An audience of 350 people enjoyed a history lesson on the "Cradle of Civilization" from U.S. Marine Colonel Matthew Bogdanos on Nov. 15 in the Francis E. Geissler Gymnasium. Bogdanos, a district attorney in New York City and a member of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, recounted his work as the lead investigator into the looting of the Iraq National Museum in April 2003.
In a slide show based on his book, "Thieves of Baghdad: One Marine's Passion to Recover the World's Greatest Stolen Treasures," Bogdanos detailed the historical significance of the Mesopotamian region, which included the civilizations of Babylon, Assyria, Sumer and others spanning more than 6,000 years.
Recalling the words of the Greek playwright Sophocles, "He who neglects the arts when he is young has lost the past and is dead to the future," Bogdanos said that the antiquities housed in the Iraq National Museum were perhaps the greatest collection of historical artifacts in the world, and constituted part of our own cultural history. Looters -- amateurs, professionals and insiders -- took thousands of priceless antiquities from the museum during a three-day period in April 2003. Due to the diligence and investigative skill of Bogdanos and his international team, more than 6,000 of the museum's treasures were recovered from 19 countries over a five-year period. While much of the recovery took place in Iraq, Bogdanos uncovered an elaborate international market run by professionals, with multi-million dollar bids by private collectors. He also determined that stolen antiquities' trafficking was helping to fund terrorist operations.
The museum, called "Saddam's Gift Shop" by the Iraqi people, had been closed to the public by Saddam Hussein in 1980. When Hussein lost power in the spring of 2003, the wrath of the Iraqi people resulted in violence against anything connected to his regime. Two of the most significant items taken and later recovered were the Mask of Warka and the Bassetki Statue. The Mask of Warka is 5,000 years old and is one of the first naturalist depictions of the human face; the Bassetki Statue is one of the first copper castings using the lost-wax method.
The key to recovering the museum treasures was the granting of amnesty to anyone who returned them, as well as the support of religious and community leaders in Iraq, who understood the historic value of the stolen treasures. Bogdanos received a National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush for his leadership in the recovery operation.