Paper chase. Iraq's new minister of culture displays a photograph of the recently rediscovered Warka mask, which disappeared in April.

Mixed News For Iraqi Antiquities

Near East archaeologists are celebrating the recovery of a priceless antiquity even as the situation in Iraq remains perilous. Last week the famed Warka mask, lost during the looting of the Iraq Museum in April, was found buried in a field north of the capital. An investigation by Iraqi police led them to a 2-meter-deep hole in a field north of Baghdad, where they recovered the 5000-year-old marble mask.

Some researchers believe the mask represents the powerful Sumerian goddess Inanna and illustrates "the ultimate femme fatale," says Elizabeth Stone, an archaeologist at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. John Russell, an archaeologist at Boston's Massachusetts College of Art, adds that "the Warka lady exemplifies the classical ideal in sculpture 2500 years before the Greeks thought of it." It was made in the ancient city of Uruk (modern-day Warka). Because the mask was one of the museum's most valuable--and best known--pieces, archaeologists hoped it would eventually surface. "The sense is that it has been bouncing around Baghdad all summer, being basically too hot to handle," Stone says.

Russell hopes to make things even hotter for looters. An outspoken critic of antiquities looting, Russell is on his way to Baghdad to serve as deputy senior adviser to the Ministry of Culture. His move is welcomed by U.S. and foreign researchers, who are becoming increasingly concerned about the widespread looting and smuggling of antiquities at remote sites. The country's dicey security and economic and political woes pose "a daunting challenge to make a difference," Russell admits. UNESCO has withdrawn all its staff from Iraq, for example, including those handling archaeology matters.

In an incident last week that graphically illustrated the danger, Russell's boss, Pietro Cordone, escaped serious injury after U.S. troops fired on his car when it tried to pass an American convoy. One of his aides was killed. Cordone, a senior adviser to newly named Culture Minister Mufid al-Jazaeri, has been involved in efforts to revamp the trashed Iraq Museum. He is due to stand down at the end of this month.

Posted in Archaeology