2003 Looting of The Iraq Museum
Inside hall in the Iraq Museum
Exterior of the Iraq Museum
The Mask of Warka in the Iraq Museum
Backstory and Context
Ancient civilizations of Babylonians and Sumerians, among others, lived in the land is present-day Iraq, and as such, the area is well situated for rich archaeological excavations and research (Campbell 424). According to some reports, the area is home to over tens of thousands of registered sites of archaeological importance, many of which have unearthed relics that are some of the earliest-known evidence of human laws and writing (Singer 5; Poudrier 9). The Iraq Museum was founded in 1923 by British director of the Department of Antiquities Gertrude Bell while Iraq was under British governance. Bell was a noted archaeologist invested in preserving and protecting the cultural heritage and antiquities of Iraq (Willis 227; Gerstenblith 279).
At its peak, Iraq Museum collections contained hundreds of thousands of irreplaceable items, collectively representing over 10,000 years of Iraqi heritage (Singer 15). In addition to the many collections of ancient jewelry, stones, and vases, some of the most precious antiquities included:
- Hammurabi’s Code, tablets inscribed with humanity’s first written laws (Poudrier 9)
- The Mask of Warka, a 5,500 year old bust of a woman’s head; one of the earliest life-sized depictions of humans (Poudrier 9)
- Clay tablets with cuneiform writing, the oldest known form of writing (Poudrier 9)
- Thousands of cylindrical seals used by Sumerians as signatures (Phuong 996; Barkho)
Considering the age and uniqueness of the items, the collections of the Iraq Museum were, and still are, widely considered to be some of the most important records of human archaeological history.
In April of 2003, as the U.S. military invaded the city of Baghdad, the Iraq Museum suffered a massive looting that resulted in the destruction and theft of tens of thousands of artifacts over a period of days (Petersen 181). Armed with various weapons such as hammers and crowbars, looters ransacked the museum with varying degrees of success; many precious items were found broken or destroyed while others were later confirmed as stolen (Singer 17; McCalister 31). Items stolen included many of the Sumerian seals, the Golden Harp of Ur (ca. 2500 BC), and a collection of over a thousand pieces of precious metal and stone jewels referred to as the Treasure of Nimrud (Phuong 996; Singer 16). The museum itself also sustained damage during the days-long looting as doors and display cases were destroyed to gain access to the antiquities (Petersen 187).
Many argue that the United States and its military bear much of the responsibility for this great loss and devastation of cultural property. The U.S. has been heavily criticized for their complicity in the looting of the Iraq Museum due to their failure to provide adequate protection of the cultural institution and its contents post-invasion, especially since field experts had previously warned that the museum would be a prime target for damage and would need robust security (Petersen 187). Additional investigations have uncovered other noteworthy evidence suggesting that, though a large contingent of looters were random individuals, some were professional thieves who had intimate knowledge of the museum and unexpected access privileges. For example, many thousands of pieces were stolen from an obscure basement storage area that was unlikely to be known to the public and had been secured with two different sets of keys only accessible by a few employees (McCalister 31). Other reports indicate that some looters displayed other signs of professional thievery evidenced by their ability to identify and bypass copies, decoys, and less-valuable items and in favor of specific, high-value items (Poudrier 10).
The recovery of stolen items from the Iraq Museum is still ongoing, though thousands of pieces have been successfully recovered either via voluntary return by individuals or through investigations and criminal proceedings (Glazer). To incentivize the return of stolen artifacts, amnesty and ‘no questions asked’ policies were enacted for those who voluntarily returned items (Phuong 996). International efforts to identify the antiquities at customs locations and border crossings were also helpful in the recovery and return of museum pieces (McCalister 35). Unfortunately, some of the most precious items stolen had not yet been cataloged or documented by museum curators and staff, presenting a unique challenge to the identification of these pieces, and thus their recovery is difficult and unlikely (McCalister 31).
Many organizations, both governmental and non-governmental, have provided financial aid and other assistance to promote the recovery, rebuilding, and preservation of Iraq’s culture history. The Iraq Museum opened its doors to dignitaries, officials, and scholars in early 2009, with an estimated 9,000 pieces still missing (Morris; Siehr 702). It officially reopened to the public in 2015 (Morris). Some of the notable items included in the permanent exhibition are ones that had taken during the looting and then subsequently recovered, such as the Warka Vase and the Mask of Warka (Morris). International efforts to recover the remaining thousands of missing artifacts still continue.
Barkho, Leon. "Iraq Museum Reopens After 10 Years." AP Online. 4/30/2000. Newspaper Source Plus.
Campbell, Courtney. "Arts and Arms: An Examination of the Looting of the National Museum of Iraq." Boston College International and Comparative Law Review, vol. 32, no. 2, Spring 2009, p. 423-438. HeinOnline.
Gerstenblith, Patty. "From Bamiyan to Baghdad: Warfare and the Preservation of Cultural Heritage at the Beginning of the 21st Century." Georgetown Journal of International Law, vol. 37, no. 2, 2006, p. 245-352. HeinOnline.
Glazer, Sarah. "Stolen Antiquities." CQ Researcher, 10 Nov. 2017, pp. 945-68.
McCalister, Andrew. “Organized Crime and the Theft of Iraqi Antiquities.” Trends in Organized Crime, vol. 9, no. 1, Fall 2005, pp. 24–37. SocINDEX.
Morris, Loveday. “After 12 Years, Iraq Museum Reopens Doors.” Washington Post, 2015 Jan 3. Newspaper Source Plus.
Petersen, Kirstin E. "Cultural Apocalypse Now: The Loss of the Iraq Museum and a New Proposal for the Wartime Protection of Museums." Minnesota Journal of International Law, vol. 16, no. 1, Winter 2007, p. 163-192. HeinOnline.
Phuong, Catherine. "The Protection of Iraqi Cultural Property." International and Comparative Law Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 4, October 2004, p. 985-998. HeinOnline.
Poudrier, Almira. “Alas, Babylon! How the Bush Administration Allowed the Sack of Iraq’s Antiquities.” Humanist, vol. 63, no. 4, p. 9. SocINDEX
Siehr, Kurt. "January 1, 2009 - December 31, 2009." International Journal of Cultural Property, vol. 17, no. 4, 2010, p. 691-752. HeinOnline.
Singer, Priscilla. "The New American Approach to Cultural Heritage Protection: Granting Foreign Aid for Iraqi Cultural Heritage." Chicago-Kent Journal of International and Comparative Law, 11, 2011, p. 1-38. HeinOnline.
Willis, Lindsay E. "Looting in Ancient Mesopotamia: A Legislation Scheme for the Protection of Iraq's Cultural Heritage." Georgia Journal of International and Comparative Law, vol. 34, no. 1, 2005, p. 221-252. HeinOnline.
"File:Iraqi Museum.jpg." Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 5 May 2018, 08:35 UTC, www.commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Iraqi_Museum.jpg&oldid=299760107
"File:National Museum Iraq.jpg." Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 8 Oct 2015, 23:07 UTC. www.commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:National_Museum_Iraq.jpg&oldid=174977900
File:The Mask of Warka, in profile, the Iraq Museum in Baghdad.jpg." Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 3 Jul 2019, 19:23 UTC, www.commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:The_Mask_of_Warka,_in_profile,_the_Iraq_Museum_in_Baghdad.jpg&oldid=356964101