Home The Washington Diplomat June 2007

Looters in Iraq Destroying Civilization's Oldest Remains

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In southern Iraq, organized armed gangs continue to loot the nation’s numerous archaeological sites, removing and disrupting the remains of the world’s most ancient cities and settlements.

Driven by an international black market in antiquities and a collapsed economy, thieves have hauled away tons of materials—including some of humanity’s oldest writing records and other historical relics—forever destroying much of the knowledge that might have been drawn from these sites if they had been properly excavated.

“The damage is enormous,” said Elizabeth Stone, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stony Brook University in New York. Stone used satellite imagery to determine that some 17 square kilometers of ancient civilization have been unearthed—much of it with heavy equipment, perforating landscapes with pit after pit. That’s more terrain than all of the archaeologists combined in the history of the discipline have ever unearthed in Iraq.

Compounding the loss of raw materials is the feeling among archaeologists that the world, tired of hearing bad news from Iraq, isn’t interested in ancient relics of stone when so many people are dying every day. When coalition forces toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, the looting of the Iraqi National Museum and other sites briefly made the headlines, but many news sources later downplayed the losses and few have followed up on the archaeological disasters that ensued.

“What happened after the looting of the museums and libraries made that incident seem like the tip of the iceberg,” said Zainab Bahrani, an Iraqi-born professor of archaeology at Columbia University. “The rest of the iceberg didn’t get as much attention.”

The looting continues in Iraq’s lawless countryside and is expected to continue until the security situation improves, although the worst pillaging may be over. Stone, who has reviewed satellite photos taken since just before Saddam’s government fell, said her evidence shows that about 100 sites were actually looted shortly before U.S. coalition forces took the nation—possibly because looters figured they would enjoy only a brief period of lawlessness before coalition forces would quickly get the nation and its security situation under control. Looters hit many larger sites after the start of the war, apparently seeking cylinder seals, tablets and coins.

“It’s open season on archaeology,” said McGuire Gibson, professor at the University of Chicago and one of the world’s leading authorities on ancient Mesopotamia. “Anything that can be destroyed will be destroyed, as long as the chaos goes on.”

Ancient remains are easy to find in southern Iraq because the terrain forms low, flat hills. There are some 12,500 registered ancient sites in Iraq, and as many as 100,000 undocumented ones. Higher hills often mean more layers of civilization and longer-lasting settlements, but they also provide desirable high ground for some military operations.

Stone said the satellite images suggest looting may have subsided in several places, but she and other archaeologists can’t be sure. Almost no news is coming from the field and local contacts have all but disappeared. In addition, few archaeologists have visited sites since early 2005, and many of their military contacts from back then have rotated out.

Before the war began, groups including museum representatives and collectors contacted U.S. authorities with lists of sites, coordinates and pleas to avoid destroying them. Several archaeologists say coalition forces stuck to that promise, at least during the initial takeover of the nation, and never apparently targeted ancient sites.

But there was plenty of damage later on. In the ancient city of Babylon, for instance, Bahrani of Columbia University worked with coalition forces at the site in 2003 and 2004 and described the destruction: helicopter pads, holes dug for fuel tanks, housing, heavy vehicles and parking lots. Thousands of sandbags were filled at the site—with sand containing clues to life in one of humanity’s first great cities. Sandbags were even filled from a neighboring ancient site and brought to Babylon, mixing the materials and ensuring additional torment to future archaeologists who might one day try to sort it all out.

Cuneiform-inscribed fragments—perhaps 5,000-year-old business transactions or versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh, among the earliest known literary work—turned up in dirt churned by heavy equipment. Bulldozers scraped to the center of the city toward the Tower of Babel, where the Bible says God thwarted the hubris of man by saddling the tower builders with different languages, creating chaos. “There’s absolutely no reason to build a military base on a World Heritage site,” Bahrani noted.

She said her pleas led to some lip service toward preserving the site. In a June 2004 press release, the U.S. coalition said it built the base at Babylon to protect the site from looters and was ordering all contractors and others to take care not to cause damage. But Bahrani dismissed that claim as “ridiculous,” arguing that any concern the military showed for the sites was solely in response to the pleas of archaeologists and an effort to avoid embarrassment. “I used to actually scream at them,” she recalled. “It’s really no use at all. They simply won’t listen to expert advice.”

