By Farah Nayeri April 30 (Bloomberg) — U.S. military forces and their allies in Iraq have damaged archeological sites including Babylon by setting up bases, using heavy equipment, filling sandbags and digging trenches, said an adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.
At an impromptu press briefing organized by the British Museum in London today, the adviser, Bahaa Mayah, showed slides of the military presence at about a dozen sites. While the Babylon site has now been vacated by U.S. and Polish forces, he said, “we cannot reverse” the damage done.
“We need to stop this from happening again by any force, either Iraqi forces, or American forces, or British forces, or any forces in Iraq,” he said. “This has got to stop.”
Mayah said that until three or four months ago, the U.S. military “didn’t listen to us, didn’t take any action” when told that certain bases were in archeologically sensitive areas. Now, the U.S. military seeks Iraqi ministry approval before basing camps anywhere. “There is better cooperation nowadays compared to what we witnessed before,” he said.
“The coalition is committed to continue working with the citizens of Iraq and the ministry of culture to preserve Iraq’s cultural heritage,” said Lieutenant Colonel Mark Ballesteros, a U.S. Defense Department spokesman, in an e-mailed response to a request for comment. “Iraq’s treasures are not only of great importance to Iraq, but to the entire international community and civilization as a whole.”
At the press conference, Mayah showed what he called “very painful” aerial photos of potholed sites in Iraq where illegal digs had taken place. The photos made them look “like the surface of the moon,” he said. Mayah proposed a global ban on trade in Iraqi antiquities to stem the stealing.
“If they see no value, it will be a discouragement to dig again,” he said.
Further illustration was provided by Elizabeth C. Stone, professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University in New York, who has conducted research in Iraq and, since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, worked to help the country protect its sites.
She showed satellite photos, most of them several years old, of sites damaged by the allied military presence. She said Babylon was at “the heart of the camp” that U.S. and later Polish forces set up not long after the 2003 Iraq invasion. U.S. forces dug areas to fill sandbags there, and Poles bulldozed trenches, she said, pointing to photos.
While “they’ve been gone for some time now,” she said, damage has been done both through “contamination of added materials” and because of “removal of parts of the mound” which eliminated valuable archeological information.
A site from the time of Hammurabi, the Babylonian king, a few kilometers from the ancient town of Ur, was “bulldozed, completely obliterated” by the U.S. military, she said.
The looting that goes on in Iraq nowadays appears mostly aimed at digging up two kinds of antiquities: cylinder seals and cuneiform tablets, Stone said. All told, about 15 percent of the sites in southern Iraqi have been looted over the last 15 years, she estimated.
To contact the reporter on this story: Farah Nayeri in London at Farahn@bloomberg.net.
Last Updated: April 30, 2008 15:55 EDT