Cuneiform tablets became so common in ancient Iraq that they were used as packing material in building foundations and tossed into trash pits with animal and fish bones. In the 1980s archaeologists found a library of 800 tablets arranged on their shelves at a site called Sippar and sent them to the Iraq Museum, where they were widely and mistakenly reported to have been lost in the 2003 looting. The museum currently holds more than 100,000 tablets, and thousands more circulate elsewhere. Biggs recounts how the Chicago department store Marshall Field's was selling cuneiform tablets from Ur for $10 each as late as the 1960s.
Bad as the theft was, something even worse was happening. Journalists Micah Garen and Marie-Hélène Carleton surveyed sites invaded by bootleg diggers after Saddam fell, and their account in this book suggests not so much looting as industrial-scale leaching. Hundreds of men were digging for treasure, by day and by night with shovels, generators, lightbulbs and trucks. Five Sumerian cities (there are only 18) have had the top nine feet of their surfaces completely sifted by looters, an "unimaginably grim reality, a scene of complete destruction," they write. Just as shockingly, Columbia University's Zainab Bahrani writes that American troops have set up camp atop the ruins of Babylon, removing layers of archaeological material to create a helipad and laying a parking lot on the remains of a Greek theater dating from Alexander's day. Iraqi authorities asked the troops to move, but as of September 2004 they were still there.
The writers of this book try now and then to sound optimistic but, like grieving widows, keep slipping back into despair. It can get a bit weepy, this "requiem for a departed companion," as one calls it. Still, there is plenty to weep about. Two centuries of research into Mesopotamian civilization have been stopped in their tracks by war, looting and lawlessness. A stone excavated at Nippur carries a long invocation to the goddess Inanna to protect a temple and ends with a humble plea to mortals: "The governor who keeps it permanently in good condition will be my friend." Whoever wrote those words wouldn't have many friends now.
The Editors Recommend
Martin Gardner's Mathematical Games: The Entire Collection of His Scientific American Columns
Mathematical Association of America, 2005 (compact disc)
Gardner's column, which ran in this magazine from 1956 to 1986, introduced thousands of readers to the delights of puzzles and problem solving. His column also broke important mathematical stories--on cryptography, fractals, the game of Life, and tilings. Now all these columns are gathered on one, searchable CD, ending frustration for many fans. Gardner, who turns 91 this month, continues to write on a variety of topics.
This article was originally published with the title The Story of the Iraq Museum.