Looting at Iraqi museum probably overstated

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The preliminary report on the looting of the National Museum of Iraq is scheduled to be released by the Pentagon today, but after spending several days inspecting the damage, McGuire Gibson, professor of Mesopotamian archaeology at the University of Chicago, has reached his own verdict.

"We have dodged a bullet," he said yesterday after walking through the corridors of the ransacked museum, where glass from smashed display cases crackles underfoot and ancient Assyrian statues knocked from their pedestals lie on the floor like bodies at a crime scene.

"Through some luck and some real preparations by the museum staff, we have saved a lot," Gibson said.

The preparations included moving hundred of boxes of museum treasure to safe storage in an air raid shelter several miles from the museum. Luck spared several priceless pieces that were there for the taking but were overlooked by looters.

An example of the latter is the Basalt Stella, a carved frieze that dates to the third millennium B.C. The thieves ignored it.

"This chunk of rock is extremely important. We were very worried about it," said Gibson, patting the black stone fondly.

"It shows a guy killing a lion with a bow and arrow. It is important because it is one of the earliest examples of someone acting like a king. All through history, this is what kings do. They hunt," he said.

The looting of the National Museum in the first days that followed the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime was a story that captured the attention of the world. It initially appeared that tens of thousands of artifacts from the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia were missing or destroyed.

The Bush administration came under international criticism for failing to protect an important piece of the world's cultural patrimony. U.S. troops had been quick to secure the Ministry of Oil but they neglected to send soldiers to the museum until a week after the worst of the looting had taken place.

"The museum authorities didn't have much time, but they got some very important stuff in storage, and they completely trusted that the U.S. would secure the museum. They were inside waiting to surrender it, but the U.S. never came," said Gibson, who is also head of the American Association for Research in Baghdad.

For the past three weeks, a military and civilian team headed by Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos has been compiling an inventory of what was taken. Its preliminary report is expected to confirm Gibson's conclusion that it was not as bad as it first seemed.

The report may also shed light on some tantalizing questions: Why did some of the looters apparently have keys to display cases and storage areas? Why did they take some items of great value but overlook others even more precious?

One of the most valuable items unaccounted for is the Sacred Vase of Warka, a votive bowl made of white limestone dating from 3000 BC. But there are indications that it may turn up, with some of the museum's other valuable items, in the vaults of the Iraqi Central Bank.

The vaults have not been opened because the basement where they are situated is flooded, the result of looting. According to Bogdanos, 38 pieces, not thousands, are believed to be missing from the museum's display galleries.

Some pieces initially thought to be missing from the galleries had not been on display for more than a decade. If they don't turn up in the Central Bank vaults, it is likely they were spirited out of the country years ago by members of the regime.

"It's possible," said Bogdanos. "But I don't have the mandate to investigate the last 20 years."

Other treasures were returned by unidentified citizens who told authorities that they entered the museum with the looters and took items to their homes for safekeeping.

"They said that if we don't take it, the looters will. They came later and told us that they would return these things when the situation settled down," said Donny George, director of research at the museum.

The offer was accepted, no questions asked.

An additional 1,000 to 1,200 pieces are missing from the museum's storage areas, but these are described as "excavation site pieces" that are mainly valuable for research purposes.

"The struggle we have here is that numbers simply cannot tell the whole story. Ten thousand pottery shards don't equal one vase of Warka," Bogdanos said.

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