Culture and Life
by Rob Gowland
Seven thousand years ago, in the fertile valley between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in what is today Iraq, modern civilisation was born. Here people developed the first writing (in cuneiform on clay tablets). Here they invented the wheel. The relics and artefacts from that period and that region are part of the world's cultural and historical heritage. Thousands of archaeological discoveries had been carefully unearthed over the last century and a half by scholars, adventurers and straight-out treasure seekers. Initially they were carted off to the museums of the Western imperialist powers, or sold to the rich tourists and collectors from those countries. But in Iraq, as in other Third World countries, these archaeological treasures have in more recent times been jealously protected by national governments concerned to put a stop to imperialism's high-handed looting of their history and culture. Iraq, whose relics being the oldest are among the most valuable, took stringent measures to stem the despoiling of its historic sites. The trade in ancient objects was strictly controlled, to the fury of the wealthy "collectors" in the West. During the Gulf War in 1991, between four and five thousand objects disappeared from Iraq's provincial museums. To protect what was left, the Iraqi authorities moved all the best stuff from the provincial museums into the national museum in Baghdad. Some of these stolen objects are known to have subsequently appeared on the international "market" for ancient relics. Only capitalism knowingly permits a trade in stolen objects to flourish. But, of course, this is a trade patronised by the very best people (well, the richest, anyway). A generally unsympathetic article by Jane Shilling in The Times on the wholesale thievery from Iraq's museums for the benefit of Western collectors carried the truly bizarre title Iraq's looting of its own past. Nevertheless, it splendidly characterised these "rich, acquisitive collectors, the proxy thieves who can never share them [the looted artefacts] with anyone, on account of their tainted past, but must admire them — gloat is probably the proper term — in private, with a furtive joy that must surely compromise the beauty of something made, as art generally is, to give pleasure freely to whoever happens to look at it". When the current US President began his series of bellicose threats against Iraq, the big art dealers in the US hastily set up a lobby group, under the misleading name the American Council for Cultural Policy (ACCP). The main target of their lobbying: Iraq's policy of protecting its antiquities. Inventing a new pejorative term for Iraq's laws on this matter ("retentionist"), this classy bunch sought for ways to make it easier for Iraqi artefacts (regardless of how they were obtained) to enter the US. Now didn't that show forethought on their part? Then, in January, still before the start of the actual war, they met with officials of the US Defence Department and State Department. No doubt they wanted to impress on the US armed forces the importance of protecting Iraq's antiquities. Do you think? Maguire Gibson, from the Oriental Institute at Chicago University, described the ACCP to the British Spectator: "These are very, very well- connected people. They are able to get a meeting with whoever they like, when they like. You know, I believe they met with the President last week. "They are very affluent people, too. One of the leading lights is a former State Department man, Arthur Houghton. "You have to understand that some of the members of their organisation are among the biggest collectors and dealers of illegal artefacts in the world...." Curious how, as I said last week, the first wave of "looters" of Baghdad's National Museum of Antiquities were dressed in suits and carried mobile phones. Protected by a bevy of heavily armed thugs, they took the rarest and most precious of the treasures away in a well-organised convoy of vehicles. According to Rod Liddle in The Spectator, these robbers made off with "some 80 percent of the institution's most cherished possessions: jewellery and gold and 100,000-year-old stone tools and sculptures and carvings, ivory furniture, tilework, textiles and coins. "Indeed, they stole the world's few remaining artefacts from the Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian cultures", including a mere eighty thousand Sumerian cuneiform tablets! Only after this special gang had gone did "the mob" arrive, to pick over the remains unmolested by the powerful US Army. Interpol's Karl-Heinz Kind, its specialist officer for art and antiquity trafficking, was quoted in Britain's Sunday Telegraph as early as April 20 saying "We already have reports of exhibits being offered for sale in Switzerland and Japan." Neil Brody, head of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre at Cambridge University, says: "All the material looted from Baghdad was highly saleable, both to unscrupulous institutional museums and also to private collectors." According to The Spectator, Brody too "believes the raid on the Iraqi National Museum was planned well in advance, probably before the war had even started." On April 19, Rod Liddle in The Spectator mused, "It's just possible, isn't it, that those artefacts looted at gunpoint from the Iraqi National Museum will find their way into the hands of those private collectors who are so energetically represented by the American Council for Cultural Policy? "I suppose it's going way too far to say that the Americans are rapacious crooks out to make as much money as they can — corporately and individually — from a country which they have enthusiastically destroyed. "But I wonder if it isn't beginning rather to look like that, particularly if you're an Arab."