Ask the Expert: July-August 2003



What occurred in the museum lootings in Iraq and how significant is this on a historical scale?


There is wholesale looting day and night and illicit digging at major sites, and it marks one of the most horrendous instances of cultural destruction of a society in history. There is no parallel to it. We in the field are heartbroken. Iraq represents the culture in which world civilization as we know it developed, the first places where writing and cuneiform were established. This is a major loss to world civilization and not just Iraqi or Mesopotamian heritage.

The situation of the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad is a bit confused. The big news is that a great number of the artifacts were hidden before the war and that the level of theft in the museum was nothing close to what had been thought. It’s not that there were hundreds of thousands of artifacts stolen—some of the major items are in hiding, and the Iraqi Antiquities Authority has not revealed their whereabouts to anyone, including the Americans. But in the looting that did take place, many things of importance were taken: thousands of mostly small items that could be grabbed on the run, as it were.

One positive development is that an American archaeology salvage group was awarded $2 million to start recovery operations at certain sites under the funding of the USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development]. But we’re talking very modest forms of support. There are some very serious people giving a lot of attention to the problem, but how they will ever get on top of it without major resources being devoted to it, I don’t know. It’s a very sad story.

— Eric Meyers, the Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor of Judaic Studies, is a past president of the American Schools of Oriental Research, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the archaeology and cultural studies of the Near East

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