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Chicago Program Helps Iraqis Save Their Cultural Heritage

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Iraq’s often called the cradle of civilization. The area’s home to the world’s first cities and one of the earliest forms of writing. But during the 2003 invasion, looters stole thousands of items documenting that history. A two-year program at the Field Museum and the Oriental Institute hopes to help Iraqi scientists fix and preserve their damaged heritage.

When American troops entered Baghdad during the 2003 War, it was too dangerous for Alaa Hussein Al-Lami to go to work.

AL-LAMI: I see the helicopter shot some people.

But five days later, Al-Lami knew he had to chance it. He’d heard that looters were attacking his beloved Iraq National Museum that contained artifacts from thousands of years of human history. Al-Lami worked there as a conservator and archaeologist.

He headed for the museum, past fighting in the streets. When he got there, he ran into looters, and he says the U.S. military wasn’t doing anything to stop them. He begged a soldier to protect the museum.

AL-LAMI: The Army tell me that’s not my job.

He and his friends took action.

AL-LAMI: We divide the people because the Iraqi National Museum is a very big building. I take the main point from the main gate. I have one weapon.

The military arrived four days later. But by that time, an estimated 15,000 items were stolen. It’s hard to know what because the looters destroyed records, too.

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Flash to the Field Museum, about six years later. Six Iraqi scientists are here on a project to get training to fix and preserve artifacts.

They stand around a plain wooden crate with chief conservator Ruth Norton. The box doesn’t look like much, but hidden inside, there’s a treasure.

NORTON: Is it true these are the first wheels, the oldest known wheels excavated?
IRAQI SCIENTISTS: The oldest.

The Iraqis are archaeologists, conservators, even an engineer. But they all lean in for a closer look at this ancient chariot wheel and pull out their cameras.

They’re here thanks to a $13 million grant to build a training institute in Erbil in Kurdistan, and help re-equip the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad.

One of the conservators, Shukran Al-Alwe, says the looters also stole computers and destroyed microscopes.

AL-ALWE: We saw the damage. The damage is something painful really for us. This is the first civilization all over the world. The history of Iraq isn’t just for Iraq, it’s for all the world.

PHILLIPS: The earliest cities in the world are in Mesopotamia, the earliest states, the earliest codification of laws, laws themselves, government, this comes from Mesopotamia.

James Phillips, a curator at the Field, directs the Iraq Cultural Heritage Program.

PHILLIPS: I think it’s our responsibility because we helped destroy it. We’re not the only ones, of course. Saddam did a very good job himself. Personally, I think we owe the Iraqi people help.

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At the Field, conservator Ruth Norton shows Al-Alwe and the others how to repair ancient baskets. They won’t practice on ancient artifacts. First, they start with bamboo skewers, like you’d use to make fruit kabobs. Then they move onto woven placemats.

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That’s before they touch anything from the Field collection.

During their five-month stay here, they’ve also learned how to fix flaking paint on mummies, remove rust from relics and use radar to find buried buildings.

Archaeologist Alaa Al-Lami says some of the more advanced techniques are new to them.

Al-LAMI: Before the war, we cut information, we cut contact with all the world. We don’t have a new book, a new knowledge about everything. Now we’re open with all the museums, all the countries, to help the Iraqis and give them new information.

He figures it will take at least 3 or 4 years to repair and conserve all the items damaged by looters. And James Phillips says the looting hasn’t stopped.

PHILLIPS: Right this moment, somebody’s stealing something, digging somewhere, in one of the sites. The reason is the Iraqi government has not had the personnel to protect the sites.

Another challenge for the Iraqis is working conditions. When they go back to the Iraq National Museum, they’ll still have to face the reality of everyday life in Iraq.

AL-ALWE: It’s difficult, it’s difficulty really, not for our job, our life, our homes.

Shukran Al-Alwe says Iraqis have electricity an hour a day and limited water. The lab has a generator, but it’s only strong enough to power simple equipment.

PHILLIPS: We could train these people in all the new technology and all the new kinds of machines, but unless they have them, when they go back, it’s meaningless.

James Phillips says the grant will provide sophisticated new gear when the Iraqis return home, and share their new expertise with colleagues. They’ve also shared their own expertise with Chicagoans.

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NORTON: Do you know how was this tool used?

The Field’s Ruth Norton leans in with two Iraqis to take a closer look at a small rugged object shaped like a skinny “V.”

One of the men knows what it is. He found a similar object on a dig.

NORTON: A fish spear? That makes sense, there are little barbs at the end.

As it turns out, he says this type of spear is still used in Iraq today.

Norton hopes to see that exchange of information continue, after the Iraqis go home. So do the Iraqis. They have another goal.

AL-ALWE: I’d like to see the Iraq National Museum the best museum all over the world. ‘Cuz war caused many damages for our museum, and also for our laboratory.

The museum opened on a limited basis earlier this year. The scientists want to see it fully open again, with all the collections restored.

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