In the midst of the turmoil over Iraq's future, many have ignored the widespread destruction of artifacts from the region's ancient past.
The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, however, is devoted to the task of preserving the archaeological treasures of the Fertile Crescent.
The FBI recently recovered eight ancient Mesopotamian cylinder stone seals -- with a total estimated market value of $30,000 -- taken from Iraq during the recent war.
For the next three months, the artifacts -- some of which are believed to be more than 5,000 years old -- will be on display at the University Museum before they are returned to Iraq.
An unidentified Marine purchased the seals -- which measure around three centimeters in height -- for about $300 from a peddler in Iraq as souvenirs from his time there. After returning to the United States, he began to wonder whether they might have historical significance.
He took his suspicions to Zainab Bahrani, a Columbia University professor of art and archaeology, who verified the authenticity of the seals and told the Marine to contact government officials.
The artifacts were handed over to the FBI's newly created Art Crime Team, which is headed by Special Agent Robert Wittman.
The Philadelphia-based team -- trained in part at the University Museum -- was created as a rapid-response squad with the goal of solving thefts of cultural property, FBI spokeswoman Jerri Williams said.
Museum Director Richard Leventhal said the museum has helped law enforcement agencies address the worldwide problem of looting.
"Looting goes on every day, everywhere," Leventhal said. "It's a major problem."
As "one of the biggest and most extensive museums in material cultures from around the world," the museum is a valuable resource in the process of training the agents of the Art Crime Team, Leventhal added.
With better-trained law enforcement, the hope is that the objects will return to safety.
"It's the right story for all of us," he said of the artifacts' return to a secure home.
Richard Zettler, the museum's associate curator-in-charge, noted the University's ongoing relationship with the directors of the Iraqi National Museum.
According to Leventhal, the University has offered to work with the Iraqis to help advance the resurgence of the Iraqi National Museum.
Still, the return of the artifacts does not come without a cost.
Leventhal was quick to note that the historical context of the objects has been lost.
"The good part of this is that we have these pieces back. The bad part is that they were looted from an archaeological site, and we will never learn which site it was," Leventhal said.
As a result of the chaotic situation in Iraq, the nation has lost many of its ancient artifacts.
"Ten to 15 thousand objects are still missing from the [Iraqi] National Museum," Leventhal said.
The irony is that while America tries to recover these objects, its citizens are fueling the illicit exportation of the relics.
Leventhal noted that as members of a consumer nation, our citizens frequently purchase objects illegally, both inadvertently and knowingly.
The United States, Leventhal said, has some of the most lenient cultural-property laws in the world.
He hopes that the experience in Iraq calls attention to the need for stronger domestic legislation.
In addition, it seems that the ancient artifacts were not foremost on the minds of U.S. war planners during the invasion.
"When the U.S. came in," Leventhal said, "the planners and the generals of the war did not send any of the soldiers to protect the national museum."
The military's permissiveness existed, Leventhal said, despite the best efforts of archaeologists to preserve the treasures.
U.S. forces also disrupted ancient sites.
The fact that U.S. soldiers "built an army base on top of ancient Babylon," Leventhal said, showed a lack of reverence for Iraq's past in the midst of a reconstruction effort.
Problems like this are not unique to Iraq.
People are constantly stealing property from archeological sites around the world and in the United States, Leventhal said.Comments powered by Disqus
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