Looting Eden


In the 1930s, Oriental Institute archaeologists working in the ancient Sumerian city of Eshnunna (modern-day Tell Asmar) uncovered a pit filled with statues. Because they found the figurines beside an altar at the temple to the minor god of plants, Abu, the archaeologists theorized that individuals used the objects as stand-ins to symbolize their perpetual devotion to the deity. The sculptures’ burial implied that their owners had died. The excavation provided context that has fostered a better understanding of ancient Sumeria.

But for three days after April 9, 2003, when a euphoric Iraqi crowd pulled down a massive Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad’s Firdus Square, a mob of looters invaded the Iraq National Museum and took an estimated 15,000 artifacts. Since then similar, but less documented, mobs have driven excavation-site guards away, and looters have crisscrossed Iraqi sites to scavenge for antiquities. Losing these objects, argues the Oriental Institute exhibit Catastrophe! The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past, destroys the perspective essential to understanding ancient civilizations.

Cast as villains by the exhibit's curators—McGuire Gibson, AM'64, PhD'68, professor in the OI and Near Eastern languages and civilizations, Katharyn Hanson, AM'06, and Geoff Emberling, OI museum director—are some art aficionados, auction houses, fine-art dealers, and museums throughout Europe and the United States involved (knowingly or unknowingly) in the antiquities-trade market. And given a U.S. law that allows objects held in private collections to be donated to museums for a tax deduction, the looted objects might end up in American museum display cases. “This financial encouragement increases interest in collecting, thereby driving the prices and profits for stolen artifacts higher, which in turn causes more looting,” suggest the exhibit notes. However, many archaeological museums, such as the OI, have strict policies against accepting such artifacts. The OI's artifacts come from registered excavations.

The exhibit runs through December 31.


Photo: Looters searching for cuneiform-inscribed bricks have destroyed this excavated temple facade at Umma.

Photo by Joanne Farchakh-Bajjaly, courtesy the Oriental Institute.

April 25, 2008