Back to Iraq


Unlike most American museums, archaeologist Donny George said as he opened Sunday afternoon's guided Oriental Institute tour, the OI owns "legitimate material from Mesopotamia." Its artifacts come from registered excavations, making it one of only three institutions in the United States whose artifacts were all acquired legally. The Field Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology are the other two.

George was director of the Iraq Museum's department of research and studies when the museum was looted in April 2003 following the fall of Baghdad. An estimated 15,000 artifacts—some documented and registered, others from Iraq Museum-run archaeological sites—were stolen and sold, and George has been a key player in recovering almost 50 percent of the missing pieces. Forced to leave Iraq in 2006 for safety reasons, George, now a visiting professor at SUNY–Stony Brook, led the OI tour as part of an event run by Saving Antiquities for Everyone, a nonprofit dedicated to raising public awareness about damage to archaeological sites.

The archaeology professor led 36 tour-goers in a 2:30 p.m. group through four of the OI's galleries: the Mesopotamian, Assyrian, Syro-Anatolian, and Megiddo galleries. Along the way, he compared the OI's holdings to those in other museums: the black stela communicating Hammurabi's laws that sits in the Edgar and Deborah Jannotta Mesopotamian Gallery, for example, is a plaster cast of the original. As George explained: "The big one," a basalt obelisk acquired on a French expedition, "stays in Paris."

When asked about Iraq's looted artifacts, George was hopeful that additional pieces will be recovered. Material from the Iraq Museum has been found in locations including Jordan, Syria, Italy, Spain, Holland, and New York. However, the objects have not yet been sent back. Says George: "It is not the right time now."


Photo: Donny George leads Sunday's OI tour through the reliefs of King Sargon III.

January 7, 2008