — the looting of the Iraq Museum on April 9 and 10 and the looting and burning of two libraries in Baghdad on Tuesday — have caused the most damage to the country’s antiquities.
Among the lost artifacts are a three-foot carved vase dating back to 3200 B.C. and a headless statue of a Sumerian king. It is unclear what other sites have been ravaged by the U.S. bombing campaign.
Scholars have blasted the U.S. government for its failure to protect the cities, saying experts had warned the Department of Defense months before the war that Iraq’s antiquities would be targets of looting.
Wednesday’s teach-in at UC Berkeley roughly coincided with a meeting of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in Paris. About 30 experts meeting in France issued a statement saying the group was “deeply shocked by the extensive damage to ... the cultural heritage of Iraq,” and calling upon the coalition forces to uphold the 1954 Hague Convention, which requires that invading countries protect cultural property during war.
Marian Feldman, an assistant professor of Near Eastern Art at U.C. Berkeley, began studying Mesopotamian art in the late 1980’s. Because of the 1991 Gulf War and the ongoing political situation in Iraq, she has never been able to visit the place she has dedicated her life to studying.
“There is a whole generation of us who have been trained without ever being able to go into this country,” she said. “This type of loss is felt very deeply by us.”
David Stronach, professor of Near Eastern Studies, showed photos depicting objects that were probably lost in the looting of the National Museum of Iraq.
Nicolaas Veldhuis, assistant professor of Assyriology, touched on ancient Iraq’s literary tradition and on the first written language, which many scholars believe was invented about 6,000 years ago in the Sumerian civilization, located in Southern Iraq. The Sumerians are thought to have produced the oldest book, the Epic of Gilgamesh. That book, and the written word, Veldhuis said, is “the everlasting gift of Iraq to humanity.”
He added that many of the clay tablets containing that early literature were stored at the museum and are probably gone.
Some audience members said they wanted the scholars to take a tougher stand on the matter.
Laura Nader, a professor of Anthropology, called the Archaeological Institute of America’s statement on the issue of the looting insipid, and took issue with Stronach’s characterization of the U.S. response as mere indifference. “I think it’s more than indifference,” Nader said, adding that the U.S. government knew about the threat to the sites and did nothing to protect them. “The U.S. government should pay for the return” of the lost items, she said.
Feldman said it was still too early to know exactly where to lay blame for the loss, but she said, “It was preventable it was avoidable. We’re all so heartbroken by this.”