In April of 2003, just as Baghdad was falling to U.S. troops, looters broke into the unprotected National Museum of Iraq, making off with some 15,000 precious artifacts from ancient Mesopotamia. Ten years later, more than half of those artifacts, including seals, clay tablets and sculptures, remain at large, possibly destroyed, lost or sold on the worldwide black market for antiquities.
The devastation extended far beyond Baghdad. From 2003 to 2005, as war and disruption raged on, scores of archeological sites were looted, sometimes by armed robbers well equipped for systematic plunder. The after effects sent shockwaves through the archeological community, which mobilized to try to catalogue the loss and aid authorities in tracking down stolen artifacts.
"People were shocked – they wanted to help," says Clemens Reichel, an archaeologist and associate curator with the Royal Ontario Museum, who was involved in the effort.
Today the situation in much of Iraq has stabilized and many sites of archeological significance are protected, Dr. Reichel says. However, there continue to be areas in the country where valuable pieces of ancient Mesopotamia remain at risk. Lessons learned from the disaster include increased vigilance from curators and collectors about the provenance of items that are offered to them for sale and broader support for international agreements to protect antiquities during armed conflict.
But even as Iraq recovers, researchers are looking with concern at the unfolding situation in Syria and wondering whether they are witnessing a tragic rerun of the Iraqi story.
"Unfortunately these things keep repeating themselves," says Jack Green, chief curator of the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago, which has created an exhibit about the Iraq catastrophe to run concurrently with the ROM's Mesopotamia show. It is vital to protect and learn from the ancient Middle East, he adds, "because it's part of our legacy and our history – we wouldn't be here without it."
What makes the situation in Syria different from Iraq is that the research community has no clear partner in the conflict to provide information on what is happening to the archeological sites and co-ordinate protections. Dr. Reichel, who has worked at sites in eastern Syria since the early 1990s, is no longer able to access the region. His Syrian counterpart has fled the country and is now a scholar at risk in the U.S.
While Dr. Green stresses that antiquities should take a back seat while a desperate humanitarian crisis is under way, he says the potential loss to science if widespread looting erupts in Syria is significant.
"Really we're talking about irreparable damage to cultural heritage," he adds. "If we lose part of that heritage, it's not only important to the national identity of the country but to the entire world."