Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Kept safe in US, Iraqi royal statue heads home

MassArt professor helped in recovery John Russell, a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, with a map of Babylon. Russell identified the 4,400-year-old statue of King Entemena after its recovery in 2006. (By Farah Stockman Globe Staff / September 7, 2010 WASHINGTON — It took four men to lift the wooden box in the lobby of the Iraqi Embassy. They carried it gingerly to the waiting truck, then loaded it into the belly of a commercial plane. Hours after President Obama announced the end of US combat operations in Iraq last week, one of that country’s most precious artifacts — the statue of an ancient king — began its journey home to Baghdad. In a saga that reads like the plot of an Indiana Jones movie, the 4,400-year-old statue of King Entemena was stolen from Iraq’s national museum in 2003, during widespread looting in the early days of the US invasion. It then moved through an underworld of black-market art dealers until it was recovered in a 2006 US sting operation, with help from a professor of antiquities in Boston. Then, for four more years, it sat in a glass case at Iraq’s embassy in Washington, waiting for Baghdad to be safe enough for its return. It is expected to arrive later this week, the final chapter in a tale of the anarchy of war and the fragile promise of peace. “Now he’s going back where he belongs,’’ said John Russell, a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, who was hired by the State Department to help preserve Iraq’s ancient art. Russell verified Entemena’s authenticity for US officials. Russell, a gregarious archeologist who wears chunky glasses and blue blazers when he is not on a dig, said the statue’s return marks a sign that modern-day Iraq is getting “back to normal.’’ But it also marks the end of his own struggle to see it repatriated. “He has become important to me since we became a part of each other’s lives,’’ said the Missouri-born 57-year-old, who frequently refers to the statue of Entemena as if it were a living person. Amy Gansell, a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University and a former student of Russell’s, said it is fitting to talk about Entemena that way. “The ancient Mesopotamians believed that these statues contained the essence of a person,’’ she said. “It is not just a piece of rock that we are returning, but it is the essence of humanity.’’ King Entemena ruled in 2400 BC, when the land that makes up modern-day Iraq was a cradle of civilization. Archeologists believe that the 3-foot-tall statue of imported diorite stood in a temple in the city of Lagash. The statue was discovered by archeologists in the early 1900s in the nearby city of Ur. Archeologists surmised it was hauled away as a trophy after a war by conquerors who removed its head. It was believed to have stood in the doorway of a city gate, where its neck was worn smooth by people running their hands across the top as they passed by, Russell said. In recent decades, Entemena, one of the earliest statues of a known king from the region, stood in Baghdad’s National Museum. As Saddam Hussein led Iraq into a series of wars, the museum’s curators routinely hid their priceless artifacts to protect them from theft. But in May 2003, they didn’t have time to move Entemena, which weighs some 300 pounds. Thieves rolled Entemena down the museum’s main stairway, breaking every step. They also took highly prized pieces from locked storage containers, leading Iraqi museum officials to believe a sophisticated criminal syndicate was involved. A few weeks after the looting, Russell, who teaches a class on the ancient art of Iraq, got an urgent call from the State Department at his MassArt office on Huntington Avenue. US officials asked whether he could quickly join a UN team to assess the needs of the looted museum. But he was told he had to get on a plane that night. “It was very exciting,’’ he said. “I couldn’t say no.’’ Russell was eventually hired as the Coalition Provisional Authority’s second-ranking official for cultural preservation in Iraq, as the United States tried to recover from international criticism following the museum’s looting. For nine months, bodyguards escorted him every day from the Green Zone to the museum, where he helped Iraqi curators repair damaged items and maintained contact with US soldiers tracking the lost items. In the years that followed, Russell worked to set up a training institute for Iraqi museum curators, and he lobbied successfully for the closure of a US military base that had been set up atop an archeological site of Babylon. In 2004, he returned to full-time teaching in Boston, but stayed on as a State Department consultant. For years, he heard nothing about Entemena. But in 2006, he got a call from a US Customs official who sent him a photograph of the statue and asked whether it looked like the real thing. An Iraqi art dealer in New York City had been offered a chance to buy the statue, apparently hidden at a farmhouse in Syria. The dealer, who had been caught falsifying documents related to another artifact, agreed to help get the statue back. Russell would not elaborate on how customs officials — through the art dealer — persuaded illicit art brokers to ship the statue to New York. But he was there when they opened the box in a warehouse in Queens. He knew immediately it was genuine. Soon after, Russell and his State Department colleagues held a ceremony to hand over the statue during a visit to Washington by Nouri al-Maliki, Iraqi prime minister. “It was the modern ruler of Iraq and the ancient ruler in the same room,’’ Russell said. “Little Entemena was sitting there in the foreground, looking on as best he could, without his head.’’ But Baghdad’s National Museum stayed closed until February 2009 due to the violence. This year, Iraqi authorities decided to bring Entemena home, coincidentally as thousands of US troops were returning to their homes. More than 15,000 artifacts were stolen from the museum during widespread looting in 2003. Only about a third have been recovered. Last week, the glass case that recently housed Entemena stood empty, as workmen assembled the box that would carry the ancient king. Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, Samir Sumaida’ie, said the statue’s return is a symbol of the slow, painful progress of a new Iraq and the bloody tribulations of the old one. “It’s a metaphor for Iraq,’’ he said. “The looting took place over three or four days. We have been working on this for the last seven years. We will be working for the next 20 years, and we may never get it all back.’’

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very Interesting!
Thank You!