Ancient Civilizations
Looting of Iraqi Treasures
After Effects: Anarchy
Iraqi Looters Tearing Up Archaeological Sites
Credit: Manuel Parada López de Corselas
Lilith o La Reina de la Noche Terracota con restos de policromía Periodo de Isin-Larsa y Babilonia (2025-1594 a. C.) o Babilónico Antiguo, 1792-1750 a. C. British Museum, Londres ANE 2003-7-18, 1
May 23, 2003
AFTEREFFECTS: ANARCHY; Iraqi Looters Tearing Up Archaeological Sites
Mobs of treasure hunters are tearing into Iraqi archaeological sites, stealing urns, statues, vases and cuneiform tablets that often date back 3,000 years and more to Babylon and Sumer, archaeologists say.
Here at the site of what was once Isin, a city-state that first arose around 1,900 B.C., about 150 young men armed with shovels, knives and sometimes semiautomatic weapons have been digging from dawn to dusk and extracting ancient relics almost hourly.
''In two weeks, they have ruined all the work that was done over 15 years,'' said Susanne Osthoff, an archaeologist who worked with a German team that excavated at Isin from the mid-1970's until 1989.

On Wednesday morning alone, diggers unearthed two large and intact urns, a delicate vase, the leg to a statue of what might have been a bull or a calf and countless small engraved artifacts.

On the outskirts of the site, people furtively offered to sell sculptures and ancient cuneiform tablets. A man in his 40's displayed what resembled a large oval ornament that was entirely covered in lines of cuneiform writing.

''Five thousand dollars,'' he demanded.

The looting is not limited to here, the archaeologists say. Iraq, which occupies what was ancient Mesopotamia, has more than 10,000 registered archaeological sites. But experts say the real threat is to 15 to 20 major sites atop ancient cities like Larsa, Fara and the great Sumerian city of Erech.

''We believe that every major site in southern Iraq is in danger,'' said Donny George, director of research at Iraq's State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, which oversees all archaeological excavations in Iraq.

''We used to have guards there,'' he added. ''But now they are either pushed away by the looters or they are working with thieves themselves in one way or another.''

The looting here, and at other locations, is another result of the anarchy and lawlessness that continues to plague Iraq six weeks after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's government.

President Bush's new civilian administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, has moved aggressively to rein in looters in Baghdad, and the American armed forces have greatly expanded street patrols by military police.

But with a few exceptions, the American forces have done little to protect Iraq's numerous archaeological sites, just as they stood by while Iraq's museums were looted in the days after the Hussein government fell. Army and Marine units occupy several bases within 30 miles of here, but so far they have done little to stop the treasure hunters who first began swarming around here two weeks ago.

Residents in the nearby village of Afak said today that an Army helicopter had landed at Isin on Wednesday afternoon and shooed off looters with warning shots in the air. Military officials at three bases in the city of Diwaniya would neither confirm nor deny the villagers' reports.

The present looting is reminiscent of widespread episodes of plundering at Iraq's thousands of archaeological sites that continued for years after the 1991 Persian Gulf war. What began then as isolated crimes by individuals soon developed into organized hunts involving throngs of people, similar to what can be seen here today. Those raids often were said to be organized by outside gangs from neighboring countries that would fence the artifacts to Western art markets, where artworks and relics from unguarded sites greatly surpassed that stolen from museums and other institutions.

It was not immediately clear whether the looting going on now has reached that level of organization, or how the stolen artifacts were being disposed of.

Material from Iraq, which archaeologists said was fairly limited before the 1991 war, grew so prevalent that cuneiform tablets are even now regularly advertised on e-bay, and can sell for less than $100.

Beyond the loss of potentially priceless artifacts, archaeologists say, looting such as that underway in Isan Bakhriat all but destroys the ability of researchers to assemble a mosaic of meaning from the shards of old art and sun-dried bricks.

Where archaeological teams spend years and even decades cataloging sites, excavating with small knives and brushes, the looters have been overturning tons of dirt daily.

Ms. Osthoff, who returned to Iraq shortly before American forces overthrew the government of Mr. Hussein, was alerted by local villagers who were horrified by the destruction at Isin.

Protected by old friends, Ms. Osthoff waded into the mob of heavily-armed diggers four days ago and then escorted two journalists to the site again on Wednesday.

