- The Washington Times - Friday, April 22, 2005

Two years ago, upon hearing the news that the Warka Vase, a 5,000-year-old Mesopotamian artifact, had been looted from Iraq’s National Museum in Baghdad, “I wept,” says Harvard professor Irene Winter.

For this 65-year-old Near Eastern scholar, the art and architecture of Mesopotamia, the early civilization that flourished in what is now Iraq, is as important to our culture as the Parthenon or a Gothic cathedral.

Her passion for these ancient artifacts has been expressed clearly the past two Sunday afternoons at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building auditorium, where Ms. Winter is delivering this year’s six-part Andrew W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts.

Begun in 1952, the series was created to introduce the public to the best contemporary thought and scholarship in the fine arts. Speakers have included sculptor Naum Gabo, art historian H.W. Janson and Museum of Modern Art curator Kirk Varnedoe, who drew crowds to his lectures on abstract art in 2003 a few months before he died.

The Mellon lectures are subsequently published as books, some of which have become art-history classics, such as Sir Kenneth Clark’s “The Nude” and E.H. Gombrich’s “Art and Illusion.” Ms. Winter said she expects the volume of her lectures to come out in 2007.

Only the third female scholar to have lectured in the Mellon series, Ms. Winter is also one of the few at the National Gallery to address artworks affected by current-day politics and war. Her talks focus on “great works” from ancient Sumer, Assyria and Babylonia that testify to the power and complexity of some of the world’s first civilizations. Many of these archaeological sites and artifacts have been damaged or destroyed since the start of the Iraq war.

Tomorrow, Ms. Winter will discuss a wooden lyre that was smashed during the ransacking of Iraq’s National Museum. A subsequent presentation will focus on a bronze statue dragged down the steps of the museum, sold for $300 at a local bazaar and returned to the museum covered in animal dung. Another will highlight carved ivory figurines from the early Assyrian capital of Nimrud that were damaged in the museum’s sewer-flooded storerooms.

Ms. Winter, who has taught at Harvard since 1988, worked on archaeological digs in Iran during the 1960s and ‘70s, but she has never traveled to Iraq. The scholar has only seen a replica — at the Berlin Museum — of the Warka Vase, the retrieved alabaster antiquity discussed in her second lecture.

Discussions with Donny George, director of Iraq’s National Museum, and other scholars helped her understand the extent of the recent looting of irreplaceable ancient treasures.

“My Iraqi colleagues estimate that 13,000 to 15,000 objects were looted from the Iraq Museum in April 2003,” she said in a phone interview earlier this week. “That doesn’t include the objects missing from regional museums and libraries and plundered archaeological sites.”

In her first two lectures, Ms. Winter diplomatically credited the efforts of museum officials, politicians and government agencies in helping recover and restore archaeological sites and collections in Iraq.

Still, she expressed disappointment over the ineffectiveness of the Emergency Protection for Iraqi Cultural Antiquities Act, passed by Congress last year, to restrict importation of cultural materials illegally removed from Iraq. “Sadly, it has yet to be implemented,” she said.

Aesthetics, not politics, is the focus of Ms. Winter’s talks, even though, as she noted in her first lecture, ancient Mesopotamia had no separate word for art.

“The objects from this culture, which we refer to as ‘art,’ were inextricably bound up and experienced within the domains of religion, society and politics,” she said in the phone interview. “To understand the power of these works, we have to rethink the modern-day notion of aesthetics as pertaining to works created as art for art’s sake.”

Her mission is to show that while early Mesopotamian artifacts were intended for religious and utilitarian purposes, they nevertheless provoke the same heightened emotional and visual reaction from the viewer as a Western painting or sculpture.

Wonder and awe, she explained in her first lecture, on April 10, culminated from impressive urban architecture built from the most mundane of materials: mud bricks. “The development of brick architecture…allowed for human intervention in the natural landscape no less important than the domestication of plants and animals,” she said.

From these humble building blocks arose the ziggurat temples and palaces for which Mesopotamia is best known. Like Gothic cathedrals and royal palaces in Europe, these monumental structures dominated the cities around them through imposing breadth and height meant to convey the power of religion and the state.

The great ziggurat of Ur, built around 2100 B.C. rose 65 feet at the center of a large urban complex. Some 1,500 years later, the Marduk ziggurat in Bablyon, the source for the biblical Tower of Babel, rose even higher, to about 150 feet.

No names of architects are recorded for these early structures. Kings took all the credit for their construction. That wasn’t a bad thing, Ms. Winter said in her first lecture, explaining that scholars have been able to reconstruct the building process from their ancient royal texts.

In her second lecture, on April 17, Ms. Winter explained the importance of the Warka Vase, one of the Iraq museum’s most important holdings. Since being returned to the museum in June 2003, it has been restored by a team of Iraqi and Italian art conservators.

The 3-foot-high vessel was excavated 65 years ago by German archaeologists in the ruins of Warka, or Uruk, an ancient city in southern Iraq. Dating from around 3100 B.C., it probably was used in religious ceremonies associated with Inanna, the goddess of fertility, though no one really knows for sure.

“We, as archaeologists, have no clue as to what may have been contained in the Warka Vase, as no soil samples were taken to test for residues, and the type of vase is not associated with any particular usage,” Ms. Winter said.

However, she is certain about the importance of this slim vessel in telling the story of early trade and agriculture. The vase is made of alabaster, a precious, translucent white stone, likely imported from northern Iraq or Turkey by ancient Sumerians, according to the scholar.

Around it, tiers of decorative carvings depict water, domesticated plants and animals, laborers and gods, suggesting “the abundance [from the natural world] that’s built up for presentation to the goddess and that exists through her beneficence,” the professor said in her second lecture.

The vase not only evokes beauty, as much Western art does, but serves as an early historical document of the agrarian surplus ancient Sumerians sought from the gods to feed the population and foster well-being.

“Art historians have been arguing for some time that significant historical and cultural events, and even literary traditions, are often recorded visually in objects before they are written down in texts,” Ms. Winter said, noting that the Warka Vase is one such object.

That storytelling through art is a big part of the reason why preservation of the “great works” presented in Ms. Winter’s fascinating lectures should be part of the reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

WHAT: The 54th Andrew W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, “Great Work: Terms of Aesthetic Experience in Ancient Mesopotamia”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, East Building Auditorium, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW

WHEN: Tomorrow and May 1, 8 and 15 at 2 p.m.

TICKETS: Free admission

PHONE: 202/737-4215

WEB SITE: www.nga.gov

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