The world was enraged when artifacts from our cradle of civilization were destroyed and stolen during the invasion of the Iraqi National Museum in April 2003. Among these artifacts was one of the museum world’s most precious, the Warka Vase, dating back to 3,000 B.C.
The ancient carvings on the Warka Vase depicted the religious and ritual offerings involving the Sumerian Goddess of Heaven, Inanna. The vase served as one of the earliest illustrations of goddess worship and agricultural life that served as the foundation of ancient Mesopotamia civilization. However, due to its high-profile nature and, thus, its inability to be transported or sold, the vase was eventually returned. Nevertheless, the looting, destruction, and eventual return of this valuable centerpiece of the Iraqi National Museum symbolized a crime against cultural heritage.
Although the issues revolving around the Iraq War might be controversial in America, the destruction of Iraq’s ancient civilization is just as so. In the museum world, much of blame has been placed on the United States for its failure in protecting Iraqi cultural property from the looting. Eleanor Robson, a council member of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, harshly compares “the United States under President Bush to the Mongol Hordes’ and the destruction of the museum’s collection to that of the library of Alexandria in the fifth century.”
Complicated ethical issues arise while attempting to apply international resolutions of international organizations, such as UNESCO, to preserve cultural heritage in a chaotic, war-torn country. The priorities of the Iraqi citizens are simple: to survive, not to preserve cultural artifacts. According to James Armstrong, a Mesopotamian scholar and curator at the Harvard Semitic Museum, the United States government fundamentally lacked an understanding of the nature of Iraqi society and the results of decapitating the Iraqi government. Saddam’s chaotic regime lacked a functioning police force, which provided a breeding ground for desperate Iraqi citizens who saw looting at the Iraq Museum as an opportunity to bring economic compensation for their families. The looting of the Iraq Museum was almost inevitable due to the absence of security in the country.
It is difficult to imagine today that the current war-torn Baghdad was once a glorious and beautiful city that was worthy of preservation. Few realize that Baghdad was considered the cultural bridge between the East and the West during the Middle Ages. Micah Garen and Marie-Helene Carleton beautifully and emotionally describe the ethical issues of looting:
“If we come to understand the story of looting in its universal aspects-that great volumes in information about our past have been destroyed, that great works of literature and poetry no longer exist, that chapters in our understanding of human development will never be written-then we can begin to feel the scope and depth of our loss.”
The tragic looting and destruction of the Iraq Museum’s Warka Vase symbolizes our desperate need to treasure our museums which preserve our cultural heritage. It only encourages us to appreciate not only our museums in this world, but especially our local Harvard Museums. Harvard’s Museums are world-renowned and enthralling. For example, other artifacts of goddess worship can be discovered in the Harvard Semitic Museum, located in the Harvard Divinity School. The museum is home to Harvard’s beautiful and intriguing collections from Near Eastern archaeological excavations in Iraq, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Cyprus, and Tunisia.
Information on all of the museums at Harvard can be found on: www.harvard.edu/museums
1Micah Garen and Marie-Helene Carleton, “Theft of time,” The looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad: the lost legacy of ancient Mesopotamia, By Milbry Polk, ed. and Angela M. H. Schuster, ed. (New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams 2005) 15.