Chaos broke out at the Iraq National Museum last week, and it has been stripped of artifacts. While many of these priceless treasures were undoubtedly stolen or destroyed by Muslim extremists who have wanted for years to break up all images in the museum, it remains possible that some of the collection has been carried into hiding by Iraqis who entered the museum on Wednesday with the intention of defending the artifacts. One of the items believed stolen or destroyed was the mysterious and ancient “Baghdad Battery.”

In March, seven prominent scholars sent a plea to President Bush, U.N. Secretary Kofi Annan, and Prime Minister Tony Blair that armies and governments try and safeguard the museum, which housed one of the richest treasuries of ancient artifacts in the world. Their pleas went unacknowledged, and, despite frantic efforts by scholars, US troops were not dispatched to protect the museum from looters.

The museum housed a major collection of antiquities, over 200,000 artifacts, including a 4,000-year-old silver harp from Ur. It also housed the Baghdad Battery, the disappearance of which will be a relief to many scholars, because it offered incontrovertible proof that electricity was in use in ancient times. When filled with an electrolyte such as vinegar, the battery produced 1.1 volts of electricity. Because of scholarly resistance, there has been little study of the use of electricity in ancient times, and the battery has remained as a testament to this lost reality.

The museum also housed items from ancient Babylon and Nineveh, Sumerian statues, Assyrian reliefs and 5,000-year-old tablets bearing some of the earliest known writing. There were gold and silver helmets and cups from the Ur cemetery, and a large collection of jewelry, with some artifacts dating back to the beginning of history.

Surveying the littered wreckage the remained on Saturday, deputy director Nabhal Amin wept. She said that 170,000 items were looted or destroyed, with an estimated value in the billions of dollars.

The looters broke into rooms protected by huge steel doors. The museum grounds were full of ruined doors, and littered with paperwork and books. Museum officials begged American troops, who were immediately adjacent to the museum, to offer protection. They refused.

To view some of the treasures of the Iraq Museum, click here.

The Baghdad battery is just one example of how we dismiss the great wisdom of the past.

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