''They are poor people, and they are desperate to make some money,'' she said today. ''But they do not understand what they are doing.''

Armed with shovels, picks, knives and AK-47's, men ranging from teenagers to middle age have transformed the once-manicured archaeological site into what looks like a scene from the movie ''Holes.''

The men arrive shortly after dawn, sometimes by motorcycle and truck but often on foot -- a three-hour walk from the nearest village.

A man who served for years as an armed guard at the site, and who would give only his first name, Jassim, still stands by with a loaded Kalashnikov. But he does not try to stop or even discourage the intruders, and often peers enthusiastically at their latest discoveries.

''What can I do?'' Jassim said. ''I alone cannot stop the whole village. Even if I try to arrest them, what do I do after that?''

Despite the allure of easy money, some villagers have been shocked by the looting at sites where they themselves worked for years and learned the painstaking methods of mapping a site inch by inch.

''Every person who puts his hands on these things is bad,'' said Abdulsadiq al-Abed, a 68-year-old Bedouin who worked with German and French excavation groups for 25 years. It was one of Mr. Abed's sons who drove to Baghdad last week to seek help from Ms. Osthoff.

A small and wiry man who moves slowly these days, he looked brokenhearted and ashamed at the plundering underway. ''If I tell them not to do that, they will shoot me,'' he said. ''We have no government to watch them and no police to stop them.''

Isin's relative remoteness in the desert makes it more difficult to protect than other sites, and its rich payload of artwork and ancient tablets make it an irresistable lure.

Some of the diggers seem barely aware that what they are doing is illegal. At one pit on Wednesday, a man in his early 20's eagerly motioned to foreign visitors to come see his newest find.

Nothing seemed visible at first. But then the young man reached his hand into the wall of the pit and withdrew what appeared to be the femur of either a man or an animal.

Ms. Osthoff, rushing over, gently doused the object in water and wiped off some of the mud.

''You can see here that this is the leg of an animal and this is the hoof,'' she said, pointing to a black ring at the base and to remnants of reddish-brown coloring above it that gave the appearance of fur.

''But look here,'' she added. pointing to areas along the leg that had been freshly sheered away. ''They have ruined it with the cuts they made.''

Such details seemed to matter little in the frenzy of the treasure hunt, but to archaeologists, as opposed to art collectors, they speak to the heart of the problem.

''If you find an artifact but you don't have the context, you lose 80 to 90 percent of the information,'' said Dr. George of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities. ''Every single hour, every single day this goes is a great loss of information.''

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Heritage Lost
Looting of archaeological sites continues in Iraq
Credit: John Russell
Looters waving from Isin. the archaeological site


“On May 20 2005, President Bush renewed Executive Order 13350, declaring that a state of emergency exists with respect to Iraq. This means that the prohibition on the import into the United States of cultural materials illegally removed from Iraq after August 1990 will continue (in compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 1483).”
 - Patty Gerstenblith; Professor, DePaul University College of Law

More than two years ago the media was saturated with reports describing the massive looting and destruction to Iraqi museums and other cultural institutions. More devastating, however, is the destruction due to large-scale looting to Iraq's rich heritage in archaeological sites that continues to this very day, extending to ancient cities in the Diwaniya governorate, including at Isin, Mashkan Shapir and Drehem as well as lesser-known sites. 

Ancient cities picked over in broad daylight

These aerial photographs taken in September, 2003 by the Italian Carabinieri (national police)—who were responsible for guarding archaeological sites in the region of Nassyriah—show the extent of the destruction at Abbas al-Kurdi, Jokha, Sifr, Tell Medinah, Tell Schmid, Umm al-Aqarib, and Zabalam. These buried ancient cities have been completely eaten away by crater-like holes, picked over by looters in broad daylight. A majority of these illicit digs are far more than small holes dug by local families with picks and shovels-they are massive quarrying efforts carried out by organized teams often involving hundreds of workers and mechanized equipment such as backhoes and bulldozers, sometimes financed by foreign dealers. 

Scholars consider the destruction of archaeological sites a much greater tragedy than the loss of artifacts in the museums because of the information they provide. When archaeological sites are brutally plundered and objects hauled away at random, essential evidence is lost and it becomes impossible for archaeologists to painstakingly piece together ancient societies in a way that can tell us a coherent history of our past and our origins.

