Details of National Museum of Iraq looting emerge

While the Warka Vase has been accounted for, reports suggest that the cylinder seal collection has vanished


The latest estimates of losses at the National Museum in Baghdad range between 3,000 and 12,000 items. The lower figure comes from the UK government and the higher, from museum director Nawala al-Mutawalli. These numbers include 32 items of great importance taken from the public galleries. Curators are now checking the storerooms against inventory. Although the central bank vault has just been opened, it does not seem that the other secret antiquities stores in Baghdad have been unsealed.

The Warka Vase, the museum’s greatest treasure, has been recovered. Two men turned up at on 12 June, with the sacred vessel of 3200BC in the back of their car. Old breaks in the limestone vase were broken again, but it can probably be restored. Unconfirmed reports from Baghdad now suggest that the entire cylinder seal collection, numbering thousands, may have been lost.

Iraqi specialists, assisted by British Museum conservators, have gone through the crates of the Nimrud gold stored in the vaults of the central bank. These were flooded with sewage, but most of the objects are undamaged. This same vault also contains other precious objects from Ur and Nimrud, including ivories.

Plans have been announced to reopen a small part of the National Museum on 3 July. American troops are still on guard.

Both the director, Nawala al-Mutawalli, and research director, Donny George, are believed to have been members of the Ba’ath Party, and although under Hussein it was difficult to hold any senior position without joining the party, 130 of the 185 museum staff are reported to have signed a petition calling for their resignation.

Until now there has been very sketchy information about Iraq’s regional museums. In a report from Mosul for Archaeology Magazine (July-August), Roger Atwood says that most of the important objects had been sent to Baghdad for safekeeping. It is believed that these 5,500 objects are all safe.

In the main galleries of the Mosul Museum, 34 artefacts were looted, among which 30 of the 84 bronze panels that had hung on the ninth-century BC Balawat Gate. Also missing from the displays are three large cuneiform tablets from Khorsabad and one from Nineveh, with another Nineveh tablet damaged. A stone lion from Hatra and two 12th-century Islamic doors were damaged. Dozen of pots and tablets in store were broken, and an unknown number looted.

The museum at Babylon was looted and badly damaged, but it seems that original artefacts had been removed and only replicas were lost. The site museum at Nineveh appears to have been undamaged. The Nasiriyah museum also seems to have been saved, with US Marines now billeted between the exhibits.