Monday, May 27, 2013

What Really Happens to Priceless Artifacts in War-Torn Countries

The following pattern has now happened at least three different times in the recent past. The press and the public are told that priceless ancient documents or artifacts are stolen or destroyed by thieves or stolen by an invading army or militia. 

The press reports all this as true and the world wrings its hands in despair and raises its eyes to heaven. 

How could this be allowed to happen, some angry academic screams in the media.

But three different times, that isn't what happened.

Not in Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded.  Not in Iraq when the U.S. was accused of standing idly by while hooligans looted and burned Iraqi museums.  And not in Mali when Islamic militants occupied Timbuktu where ancient Islamic documents had accumulated.

In Afghanistan, the priceless artifacts turned out to be in the back of the bottom vault of the Bank of Afghanistan where some smart people from the national museum had stashed them, and then conveniently neglected to tell anyone.   Hey what happened to all those priceless gold artifacts ?  Oh, those artifacts, they would say, we don't know, they just disappeared.  Maybe the Soviets took them, they would say.   The Soviets say, what artifacts?    Then, mysteriously, 20 years later, they look in the back of the vault and they find these mysterious trunks.

Anybody seen that big gold thingie ?   You know, the one with the dragons and weird guy with the circle on his head?

In Iraq, it turns out that all most of the allegedly stolen artifacts were in the basement of the main museum.  Where they had been put.  Then when people did come by to loot the museum attendants would say, gee, someone must have already taken them.  Better ask the Americans, they would say, its all their fault.

And finally in Timbuktu, we discover that the priceless manuscripts were smuggled out of town in an operation described in the Washinton Post, see "A Daring Rescue in Timbuktu"

What is going on?

What is happening is that when a country or city is occupied by foreign troops, a militia, or descends into chaos, responsible people who love their country's history put the items away, secretly, for safe keeping. Then when the bad guys show up and ask for the stuff, they are told that someone already destroyed them, or stole them, or that they are no longer there. 

And of course the press reports them as stolen or destroyed because (a) that is what they are told and (b) the last thing you want to do is to tell everyone where they actually are because then they might actually be stolen or destroyed.

So the next time you hear about some cultural disaster, be concerned, but do not despair. There is a good chance that things will show up again, eventually.

But one footnote.  Although it would be a shame if a document were lost, how could it be that they had not already been scanned and put in a dozen libraries around the world?  That is the real story, don't count on reading that story in the press anytime soon.  Way over their heads.

Also see:

Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Afghanistan

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