Treasure of Nimrud Is Found
In Iraq, and It's Spectacular

How Two Men Pumped Flooded Vault
To Secure Missing Assyrian Antiquities


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The treasure of
Nimrud survived 2,800 years buried near a dusty town in
northern Iraq. It then spent 12 years tucked away in a vault. Until Thursday, it was uncertain
whether it had survived Saddam Hussein's son, a U.S. missile strike, looters, a flood and a
grenade attack. But it has been found intact in the dark, damp basement of a bombed out central
bank building.
Thursday, directors of Iraq's National Museum and a team of U.S. Customs agents and officials
from the Office of the Coalition Provisional Authority -- the Pentagon-run agency managing
postwar Iraq -- cracked open five waterlogged wooden crates, peered inside and breathed a
collective sigh of relief.
There, in dozens of smaller boxes was the entire collection -- 613 pieces of gold jewelry,
precious stones and ornaments from the height of the Assyrian civilization in 800 B.C. Together,
the pieces weigh well over 100 pounds.
The recovery of the artifacts, which hasn't been made public, is a great boost for the museum,
which gained the world's attention in the days after the war when U.S. forces failed to prevent
looters from hauling away thousands of artifacts from ancient civilizations that sprang up in the
Tigris-Euphrates valley. Experts said it was the worst ransacking of Iraq since Genghis Khan tore
into Baghdad in the 13th century.
While initial reports talked of some 170,000 pieces stolen, it is now clear that perhaps only a few
thousand artifacts were taken, experts say. Many priceless objects from the museum are still
missing, such as the sacred Vase of Warka, a Sumerian piece from about 3000 B.C. But
museum officials moved hundreds of the most valuable items into storage rooms and secret
locations only weeks before the war, including some 40,000 ancient books, Islamic manuscripts
and scrolls spirited away in a bomb shelter. More than a thousand other pieces have been
recovered by U.S. officials.
Unearthed in 1988 by Iraqi archaeologists and never seen outside Iraq, the Nimrud treasure had
been on public display at Baghdad's National Museum for just a few months before Saddam
Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. Days after the invasion, the treasure was yanked from public
view. Its whereabouts remained secret.
One man who long wondered about the treasure was Jason Williams, a British anthropologist
and filmmaker, who had tried in vain to film the Nimrud treasure in recent years. The only existing
film of the pieces was taken when Iraqi archeologists made the discovery, with grainy images of
an archaeologist holding up rings and bracelets still attached to the bones of their former owners.
"These are Iraq's crown jewels," Mr. Williams said recently as he stepped over several feet of
smashed glass, twisted metal and heaps of charred Iraqi dinars in the hull of the bank building
destroyed by a U.S. missile strike. Although the building was gutted, the missile didn't damage
the basement or the vaults. But a burst water pipe soon flooded the area.
The affable Englishman from a tiny town named Abinger Bottom found an unlikely soul mate for
his search in a New Yorker, Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos. Mr. Bogdanos is a reservist on
active duty who in civilian life works as a homicide prosecutor at the New York district
attorney's office. His other job is on a U.S. military counterterrorism team that has worked in hot
spots such as Afghanistan. A short, muscular man, he also has a master's degree in classical
antiquities and a law degree from Columbia University.
When he read accounts of the Iraqi looting, Mr. Williams, who lives in Washington, called the
National Geographic Society and pitched the idea of trying to find and film the treasure. The
society quickly sent him and a film crew, as well as five archaeologists who fanned out across
Iraq to survey the damage to sites across ancient Mesopotamia.
In the case of Col. Bogdanos, he was busy tracking down remnants of the regime when he
decided he would really rather be tracking down Iraq's stolen antiquities. He helped assemble a
team of three military officers and seven agents from the Department of Homeland Security's
Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The men set about their gumshoe work,
helping recover thousands of stolen pieces for the museum.
Both men were captivated by the treasure, discovered by Iraqi archeologists in four burial sites in
Nimrud, near the biblical city of Nineveh. The pieces include a queen's crown with eight winged
girls and a dome of gold leaves, white marble jars, gold plates and engraved silver pitchers.
The initial worry of both men was that the treasure was part of the haul taken by looters. In the
days after the war, however, museum curators assured U.S. officials the treasure had been
moved in 1990 to the central bank and was believed safe.
Then rumors surfaced that Saddam's youngest son, Qusay, had made an illicit withdrawal from
central bank vaults shortly before the war, making off with gold ingots and $920 million in cash.
"When I heard that report, I thought 'God, please tell me he wasn't that sick to steal the treasure,'
" says Mr. Williams.
His fears were put to rest when a central bank worker told Mr. Williams he was present at the
vault the night he and others were ordered to stack the money for Qusay. The man said he
helped fill dozens of suitcases with cash and nine coffins with 27.5-pound bars of gold. But, he
said, none of the Nimrud treasure was taken.
The U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division quickly sent a tank to guard the area after bank officials
found that looters were trying to get inside the vaults. Several robbers had killed each other in
one of the buildings, and others were shooting AK-47s at the vault doors. One man was killed
when he fired his rocket-propelled grenade at the vault while standing less than 10 feet away.
Even after it appeared that the treasure was safe, there was still a major obstacle to getting at it:
The basement of the main central bank building was flooded. Two weeks ago, both men stared
at the water down a dark stairwell and speculated about the treasure. Mr. Williams asked for
permission to buy pumps to begin draining the basement. Col. Bogdanos gave the green light,
and soon two giant irrigation pumps were hard at work. With the vault still flooded, Mr. Williams
bought two smaller pumps that could be lowered down the stairs as the water level dropped.
Even then, progress was painfully slow. Every time Mr. Williams's team turned the pumps off, the
water level rose. Finally, one of Mr. Williams's Iraqi workers hit upon a solution. With bemused
U.S. soldiers looking on, the man lifted every manhole cover in the area until he found a valve
that stopped fresh water from flowing to the building.
It still took a week to fully drain the building. Mr. Williams, now back in Washington, estimates
his team of amateur hydrologists drained 640,000 gallons of water.
There were still some hiccups along the way. When one of the first bank vaults was opened,
museum officials spotted 14 crates thought to contain the treasure only to find jewels of another
kind: belonging to Iraq's first modern king, Faisal I. "We discovered a treasure, it just wasn't the
right one," says Bill Gardner, a producer for National Geographic. Central Bank workers then
told worried museum officials there were five other crates from the museum in another vault,
which was opened on Sunday.
The crates were badly damaged from the flooding and officials didn't want to haul them up the
elevator shaft in case they broke apart and damaged the treasure. So the suspense continued
until the boxes could be packed into new crates and lifted out Thursday. By then both Mr.
Williams and Col. Bogdanos were stateside again.

Updated June 6, 2003
treasure and
tower of babel.
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