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Roman Silver and Stolen Culture

I’ve been catching up on the BBC Time Team episodes and came across this one about a hoard of Roman silver that was stolen from Hungary and sold to an English aristocrat.  The silver is in a vault owned by an art dealer and may never see the light of day again.  The man who discovered the treasure in Hungary was murdered.  So far, no one has been prosecuted for the stolen antiquities.

And that reminded me of the robbery of the Baghdad museum in the first stages of the Iraq War in 2003.  It’s been 10 years since Donald Rumsfield had the nerve to tell us that all vases look alike.  This Time Team episode has video of the theft in Baghdad as it happened.  Whoever did it knew exactly what they were looking for.  They probably had a shopping list.  The video shows one of the curators in tears, grieving over the loss of the Iraq’s priceless treasures.  Here’s the whole video.  It’s 49 minutes but worth the time.  It’s a story of theft, murder and privilege.  I have to say that the American legal system doesn’t come off too well here.

I can remember conversations I had with die-hard Christians over the looting of the Baghdad museum.  They didn’t think it was such a big deal because we were liberating the Iraqi people. {{rolling eyes}}  I found that attitude shocking and it permanently ruined my estimation of the person’s intelligence. It’s hard to take anyone seriously who could write off the theft of 10s of thousands of years of human history as no big deal because, you know, WMDs and stuff. All I could think of were thousands of cuneiform tablets that were smashed during the theft.  Those tablets could have contained histories of biblical figures or at least the literature and mythology of the eastern spur of the fertile crescent.  Maybe there was a “Abraham and Sarai: the early years” just waiting to be translated or a more explicit reference from Babylonian legal code to Deuteronomy and Leviticus.  Weren’t they at least concerned with the accuracy of the bible?  I guess not.  A clay tablet is just like any other clay tablet apparently.

I wonder how many people in Davos own a piece of Iraq?  How many Americans own a piece?  Has anyone ever been prosecuted for the Rape of Baghdad?

We should be ashamed that it ever happened.

8 Responses

  1. I remember being surprised that this right-wing Southern woman I worked for was unfamiliar with Toni Morrison. You know, Nobel Prize for literature and all that. I realized that women like that boss, or like the people who are so clueless about the harm done to the priceless treasures in Baghdad, don’t mind wrecking culture because these folks are not just stupid, but proud of it. That will show us — you know, snooty people like you and me who think we know so much. They showed us and they will brag to their simple-minded, sub-literate grandchildren about it.

    • Maybe the woman just isn’t interested in literature. My mother never read anything more complex than “True Story” magazine but she worked all of her life, raised her children to work and pay their taxes, gave homes to any homeless animal that came her way and never asked anyone for anything. Fwiw, she probably would have been more interested in the children and the animals who were killed in Iraq than the antiquities. That does not make her stupid but your comment surely makes you snooty.

      I, otoh, am very distressed that the antiquities were looted but I think that Toni Morrison is monumentally overrated. Does that make me snooty and stupid?

  2. This is an old story , unfortunately. For centuries, treasure hunters would dig into the remains of Pompeii until they uncovered some “tresure.” When Schliemann discovered Troy in the 1800s he also looted it and jewelery bounced oiver to Berlin and after WW II to Russia (a second or third looting). Lord Elgin spent 20 years removing what was left of the sculptures on the Parthenon and taking them to the British Museum. Most of the building was destroyed by Viennese mercenaries in the late 1600s. It didn’t help that the Turks stored munitions there and used it as a defensive position.

    All of these atrocities were pretty well covered in high school and college courses. The bad foreigners were contrasted with the Americans, at least in the high school courses. If not for the disgust of Loprd Byron circa 1830, the deprivations of the Parthenon might not have made it to hiugh school courses but the combination of a romantic poet and the Greek literature pushed the story up.

    I might add the looting of the Spanish in the Americas where gold and silver artifacts were routinely melted down for the metal.

    What is worse here is that the looting was more organized and more private than in the past. It was not targeted for the Smithsonian but for the hands of the malefactors of great wealth who looted our economy and the economies of Europe.

    • “add the looting of the Spanish in the Americas”

      and of the Mayans by the Spanish!

  3. I have a piece of Atocha silver fashioned into a little anchor pendant that my mother bought me in the 1970s. I really appreciate the gift but I can’t wear it because I think of the Spaniards forcing slaves to work their mines, etc.
    Another aspect of the Iraqi looting was the flagrant war profiteering that took place with Bush’s blessing. I remember reading horror stories of waste and fraud that the gummint just shrugged about and never prosecuted. Turns out it wasn’t a bug of course, but a feature. Part of Bush’s design to run up the debt and drown the American government. Treason IMO.

  4. OMG remember the story of the huge airliner filled with cash that went to Iraq at the start of the “war?”. No one knows what happened to the money and it was millions.

  5. The Baghdad Archives were also carefully burned and destroyed in order to destroy all possible evidence and records of who owned what, who did what, etc. I believe it was part of the neo-conservative Shock Doctors’ plans to bring Iraq down to a social and cultural “zero point” in order to re-arrange the pieces into some new shape.

    In the general disorder, many WMD sites being guarded by UN personnel were also left de-guarded and thrown wide open to any looters who wanted to steal any stuff. I believe I remember reading that some kind of super-high explosive still be stored on site under guard was simply unguarded and free for the taking. It would have made excellent IEDs and maybe it did.

    • If you follow the pattern of resistance attacks in Iraq you see it increase as people realize they traded one dictator for another.

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