Iraq

Artifact

Vase Deferens

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Credit: ArtSource

Here's the 5,000-year-old Warka Vase; it was missing from Iraq's National Museum when Baghdad fell, but was returned in June by three men who had it in the trunk of their car.

According to Denise Schmandt-Besserat (the scholar who determined that writing originated not in poetry but in trade), the significance of this alabaster vase lies in its five related lines of mythic carvings depicting humans, animals, and gods. "It is the first large narrative picture of its time," she says.

Thereby hangs a tale. The looting of the Iraq museum is one of journalism's most botched Big Stories. The alleged disappearance of the Mesopotamian heritage—170,000 looted treasures—eventually became a story about some three dozen stolen artifacts of great significance (plus quite a few missing stored items of far lesser value) that may have been filched with the connivance of museum staffers.

The false tale of the gutted museum had its pictures—misleading images of smashed displays—and even its mythic elements, especially the villainous role assigned to supposedly boorish Americans indifferent to antiquity. But the Sumerians were much better at creating narrative myths. Theirs have lasted millennia, and unlike modern pictorial mythmaking, Sumerian stories, like that on the vase, are missed when they're gone.