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ISIS Crisis: Archaeologist Pedro Azara, UNESCO, AAMD & AIA on the Mosul Museum Attack UPDATED

In light of news reports that some of the objects seen being smashed by members of ISIS in videos widely circulated yesterday may have been replicas, I have sought clarification from the Metropolitan Museum (which yesterday issued a forceful statement decrying the destruction) and from archaeologist Pedro Azara, who had worked on a dig near Mosul and had described unstable conditions there when I chatted with him in New York two weeks ago at a press preview for an exhibition he co-curated at the Institute for the Study for the Ancient World.

I haven’t yet heard back from the Met [see update at bottom], but Azara, a professor of aesthetics and the theory of art at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, responded immediately.

Pedro Azara Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Pedro Azara
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s what Azara wrote:

A professor living in Baghdad, from Mosul, told me yesterday that most of the material at the Mosul museum had been taken to Baghdad. But there was some discussion about whether some of the material had returned to Mosul. I think Iraqi authorities are keeping most of the items in storerooms that are not always at the National Museum in Iraq.

Some of the statues [smashed by Islamic State members] are obviously copies. They broke very easily, and the interior of them was pure white—plaster while. The fact that a statue had an iron piece would be, on the contrary, a sign that it is genuine. [This contradicts comments by Mark Altaweel of the Institute of Archaeology at University College, London, to the UK’s Channel 4 News, who said the presence iron bars meant they were replicas: “The originals don’t have iron bars.”]

The statue must have been found broken and repaired in the 20th century with these irons pieces—as happens with so many classical sculptures—even if these iron pieces are not used any more today. When the statue was pulled down yesterday, it broke following the ancient break.

So I feel that most of the statues were copies: There are many Hatra statues in Iraqi museums that are plaster copies, but not all are. The winged lion must be the only original that remains—or remained—on the spot.

Destruction of this kind has always taken place. We have just to remember the destruction during the civil war in Spain, when churches and cathedrals were almost demolished.

But this is no excuse.

After I posted about the Mosul Museum yesterday, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), Society for American Archaeology (SAA), and the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) issued a joint statement “call[ing] on authorities, even in these unsettled times, to do what they can to protect the world’s archaeological and cultural materials.”

The statement continued:

We urge museums and archaeological communities around the world to alert the appropriate international authorities if they believe they have information regarding objects recently stolen from Mosul. While the full extent of the damage to Iraq’s cultural heritage will only become clear after greater stability is restored, the material culture from more than 5,000 years of history is under extremely serious threat and we must take immediate action.

In addition, UNESCO’s director-general, Irina Bokova, yesterday issued a strongly worded statement:

This attack is far more than a cultural tragedy. This is also a security issue, as it fuels sectarianism, violent extremism and conflict in Iraq…. I have immediately seized the president of the Security Council to ask him to convene an emergency meeting of the Security Council on the protection of Iraq’s cultural heritage as an integral element for the country’s security.

UPDATE: Here’s what a spokesperson from the Met has now told me:

It’s impossible to know from videos [whether the destroyed objects are originals]. Our curators say that some are unquestionably authentic, not casts.

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