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Parents and Teachers

Interview with McGuire Gibson

by Jackson Kuhl
August 24, 2004

DIG spoke with McGuire Gibson, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, for the February 2005 issue. In this extended interview exclusively for the DIG website, Dr. Gibson goes into greater detail about the current situation in Iraq:

Jackson Kuhl: What is the current state of the national museum in Baghdad?

McGuire Gibson: It's safe at the moment. They haven't tried to open it. Everything is locked down and nothing will be on display for quite some time.

Fifteen-thousand items were taken. They haven't organized the last storeroom, which is extremely difficult. It's full of material taken from excavations. They're not big or exciting pieces, but they're important to a particular place. For example, a bead from the Indus Valley. You would never put that on display. But it's evidence of early contact. None of the stuff in this particular storeroom has a number. It's kept on shelves and numbered by year. So they have to go back to the original dig catalogs. There are records they can check it against. A lot of records were thrown around, especially day-to-day papers, but the main catalogs had been put in a separate place and kept safe. That's how they came up with the number of 15,000 items. It may go up another 2,000 or 3,000. We don't know.

They're installing a climate-control system. They've received about 40 to 50 computers for training and databases. They've cleaned up the mess. One-hundred twenty doors were damaged. The doors have been repaired, the windows have been repaired. They have new furniture.

JK: What's happening in the Iraqi countryside?

Gibson: Hundreds and hundreds of sites in the south are being looted, especially the Sumerian sites. Many of these are in isolated areas. Any site that is not near a town is probably being devastated.

In May 2003, I was in an Army helicopter and flew down and examined the sites in the south. We saw 25 sites and landed at three. There were 250 looters at one, 300 at another, working during the day. At one site, the Army drove them off, but we know from reporters that they came back the next day.

JK: Where are the artifacts going?

Gibson: The digging is done mostly by Iraqis. The people who dig up artifacts take them back to their towns and wait for the buyers or the buyers' agents to come. According to some of the diggers who have talked to reporters, the buyers are sometimes from Baghdad or from the Kurdish area in the north of Iraq, but sometimes they are from nearby countries. The buyers arrange for smugglers to take the objects out of the country through a variety of routes. A few objects have been found by Turkish and Jordanian officials, who have promised to return them to Iraq.

We have no idea how much is being lost everyday. But, worse than losing the objects, we're losing the context in which the objects were lying. An object will tell you far, far more if an archaeologist had dug it up.

JK: What's being done to recover artifacts?

Gibson: The Coalition and Iraqis have caught quite a bit -- about 5,000 all toll. Some major artifacts were either turned in voluntarily or caught during sting operations.

JK: What can readers of DIG do?

Gibson: Be aware that having an enthusiasm for something doesn't mean you have to collect it, any more than being interested in endangered animals means having one in your home.

All of this stuff is very precious but it's stolen. It's the heritage of another country. Readers should be interested in archaeology and should learn about it but not become involved in owning it.

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