Many of the more than 10,000 archaeological sites identified in Iraq have yet to be excavated. Thousands of cuneiform tablets-the written documents preserved in clay from civilizations thousands of years old—have yet to be translated. "We just haven't gotten to them yet," said Dr. Elizabeth Stone, an archaeologist with the State University of New York at Stony Brook, one of the leaders of a USAID (The US Agency for International Development) project to support reconstruction efforts in Iraq, "Only a handful of people can read them."

Guards no match for armed looters 

In an October, 2003 interview with Archaeology magazine, Colonel Matthew Bogdanos who led the US investigation into the looting of the National Museum of Baghdad said, "While guards are in fact deployed to the sites, I must point out that they are inadequately trained and equipped. Indeed, although approximately 1,675 guards have been rehired, they are assigned to protect over 3,000 sites. Moreover, they are usually alone at the sites they guard and have very little formal security training, communication assets, or vehicles. Thus disposed and with no support, they are no match for determined and armed looters. We need private organizations and the international community to assist in training and equipping a professional security force devoted exclusively to protecting the sites."

Members of the Italian Carabinieri who took these photographs were the only ones who guarded the Nassyriah sites in November, 2003. Tragically, 18 members of the team were killed by a bomb-blast later that month.

Later on in that same month, Dr. John Malcolm Russell, Deputy Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Culture for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq, said in a interview from Baghdad that "the retrieval of stolen artifacts and protection of archaeological sites is not a priority for the Coalition troops and depends on the efforts of individual soldiers", and the newly trained sites guards are lacking proper equipment and are still largely inadequate for the enormous task.

In January, 2004 the CPA organized a special archaeological protection service, which is currently training its first 168 senior officers and instructors. The Packard Humanities Institute, the CPA, and the Japanese government have set aside between $2- and $3-million for the project.

But, according to a New York Times report on April 4, 2004, the looting of archaeological sites has not subsided. The thieves have become more organized and better armed. Abdul-Amir Hamdani—in charge of antiquities in Dhi Qar province—said “We have 800 sites around Nassiriya alone, and one million thieves." "Of course we know the importance of what surrounds us," Faras Adhab, a border guard said, looking over the plundered pits. "But we have no power. They have weapons. They're afraid of nothing."

Unfortunately, as long as the security situation in Iraq remains tenuous, more help is unlikely, leaving Iraq's vital cultural heritage—some of the oldest civilizations in the world—vulnerable to further exploitation.

While we cannot physically protect all the archaeological sites in Iraq, we can support legislation that prevents the importation of looted material into the US. Without a market for these artifacts, looters will have no further incentive to continue their destructive activities. 

For more information please visit our Resources page.

Isin was the home of a dynasty which ruled after the Ur III state collapsed ca 2000 BC, a time of political fragmentation in Mesopotamia. The city was also known for a law code written during the reign of King Lipit Ishtar.

Mashkan Shapir, excavated by Elizabeth Stone of SUNY Stonybrook, is considered important because it was occupied only relatively briefly, from ca 2000 to 1700, and therefore provides an unparalleled 'snapshot' of an early second millennium Mesopotamian city, primarily because it was possible to uncover a large area of the city, unlike at other sites of comparable date which lie under hundreds or even thousands of years of accumulated deposition. Mashkan Shapir became a secondary political capital under the dynasty of Larsa, which was conquered by Hammurabi (ca 1792-1750), although unlike Larsa itself it was not destroyed and continued to be an important city in the early Old Babylonian period.

Drehem, ancient Puzrish Dagan, is the source of hundred of thousand of cuneiform administrative texts written in Sumerian, dating from the Ur III Dynasty ca 2100-2000 BC. Many of these deal with vast numbers of livestock sent by the various Sumerian city states to support the Ur III temple cults. 

Tell Sifr is the modern name for ancient Kutalla, an Old Babylonian (ca 1792-1595 BC) site. 

Zabalam was an early Sumerian city associated with the goddess Inanna. It was one of the cities in the "city seal" league or organization which operated around 2900 BC. 

Tell Shmid and Umm al Aqarib are both early sites from the Late Uruk (ca 3400-3100 BC) period, when urban civilization was first emerging. 

First published 2004.

Aerial Photographs of Looted Sites
Photos by special permission from the Italian Carabinieri
Copyright Carabinieri T.P.C. Italia.
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