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Fall 2004
From Distant Days
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Alabaster bowl, ca. 2350 B.C.

Photography courtesy of Robert Englund

Small alabaster bowl, ca. 2350 B.C., from the collection of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. The inscription states: "property of the protective genie."

His work, and that of his colleagues, is perhaps even more relevant in these troubled times as the modern-day regions of ancient Babylonia are pummeled by war and lawlessness. A harsh reminder that some of the world’s most treasured ancient cultural artifacts are housed in today’s Iraq was delivered in April 2003, not long after U.S.-led forces seized Baghdad, when word spread that the Iraq National Museum had been looted. Suddenly, attention was focused on the precarious nature of ancient collections, and efforts to make them more secure through digitization seemed to take on greater urgency.

It wasn’t as if there hadn’t been wake-up calls in the recent past. “Religious fanaticism resulted in the Taliban edict to systematically demolish Afghanistan’s proud cultural heritage, to the horror of the international community,” Englund said in May as he accepted the National Humanities Center’s 2004 Richard W. Lyman Award for innovative use of information technology in humanistic scholarship and teaching. “We must try to imagine the truly desperate situation in Afghanistan, where whole generations of cultural history were looted or for all times destroyed by a ruling class run amok, to more clearly appreciate how much is lost to humanity when we do not thoroughly document national collections of shared world cultural heritage.”

As it turned out, the damage in the case of Iraq was considerably less than first reported. “The presumed plunder of the Iraq Museum shows the great potential of the Web for abuse as well as for good,” Englund says. “At first, there were wildly exaggerated reports going out like wildfire of 180,000 objects removed and either destroyed or taken away in all directions. Through the great power of the Web, this was established as fact.” The loss is currently estimated at between 5,000 and 10,000 objects, most of it coming from a single large collection of cylinder seals.

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