also see Al-Jazeerah opinion piece,
Destruction of World's Eastern Heritage in Iraq, by Indian diplomat K. Gajendra Singh
July 18, 2003
Tiny Treasures Leave Big Void in Looted IraqBy SUZANNE CHARLÉ
hile there is still confusion about just how many objects were stolen from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad during the recent war, there is no doubt that one of its major collections is gone. In London last week, at an annual meeting of experts in archaeology, history and ancient languages of Mesopotamia, the museum's director, Dr. Nawala al-Mutawalli, said that 4,795 cylinder seals were missing. Col. Matthew Bogdanos of the Marines, leader of the American team investigating losses of antiquities in Iraq, confirmed the theft.
"It is a major loss," said McGuire Gibson, professor of Mesopotamian archaeology at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, who worked at Iraqi sites from 1964 to 1990. "This is, or was, one of the world's really superb collections."
The seals are small, typically one and a half to four inches tall and usually less than two inches in diameter. Figures and inscriptions are carved or cut, so that when the cylinders are rolled on clay, miniature scenes scroll out: ceremonies at temples, feasts at palaces, battles between gods and beasts. Impressions were made on clay used to seal goods and official documents, even to secure rooms. Seals were worn and passed from one generation to the next.
They are typically made of stone — lapis lazuli, agate, hematite, white marble, rock crystal — and date from the fifth millennium B.C. to the second century A.D. Revered by scholars for what they tell about life in Mesopotamia, the seals are also prized by collectors for their beauty and for the special skill required to make them. One seal sold at Christie's in New York in 2001 for $424,000.
An even greater loss, experts say, is cylinder seals and other antiquities being looted from Iraq's archaeological sites. "Every day thousands of the objects are being stolen," said Mr. Gibson, who was in Iraq in May working for Unesco as part of a team of specialists to assess the damage in Baghdad and for National Geographic as part of a team sent to examine damage to sites across Iraq. At five sites he visited, hundreds of people were digging, filling trucks.
"Looting has become an industry," Mr. Gibson said. "We'll never know exactly where the seals are from, and because they're not cataloged, forgeries are possible."
Before the 1991 Persian Gulf war there was little illegal digging in Iraq, Mr. Gibson said; the antiquities department had more than 1,000 employees, including guards, stationed at sites, and Iraqi law banned export of antiquities. Seals rarely appeared on the market. After the United Nations imposed an economic embargo against Iraq in 1990, the nation's economy collapsed, and the museum's employees were drastically cut. Regional museums alone lost a total of 2,000 to 4,000 objects. Concurrently, Mr. Gibson said, interest in cylinder seals jumped with the sale of the Erlenmeyer collection, assembled by a distinguished scholar, from the 1940's until his death in 1967.
John M. Russell, chairman of the critical studies department at Massachusetts College of Art, said thousands of seals have been bought since then, adding that he thought most had fake provenances.
Mr. Russell and Mr. Gibson said they expected the truly remarkable pieces to be withheld from the market until the authorities and the public lost interest. "It's just too hot now," Mr. Russell said. But they have little doubt that eventually many will end up for sale.
Mr. Gibson said: "They are most desired; many are exquisitely beautiful. They're like jewelry, and they're treated like jewelry."
Cylinder seals are ranked No. 3 on the International Council of Museums' Emergency Red List of Iraqi Antiquities at Risk, compiled in the spring. "In terms of real demand, they're most endangered," said Mr. Russell, who helped compile the list.
One recent day, during a casual look on
"There's a huge black market, and pieces come up everywhere, from the top auction houses to eBay," Mr. Russell said. In times like these, he said, the only sure way to know that a cylinder seal has not been looted or stolen is to have the sales history, with a description of the seal and a picture in a catalog dated before 1990. An ethical collector would put that cutoff at 1970, the year a Unesco convention declaring all objects that entered the antiquities market since then to be stolen property.
There is some hope of recovering the museum seals. "Luckily, many of the seals that were stolen from the Iraq Museum came from excavations, and there are photos and even casts of them," Mr. Gibson said. "We are on the lookout for things, and occasionally something gets spotted, but under current legislation, there is such a long, arduous road to get any of them back that customs and other authorities can do little."
In June British authorities made it illegal to import, export, sell, own or handle cultural heritage property taken from Iraq since August 1990. Most important, the burden of proof of legal provenance is on the holder of the property.
In the United States, a leading market for antiquities, the government must prove that seals came from Iraq before they can be seized, a huge challenge. Legal experts and the Archaeological Institute of America say the adoption of the Iraq Cultural Heritage Protection Act, pending before the House, would extend indefinitely the temporary import restrictions on undocumented archaeological and cultural materials illegally removed from Iraq since August 1990. (The institute rejects the Senate version, which limits restrictions to a year.)
It is a bittersweet time for scholars at the University of Chicago: while they are helping their Iraqi colleagues, they are also anticipating the reopening on Oct. 18 of the Oriental Institute Museum's Mesopotamia gallery there, closed since 1997.
The institute's collection of more than 1,000 cylinder seals is based primarily on finds from university-sponsored excavations in Iraq. From the 1920's to 1969 about half the seals discovered in the digs went to the university; the rest went to the Iraq Museum, and now they are gone.
A main exhibition in the 5,400-square-foot hall will be 183 cylinder seals. "It might be the only installation that examines how the seals were used, how they were made and how they were worn," said Karen L. Wilson, the museum's director.
One star is the Bilalama seal, made of dark blue lapis lazuli from Afghanistan and topped with a gold cap. In a monograph, Clemens Reichel, a research associate at the Oriental Institute, notes that according to the cuneiform legend, the seal originally belonged to a ruler of Eshnunna, a powerful city-state in Mesopotamia, circa 2010 B.C. The seal was stolen from an excavation in 1931 but was soon recovered from an antiquities dealer in Baghdad. Its context and proof of authenticity could have been lost forever; luckily, the excavation yielded three clay lumps with impressions of the Bilalama seal.
There are only four examples of both a seal and its original ancient impression. (Most seals are displayed with a new impression, the better to show the scene.) Only the Oriental Institute owns both a seal and its ancient impression.
"We were lucky with the Bilalama seal," Mr. Reichel said. "But think of all the precious stories we're losing every day."