The chaos in Iraq's museums and archives stands in sharp contrast to the orderliness of archaeology as it was once practiced in that country. And while the destruction that befell its museums of antiquities has horrified scholars and archaeologists, the burning of its National Library has worsened an already disastrous toll on human knowledge. What's been lost, say scholars, are intangible values of scholarship: continuity and context.
Objects that were stolen from the National Museum of Antiquities may be recovered, especially if the world moves quickly and methodically to take stock of what exists outside of Iraq in museums and private collections. A database, if it is put together in time, could help limit the market for looted Iraqi antiquities.
But with much of the contents of the library gone, with them goes the ability to trace the full scope of history -- to link what's known of the dawn of civilization to the present.
"Any kind of comprehensive study of the ancient settlements of Iraq will be incredibly difficult," says C. Brian Rose, professor of classical archaeology at the University of Cincinnati, and vice president of the Archaeological Institute of America.
"We may be able to get the antiquities back, perhaps the majority back, but the archives have been burned," he says. "Some documents will have been copied, and some of them may be in Istanbul, but many of them, personal letters, documents which relate the social and political changes, those are gone."
As archaeologists pieced together more news about the destruction in Iraq, some were cheered yesterday by reports that museum losses may not be quite so dire as early estimates suggested. But the loss of archive material wiped out invaluable troves of documents dating to the Ottoman Empire, perhaps 700 years or more of history.
"These days in archaeology, we like to study the long-term history of a site, the historical developments over the course of thousands of years," says Rose. "You need the documents that relate the use of the site over the course of the site, the patterns of ownership. That's no longer possible."
Reports of looting and arson often have focused on the loss of what often are misrepresented as "art objects." But scholars painted a different picture of a more thoroughgoing cultural loss.
Once an object has been stolen from a museum, it begins a metamorphosis, losing its scholarly and archaeological context and becoming a mere commodity. Even if an object is recovered, if it isn't recovered with a museum accession number on it (which may be removed to make illegal sale easier), much of its scholarly value may be lost. The specifics of the what, where and when of the object, invaluable to scholars, are easily effaced, even if the object itself remains unharmed.
Adding to the sense of intellectual loss is Iraq's long history of methodical archaeology.
Since 1967, the country has had stringent laws preventing the export of antiquities. One of the saddest ironies of the destruction is that Iraq's defense of its cultural heritage was considered a model for the region.
The laws "were very strong," says Richard Zettler of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. "After 1967, nothing was allowed to leave and they enforced the law. It was a model that others followed, and it wasn't corrupt. You couldn't just offer a little money [to smugglers]. It was a highly professional organization."
Though Iraq had strong laws, its intellectual infrastructure had been deteriorating for more than a decade, which may have contributed to the gutting of the country's museums.
"The more we hear of it, the more professional it looks," says Paul Zimansky, a professor of archaeology and history at Boston University. "Professional networks of looters grew up in the aftermath of the Gulf War."
That coincided with growing malaise within the archaeological community in Iraq. Not only was there damage to sites, there was an erosion of the country's ability to defend its heritage.
"All their vehicles had been commandeered, their telephones hadn't been turned back on, salaries were frozen at levels too low to sustain anyone," says Zimansky, remembering a visit to Iraq shortly after the Persian Gulf War. "People were floating away from antiquities."
Still, it was the swiftness of the current loss, especially at the National Library, that stunned scholars.
Zimansky compared it to the burning of the library at Alexandria that wiped out vast tracts of original texts from the ancient world.
"In terms of damage to heritage, in terms of a break in the stream of tradition, that's the right comparison," he said. "The other one is the Fourth Crusade sack of Constantinople and what the conquistadors did."
More than a thousand years after the loss of the library at Alexandria, the ultimate cause of its destruction remains a hot-button issue. It was certainly depleted over centuries, from Roman times. But blame for a catastrophic fire has shifted, from the Romans to Arabs to Christians. Its ultimate destruction, however, also reflected the erosion of a tradition of preservation and respect for ancient texts. As blame for the losses in Iraq is apportioned, the arguments may sound familiar.