We all know what happened, or think we know. When American troops entered Baghdad in April 2003, hordes of looters rushed into the Iraq Museum, repository of the world's greatest collection of Mesopotamian antiquities, and stripped the place while our GIs were busily pulling down Saddam statues for CNN.

The truth, wouldn't you know it, is a bit more elusive. About 15,000 objects were stolen, not 170,000 as first reported (actually the size of the museum's entire collection), an exaggeration resulting from misunderstandings between the first journalists to reach the shattered museum and distraught Iraqi curators. Some objects were irretrievably damaged, but nearly half those stolen have since been recovered, as museum director Donny George writes in this absorbing book. Its editors aren't interested in raking over old coals or giving a definitive account of how the looting happened. Instead they offer an eloquent, moving and abundantly illustrated history of an institution housing the remains of 40,000 years of Iraqi cultural life, from Neandertals to Ottomans.

Twenty-two writers, including curators and archaeologists, tell the story in essays that evoke the excitement of digging up the world's original civilization and a wistful nostalgia for Iraq's bygone days of field research and camaraderie. The Gulf War, U.N. sanctions and, finally, the explosion of pillage on America's watch all took a devastating toll on museums and archaeology. The only artifacts being found these days in Iraq are those dug up by looters to feed the antiquities trade, and no one in this book ventures a guess as to when, or even if, fieldwork will ever happen again. But slowly, the museum is picking up the pieces.

The Iraq Museum, as it is now known, was created in a room in Baghdad in 1923 by Gertrude Bell, a British amateur archaeologist and Arabist given to rhapsodic gurgles about the objects under her care, writing: "Isn't it fantastic to be selecting pots and things four to six thousand years old!" She died three years later, succumbing in the blazing Iraqi summer at the age of 58, and it took 40 more years for the collection to reach its present location, a hulking box of brick and cement that looks like what it is, a warehouse of history. Because Iraqi law barred the export of antiquities, the place filled with objects excavated by archaeologists all over the country, among them a stunning array of gold jewelry found in 1988 in tombs at the palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud. Scholars came from around the world, and the museum became one of the Middle East's most prestigious cultural venues.

A string of disasters began in 1991, when, during the first Gulf War, a bomb hit a government building across the street and broke the museum's glass showcases. Curators hurriedly wrapped objects in cotton and rubber padding and closed the museum, and it has remained closed almost uninterruptedly since. The gold of Nimrud was packed off to underground vaults at the Central Bank, which were subsequently flooded, possibly intentionally by Iraqis intent on preventing Saddam diehards from stealing it. (The vaults were finally drained in 2003 and the gold recovered intact.) By the eve of the current war, the museum was a sad and demoralized place, its employees hunkered down behind steel gates bracing for the next disaster to strike. The museum's story of early promise erased by war and Saddam's megalomania becomes here a kind of metaphor for the recent history of Iraq.

Even after the looting, no institution in the world can tell the story of writing like the Iraq Museum. Cuneiform, the world's first script, was born in southern Iraq, and carbon dating indicates it originated between 3400 and 3300 B.C., writes Robert Biggs in one of the book's finest essays. There must have been quite a burst of innovation, because within a century or two the wheel appeared as well. It was quickly put to use in war, on chariots pulled by recently domesticated donkeys. Cuneiform found its first use in record keeping: receipts for barley bales, notices of gold shipments, more the work of accountants than poets. But before long, people went wild for cuneiform. Clay tablets with its spindly arrangements of flicks and crosses started to appear by the thousands, recording paeans, epics and incantations.

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-Hlne 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.