In the midst of emptied smashed display cases, with glass strewn everywhere, sat a crying woman dressed in black, repeatedly saying in Arabic: “It’s all gone… they have taken everything.”

After looters ran wild in the Iraq National Museum and ransacked archaeological sites in 2003, 10 years later heart-warming efforts are being made to carry out new excavations, and discover or buy back artefacts now on the open market, as well as to repair the Museum.

An exhibition in Ontario titled “Mesopotamia: Inventing Our World” aims to show what civilisation today owes to ancient Sumer, Assyria and Babylon, whose treasures were looted from the Iraqi Museum. More than 3,000 years ago, Mesopotamia was home to the world’s first great cities. Its name is derived from the Greek “land between the rivers” of the Tigris and Euphrates, and was the birthplace of the first truly urban conurbations with complex forms of social organisation and economic activity, as well as writing, codified laws, long distance trade and communications, and not least – the first empires.

In collaboration with The British Museum, which has lent a splendid collection of over 170 artefacts, the Royal Ontario Museum is exploring this legacy, with additional treasures from several American museums.

The Curator for the Ancient Near East for the Royal Ontario Museum, Dr. Clemens Reichel, is also a field archaeologist experienced in the Mesopotamian sites of Iraq. He makes a thought-provoking comment on the duality of this society – highly advanced and yet ruthlessly cruel. “Mesopotamia was a true forerunner, with great cities of sizes not achieved by Paris or London until the Industrial Revolution; empires that controlled most of the known world of that time; technological achievements still shaping our lives. However, Mesopotamia was also ruled by kings who were as brutal as they were brilliant, whose rise to power was as stellar as their demise was cataclysmic.” It seems that little has changed.

The main focus of the exhibition is the city-states of Sumer (4,000-2,000 BCE), Assyria (1,000-600 BCE), and Babylon (600-540 BCE). Southern Mesopotamia consisted of two main regions – Sumer in the south and Akkad to the north. One of the most significant advancements at this time was the emergence of the city, with a huge change in scale from existing towns and agricultural settlements. In Sumer, (now southwest Iran), the most massive was Uruk, which contained temples with high terraces, streets, canals, administrative buildings and residential areas. The earliest written script on cuneiform clay tablets, dating to around 3,300 BCE, has been excavated in Uruk and Susa. Their inscriptions reveal sophisticated systems of notation, including quantities of oxen, barley and malt.

An even earlier capital, Ur, was an important political, religious and economic centre, whose Royal Tombs predated that of Tutankhamen by more than 1,000 years. These tombs contained numerous bodies of soldiers, servants and also women, who either willingly or perhaps not, accompanied the royal deceased into their afterlives. By the elaborate and precious jewellery they wore, one can suppose that these women were an intimate part of royal retinue. Among the show’s highlights is an ornate headdress trembling with gold leaves, necklaces and bracelets of gold, lapis lazuli and carnelian.

Other magnificent objects from the Royal Tombs include a highly elaborate ‘Ram in the Thicket’ of gold foil, silver, lapis lazuli and shell; and a massive ‘Great Lyre’ featuring a gold plated bull’s head with inlays of precious materials.

Assyria was located in northern Mesopotamia on the Tigris River, and at its height, around 660 BCE, became the dominating military and political power, controlling an area covering Iraq, Syria, Israel, Egypt and parts of Iran and Turkey. New capitals were built at Nineveh, Nimrud and Khorsabad, dominated by large palaces decorated with elaborately carved stone reliefs. Many of them show battles and grisly punishment of rebels; others depict religious ceremonies performed by the king of the time, such as Ashurnasirpal II, whose magnetite statue towers in the show. In what is now central Iraq, on the Euphrates River, Babylon was first mentioned on cuneiform tablets in the third millennium BCE, and by around 1755 BCE effectively controlled most of Mesopotamia. A set of laws called Codex Hammurabi is eponymously named after Babylon’s most famous ruler, King Hammurabi. In the exhibition a dynamic Striding Lion terracotta relief once stalked majestically along the throne room of the palace of King Nebuchadnezzar II. Other famous Babylonian landmarks like the Hanging Gardens, the Tower of Babel and the Ishtar Gate feature in a 3-D fly-through virtual evocation of Babylon.

Mesopotamia: Inventing Our World is accompanied by another exhibition in the same Museum titled Catastrophe! Ten Years Later: The Looting & Destruction of Iraq’s Past. Curator Dr. Reichel says: “The exhibitions complement each other well: Mesopotamia conveys the splendour of this ancient culture, while Catastrophe reminds us of the dangers to which it remains exposed.” Serving as a reminder that Iraq’s cultural heritage is still under threat, no artefacts are displayed. Text and images powerfully communicate the war’s tragic effects and the continued impact on Iraq’s cultural, archaeological and heritage sites. The land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, comprising Iraq, southeastern Turkey and of course Syria is in turmoil today, torn by war and sectarian conflict.

For Dr. Reichel this presentation evokes many tragic memories. Following the 2003 looting, he co-ordinated the creation of The Iraq Museum’s Database Project, documenting the losses. This tool aided international law enforcement officials in the recovery of some of the stolen artefacts. “Those were among the worst days of my life. Mesopotamia, our cradle of civilisation had been trampled upon and, in some extreme cases, destroyed.”

In April 2003, international media began to report the shocking, heartbreaking story. Following the Coalition’s invasion of Iraq, looters began a decade of devastation, not only of the Museum, but of the country’s unrivalled archaeological sites, many of which have been irretrievably damaged, with artefacts of inestimable value not only stolen but destroyed, because to the thieves they appeared to have no market value – items like pottery shards, tools, animal bones, plant remains, or charcoal. But because these apparently worthless objects had been removed from their resting-places and tossed aside, their context to the more ‘valuable’ objects has been destroyed.

As a result, the archaeological history of Mesopotamia will never be fully known.

From initial eyewitness reports everything in the Museum seemed to have been stolen. “170,000 artefacts of the world’s most important Mesopotamian archaeological collection – gone! My head was spinning, says Reichel.” But logically, it became clear that this was impossible.

“Moving that many artefacts – some of them weighing several tons – within 48 hours would not have been possible even with an army of packers and conservators, let alone with a marauding group of disorganised looters. A figure of only 39 missing artefacts was equally misleading, in that it was a list of key losses from the gallery exhibits alone.” The material on exhibition represents only the tip of the iceberg of a museum’s holdings. In fact, what happened to the material in the Museum’s storage areas has yet to emerge. Among the losses is a large part of the Museum’s world-renowned cylinder seal collection- some 5,000 pieces. Today, the consensus is that 15,000 artefacts were stolen from the Museum.

As Reichel says: “A few bright spots did emerge during this period of general gloom and despair. One was the interest and dedication shown by numerous US soldiers who contacted us, sent us photos of seized antiquities, and even offered to check up on nearby archaeological sites – occasionally at great risk to themselves.” In addition, some objects were returned anonymously, possibly because The Iraq Museum and its collection are a symbol of national pride, beyond greed. And canny thieves must have noted that the sudden ‘flooding’ of the international art market diminished the value of their loot, especially as it had no verifiable provenance.

More recently, things have begun to improve. Around 8,000 artefacts have been retrieved or bought back. The Iraq Museum has been repaired, its galleries refitted, and the gradual rebuilding of Iraq’s antiquities service has curbed site lootings. International archaeologists have been returning; but perhaps most optimistically – large groups of young Iraqi archaeologists have been or are being trained in Iraqi and on international programmes.

The two exhibitions at the Royal Ontario Museum continue until 5 January 2014.

Juliet Highet

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