Friday, July 04, 2003

Iraqi Antiquities Angst

Its been a while since I have had a chance to read my Archaeology magazines, but I was perusing the pages of Archaeology, Odyssey, and Biblical Archaeology Review and was reminded of something I had ranted about many monthes ago. I posted this response to a dark little post by Thomas Nephew regarding the return of the Warka vase on Newsrack:

I was very pleased to hear the Warka Vase had been returned, and also pleased to know that a good number of the pieces thought to be missing were in fact safe, but the real problem is not only the looting of archaeological sites, but also the destruction within the museum. Pieces are still there, the really 'important' stuff is mostly safe, but all the little vases, the paraphenalia of normal life thousands of years ago is shattered and scattered. It is the un-important pieces that in many cases reveal the most about a civilization.

As Jane C. Walbaum writes in the July/August issue of Archaeology, "Objects that turn up individually on the antiquities market or on Internet auction sites or that find their way to a collector's shelf have become orphans. Stripped of all their associations--the other items of material culture with which they were found, and the recordings describing these associations--they have lost much of their cultural and historical meaning. This is the real tragedy of the looting of Iraq's museums."

Those of us who were quick to decry the destruction of the museum have since been labeled as over-critical knee-jerk liberals searching for a reason to criticize the administration. We apparently couldn't hide our glee at being able to rain on the victory-parade. We somehow didn't notice the same single looter was being shown in a loop on the seven o'clock news carting some artifact out of the shard-strewn building. We are also somehow all at fault for what happened in Toronto, and we have no right to criticize what happened in Iraq because a few Canadians are idiots.

The key word here is not looter; the key phrase is SHARD_STREWN. Some of the collection was yet uncatalogued, have been recently excavated and brought to the museum from surrounding sites and museums. These objects and many others may still be in the museum in various states of damage, thrown from their boxes and scattering the floor. Figuring out what the damaged pieces are, and which site they came from is going to take quite a long time. The fact that some of the pieces may not be there at all makes the process all the more difficult.

Here is an example of how an object can be worse than looted: The statue of Apollo dating from 160 AD (Archaeology Odyssey July/August 2003) was found smashed to bits on the floor: only the head of the Apollo is intact. Yes, its not the burning of the library in Alexandria, but just because something isn't a holocaust doesn't mean its not horrible.

For an updated look at what's going on, I suggest visiting this website by Francis Deblauwe.


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