Archaeologists fear the loss of historic relics WAR IN THE GULF

February 24, 1991|By Peter Honey | Peter Honey,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon has said that after bombing Iraq unremittingly for five weeks it could see no damage to any of the archaeological, cultural or religious sites that bejewel the cities and riverine delta widely regarded as the birthplace of modern civilization.

But archaeologists and scholars of the ancient Middle East are skeptical that all of the often-rickety structures and priceless artifacts -- some over 5,000 years old -- will emerge unscathed from the relentless pounding of ground around them -- especially in or near the northern Mesopotamian cities of Samarra and Mosul, where intensive bombing has occurred, and the capital, Baghdad.

Scholars say that until they can examine sites or see detailed reports, they won't know how selective modern munitions really are.

Few people realize the density of Iraq's archaeological wealth, said Robert Adams, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and a Mesopotamian scholar, in a recent radio interview.

"You couldn't drop a bomb and not hit an archaeological site," he said. "There is almost a continuous array of ancient ruins across whole regions of southern Iraq."

Paul Zimansky, professor of archaeology at Boston University, said that while ancient mud-brick ruins may not be as impressive XTC as the stone monuments of Egypt or Greece, they are in some ways more important.

Iraq encompasses Mesopotamia, the low-lying region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where the first city-states developed with the arrival of the Sumerian culture around 5,000 B.C. Their farming, writing and technological inventions were further refined by successive empires, such as those of the Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Abbassids.

What worries historians is that many ancient and historic sites are intertwined with modern-day Iraq and are often perilously close to strategically important buildings or military bases regarded as targets by allied bombers. Iraq has also been accused of using the sites to shelter its war machinery, as by parking planes next to the sites.

The Iraq Museum, for instance, is close to the television station and next door to the Presidential Palace in Baghdad, both of which were heavily bombed early in the war. An Iraqi radio report that the museum was also damaged could not be confirmed last week.

Archaeologists agree that the Baghdad museum holds some of the world's richest records of mankind's first steps toward civilization, in the form of "tens of thousands" of ancient clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform, the first known writing, which arose in southern Mesopotamia some 5,700 years ago.

Relatively few of the tablets have been deciphered, said Jerrold Cooper of the Johns Hopkins University's department of Near Eastern studies in Baltimore, who is one of a small group of U.S. scholars who have been working on the inscriptions.

He said the wedge-shaped characters may hold critical explanations of how and why the early urban dwellers developed many of the tools and cultural characteristics that are taken for granted today -- for example the wheel, the plow and pottery.

They may also explain how hunter-gatherers became farmers, how the first cities were planned, how our modern system of dates and time measurement originated, how arithmetic developed the process of multiplication and square and cube roots, how the foundations of algebraic equations were established, and how early forms of legal and commercial structures came about.

Most of the smaller, easily movable pieces in the museum are reported to have been moved into safe storage. But it is believed that larger objects -- like a 5,500-year-old mosaic temple wall, one of the earliest examples of decorated architecture, and human-headed bulls from the 8th-century B.C. Assyrian capital of Khorsabad -- were still in the museum when the bombing started.

The Iraqi government, wishing to attract more tourists, has been reconstructing parts of the ancient city of Babylon that were originally built by King Nebuchadnezzar. Just as he had each brick marked with his name, so, too, has Saddam Hussein had his name stamped on each brick of the reconstruction.

Archaeologists like McGuire Gibson, professor of Mesopotamian archaeology at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, say they are happy with the arrangement because "it helps distinguish the bricks of Saddam from those of the original structure." But Mr. Cooper says that it's "a tacky thing to do."

The Pentagon said Friday that it has compiled a "no-fire target" list showing map coordinates of cultural, religious and archaeological sites that should be avoided by bombers. The list, spokeswoman Michel Rabayda said, was updated regularly.

"We are are not aware of any sites on the list that have been damaged by either coalition bombing or Iraqi fire," she said.

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