August 12, 2008
The armed men were the good news on a recent archaeological tour of pillaged digs in Iraq.
They were guards.
Arriving by British Army helicopter on June 7, a British Museum team was surveying Lahm, an ancient settlement dating back to 1000 B.C., when the Iraqi Special Protection Force guards arrived to check out the visitors.
“I was reasonably encouraged by what I saw at the limited number of sites,” says archaeologist Elizabeth Stone of Stony Brook (N.Y.) University. Stone accompanied the team and three Iraqi archaeologists on a survey of eight archaeological sites organized by the British Army.
The team found looting holes at five sites, but also guards at others. And there are signs that the pillaging had peaked in 2003 when U.S. forces entered the country. “This does not mean that there is not still looting going on,” Stone says by e-mail from a site in Turkey. “But these major sites were OK.”
Guards can’t stop it all
More than five years after the fall of Baghdad, the fate of Iraq’s antiquities still torments archaeologists.
The looting of the National Museum garnered headlines in April 2003. But the widespread pillaging of archaeological sites — 10,548 sites are registered, with perhaps 100,000 actually buried there — bewilders and saddens scholars. They believe they are witnessing the ransacking of the cradle of civilization, a calamity “almost impossible to overstate for the destruction of history that has taken place,” says Patty Gerstenblith of DePaul University College of Law in Chicago.
The Iraqi government employs about 1,200 guards to keep an eye on all its sites, according to a July 18 Iraqi Crisis Report.
A satellite image analysis, published earlier this year in the journal Antiquity by Stone, concluded that since 2003, looters have dug 6 square miles of holes in archaeological sites across Iraq. The looting “must have yielded tablets, coins, cylinder seals, statues, terra cotta, bronzes and other objects in the hundreds of thousands,” Stone reported.
But where are these treasures? Scholars and customs officials have only murky notions about where the looted artifacts have been transported.
“That’s the really big question,” says archaeologist McGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago. Archaeologists widely believe artifacts are traveling to collections in Gulf States, Iran and Lebanon, he adds. “I suspect dealers are warehousing items for later sales,” he says. “We’ve seen cases of looted objects turning up for sale decades later.”
In April, the U.S. outlawed sales of archaeological treasures from Iraq. And in recent months, customs officials worldwide have made high-profile returns:
• In June, U.S. customs officials returned 11 looted agate and alabaster seals to Iraq after discovering them in Philadelphia.
• Jordan returned 2,466 looted items, gold coins, jewelry and manuscripts to Iraq that same month.
• Syria returned 40 items looted from the National Museum in April, following the return of about 700 smaller items the month before.
In Europe, the online auction website eBay has moved to quash sales of suspect artifacts, although Gerstenblith warns that sales of Sumerian or Mesopotamian items have increased as dealers try to evade sanctions. The Sumerians were the ancient people who lived in Mesopotamia, now known as Iraq.
“The customs announcements are helpful, but the key thing is keeping law enforcement interested in protecting antiquities,” Gerstenblith says. Abdel-Amir Hamdani, an Iraq antiquities inspector, told Science magazine in July that two Iraqi villages, El Fajir and Albhagir, still serve as centers of a thriving black market.
Looters knew where to look
In her satellite study, Stone concluded looters concentrate on two eras in Iraq’s history: the Ur III and Babylonian empires dating back to 2100 B.C., which produced cylinder seals and cuneiform tablets; and Parthian sites of the Roman era, which produced gold coins and glass bottles after 50 B.C. These small items are valued by collectors and are easy to store, indicating “considerable selectivity in the sites that were targeted,” says the study.
“It was organized crime, with people who knew what they were looking for directing the looting,” Gibson says. “The real pity is that for every item that looters pull from the ground, another hundred are smashed.”