In one episode, Bahrani said she watched a bulldozer plow through previously unearthed portions of Babylon while a military officer insisted that coalition forces were working to protect the site. “I felt like I was in a Marx Brothers movie,” she said. “It was just completely surreal.”

The base was closed and the site turned over to the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in January 2005. But now the ancient city of Ur is also at risk, archaeologists say, from an encroaching military base.

“At this point, we don’t know the extent of the damage,” said Bahrani. “I don’t think they’ll ever be able to live this down. It’s already become part of the history of this war.”

A spokesman for the U.S. multinational forces in Iraq referred questions about Ur, Babylon and other sites to the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in Baghdad, which did not respond to requests for comment and which seems to have its own problems with disorder.

On May 19, the Iraqi news Web site Azzaman reported that U.S. military forces had twice raided the ministry’s offices, drawing the ire of Iraqi officials. “This action is a violation of the ancient Iraqi heritage,” Chairman of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage Abbas Al-Husseini said in a statement, according to Azzaman.

Also in May, Zuhair Sharba, the owner of hotels in Najaf, was nominated by the Nouri Maliki government to be minister of tourism and antiquities as part of a broader cabinet shuffle, according to press reports, but it’s unclear what his powers or policies will be.

Meanwhile, antiquities continue to leave the country, with goods offered for sale on Web sites in the Middle East and showing up in European auction houses.

Gibson of the University of Chicago suggested that people searching for looted antiquities start by checking their own mantelpieces. “In the ’90s, a lot of stuff came out of Iraq in diplomatic pouches,” he said.

But nowadays, objects are leaving Iraq in much greater volume—using smuggling routes by many of the same people who are trading drugs, weapons and other sources that contribute to Iraq’s shadow economy. Many experts figure the trade in antiquities is helping to fund insurgent and other armed groups, a notion suggested in “Thieves of Baghdad,” U.S. Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos’s account of the looting of the National Museum and the recovery of some objects.

Unlike many end-users of drugs and weapons, however, antiquity collectors tend to be wealthy people whose social status rises in proximity to the exotic objects they amass. “They’re buying social prominence and laundering their stolen goods,” said Gibson.

Once a piece of pottery or clay tablet leaves Iraq, it’s difficult to prove where it came from. In addition, for every illicit object that reaches the marketplace, hundreds are discarded. Pilfered clay tablets, if not stored in proper conditions, will simply turn to dust. Out of context, cleaned of ancient dirt and removed from the other materials that could add to the understanding of the object, an ancient relic can quickly lose its meaning.

William Pearlstein, a lawyer who served as treasurer for the American Council for Cultural Policy, a group representing museums and collectors, contends that few of Iraq’s relics are reaching U.S. shores. But other experts disagree and argue that plenty of objects are making it over to the United States. They claim that even universities have purchased large batches of materials that turned out to be of questionable provenance and therefore extremely problematic to study.

“Unfortunately, there are collectors in Europe, the United States and even Japan that are just buying the antiquities and hiding them,” charged Donny George Youkhanna, who headed the Iraqi National Museum at the time of the fall of Baghdad and is now a visiting professor at Stony Brook.

Youkhanna, who sealed and bricked up the National Museum after its initial looting to protect what remained, said there are ongoing efforts to reconstitute security forces at the sites, but they have been inadequate and underfunded.

Some archaeologists favor keeping control of antiquities with the nation in which they are found. Pearlstein, however, favors a policy of “limited deaccession,” or private ownership of some items, by which “excess inventory” such as duplicate items and items that are not museum-quality could be sold to collectors. “It’s the countries that nationalize everything in the ground that have the real problems,” he said.

Archaeologists such as Stone and Gibson counter that collectors need to stop driving the market and that keeping national relics within their nation maintains scientific integrity. They also point out that museums already display items they do not own, on long-range loans with the nations that control them. “I don’t see why the institutions think they have to own objects,” said Stone. “Why should you own the past?”

About the Author

Sanjay Talwani is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999