Milwaukee exhibit preserves threatened artifacts

Share on Facebook Comments Comments Print Print
By Meg Jones, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
March 19, 2015

MILWAUKEE—Carter Lupton peered at the clay brick with markings that looked like chickens had walked across it.

It had been placed in a building by a king who lived almost 3,000 years ago in a land now known as Iraq, before it was dug up by an archaeologist, eventually sold to the Milwaukee Public Museum and displayed for decades to visitors.

The brick came from the ancient Assyrian capital of Nimrud, not far from modern day Mosul.

Earlier this month, the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities claimed Islamic State militants bulldozed the historically important archaeological site.

As disturbing videos surfaced that showed Islamic State members knocking over sculptures in the Mosul Museum and using sledgehammers to pulverize an intricately carved winged bull that had stood for centuries in Nineveh, historians and curators such as Lupton, an Egyptologist, could only watch in horror.

Islamic State militants are not only executing people and terrorizing citizens in communities they've overtaken, but they appear to be attempting to erase Iraq's culture and heritage.

“It's very disheartening. You wonder where it's going to end because how do you stop it?” Lupton said last week as he walked through a new permanent exhibit, “Crossroads of Civilization,” which opened Sunday, March 15.

The new exhibit spans thousands of years and includes Mesopotamian artifacts from modern-day Iraq, such as small cuneiform tablets, cylinders and a reproduction of a glazed tile of a lion from the Ishtar Gate in Babylon.

The only artifact in the exhibit positively known to be from Nimrud is the mud brick inscribed in cuneiform for Shalmaneser III, an Assyrian king who died in 824 BCE and whose father created a new capital at Nimrud. The brick, which proclaims Shalmaneser's greatness, was excavated in the 1930s by British archaeologist Max Mallowan, the husband of best-selling author Agatha Christie. The Milwaukee Public Museum bought it in the 1960s at an auction along with other artifacts.

Had it remained in Iraq “it would be plowed under, I imagine. It comes from this unrestored ziggurat,” said Lupton, pointing at a black and white photo featuring Mallowan and Christie walking in front of a giant triangle-shaped mound. “There have been pictures from Nimrud (showing the devastation), and you can still see this ziggurat.”

A week before Islamic State destroyed Nimrud, it released videos of the group toppling and smashing Assyrian statues in the museum in Mosul and destroying the winged bull in Ninevah. Also last weekend, Islamic State attacked the 2,000-year-old fortress of Hatra. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called the destruction a war crime.

Throughout the centuries, cultural treasures have been looted and destroyed, including by the Taliban in 2001 of the 1,500-year-old Buddhas carved into the side of a cliff in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. And museums were looted in Baghdad after the U.S. invasion in 2003 and in Cairo after the 2011 uprising.

Dennis Kois, Milwaukee Public Museum president and CEO, was horrified to see images of the destruction in northern Iraq.

“For anyone that cares about world culture or our shared heritage, it's hard not to view it as a tragedy. It makes me physically ill,” said Kois, who was hired to run the museum last year.

When Kois worked as assistant chief designer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in the late 1990s, he helped renovate the Assyrian art gallery that evokes the main audience hall of a palace in Nimrud. He spent a year working with the reliefs and two winged bulls—just like the one shown on a video being destroyed—that were excavated in the mid-1800s.

“Ultimately it's a theft from everyone. It may seem a little abstract why we should care about these things, but ultimately we all come from the same history. And when you lose pieces of that history, it's sad,” Kois said.

Lupton spent three seasons working on a Milwaukee Public Museum-sponsored archaeological excavation in Syria in the 1970s. Milwaukee archaeologists dug at Tell Hadidi between 1974 and 1978 on the upper Euphrates River in northern Syria. Tell Hadidi was occupied from roughly 3000 BCE to the 13th century CE. Some of the Tell Hadidi artifacts and pottery are included in the new exhibit, and a case at the end titled “From Syria to Milwaukee” highlights the museum's work at the site.

Late last week, Kois and Lupton got devastating news from a researcher in the region: Tell Hadidi had been destroyed by looting. Whether it was caused by Islamic State or part of the overall chaos in Syria, Kois doesn't really know.

“In the words of the scholar who relayed the news … 'all that remains of Tell Hadidi is what sits in the museum in Milwaukee,'” Kois said.

In the 1800s and 1900s, it was common for European- and American-led archaeological teams throughout the Middle East to transport artifacts back to the U.S., Britain, France and elsewhere. In recent decades, some countries have attempted to get their cultural objects returned. But the wholesale looting and destruction of artwork and ancient sites in Iraq and Syria revive the debate over cultural patrimony.

On one side is the argument that artifacts should never have been taken in the first place and belong in museums in their home countries. The other side is that some artifacts would have vanished long ago and have been painstakingly preserved for the public to see and study.

“I don't try to rationalize that because I think there's value in displaying them in museums; there's value in spreading things out,” Lupton said. “Some of these antiquities have been spread out, and it has protected them for now.”

While Islamic State videos and propaganda claim the statues and sites are being destroyed because showing idols violates Islamic law, Lupton and other experts suspect that's a smoke screen for what's probably happening—the group selling many artifacts to unscrupulous collectors to raise cash for terrorism.

Having worked and traveled extensively in Egypt, Lupton now worries that the Islamic State videos will spill over to historic sites in other countries and give terrorists elsewhere ideas to create publicity.

The destruction in Iraq also is having an unintended consequence here in Milwaukee. A touch screen displaying an interactive time line at the entrance of the new exhibit on the museum's third floor is being changed to reflect recent events.

“We'll change some of those texts and maybe include an image of the destruction and bring them up to date,” Kois said. “This is a story now that's not just of the distant past. We want people to know they were important enough even today that someone thought they had to destroy them.”

Share on Facebook Comments Comments Print Print