Home > The Devastation of Iraq’s Past by Hugh Eakin (URUKNET)

The Devastation of Iraq’s Past by Hugh Eakin (URUKNET)

by Open-Publishing - Thursday 31 July 2008

Wars and conflicts Exposure-Museums International

July 27, 2008

In May 2003—some eight weeks after the American invasion had begun— Abdul-Amir Hamdani, the archaeology inspector of Dhi Qar province in southern Iraq, traveled to Najaf to call on the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. He had an urgent request. "We needed his help to stop the pillage," Hamdani recalled. The province, which is midway between Baghdad and Basra, covers much of what was once the land of Sumer. In the third millennium BC, it was a fertile plain densely populated by such cities as Ur, Lagash, Girsu, Larsa, and Umma; today, the shifting course of the Euphrates and Saddam Hussein’s brutal campaign to drain the marshes, to the southeast, have left it in large part an impoverished wasteland. With the fall of the Baathist regime, hundreds of poor farmers and villagers—often backed by armed militias—were turning to archaeological plunder; in some Dhi Qar towns, such as al-Fajr, the black market trade in antiquities was accounting for upward of 80 percent of the local economy.

Al-Sistani was sufficiently moved by Hamdani’s plea to pronounce a fatwa. He proclaimed that digging for antiquities is illegal; that both Islamic and pre-Islamic artifacts are part of Iraqi heritage; and that people who have antiquities in their possession should return them to the museum in Baghdad or in Nasiriya, the capital of Dhi Qar province. Copies of the fatwa were distributed widely in the south, and published in the Iraqi press. "At this point some of the looters stopped their work, because when Ayatollah al-Sistani says something, they listen," Hamdani said.

The fatwa was a small victory in what has been, for Hamdani, a largely intractable struggle to save one of the deep sources of human culture. Settling in the southern part of what the Greeks later called Mesopotamia some six thousand years before the birth of Christ, the Sumerians developed year-round cultivation, built the earliest city-states, and devised a complex system of writing. Over time, the area came under the sway of the Akkadians, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians; later, it fell under Persian and Hellenistic influence before the Islamic conquest in the seventh century. Left behind were the rich remains of history and literature, often in the form of baked mud-brick tablets covered with wedge-shaped script called cuneiform; and small engraved seals—cylinder-shaped objects made of imported hematite, lapis lazuli, and other semiprecious stones that, when rolled onto wet clay or other soft material, produce intricate and often stunningly beautiful impressions of ancient life and ritual.

Remote and mostly lacking in monumental architecture above ground, the buried cities in which this material was preserved withstood centuries of violence, from the arrival of Cyrus the Great in the sixth century BC to the Mongol invasion in 1258. An absence of much subsequent urban development also meant that the archaeological record was unusually clear. Yet since 2003, several important sites have been destroyed beyond recognition; perhaps tens of thousands of cylinder seals and cuneiform tablets have been removed and channeled into the underground art market.

"What is currently taking place in southern Iraq," Gil Stein, the director of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, writes in the catalog to "Catastrophe!," the institute’s disturbing new exhibition on the subject, "is nothing less than the eradication of the material record of the world’s first urban, literate civilization." All the more remarkable, at a time of growing international concern for the devastating effects of archaeological plunder, the destruction of Sumer following the 2003 invasion was largely unchallenged by American and British forces. How did this happen?

Since the looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad in April 2003, the international press has accorded considerable space to the country’s imperiled ancient heritage. Much of this coverage, however, has been devoted to the museum, the impressive campaign to recover its stolen works, and the continued struggle to reopen its galleries. (They remain closed.) Only occasional, anecdotal reports—mostly from the first year of the conflict—have borne witness to large-scale plunder of archaeological sites, to which the damage is irreversible.

In large part, the problem for journalists is the number of sites—there are over a thousand, many of them remote, in Dhi Qar province alone—and the danger posed by any attempt to investigate them. Micah Garen, a freelance filmmaker and photographer who, along with his partner Marie-Hélène Carleton, is perhaps the only Western journalist to have reported extensively on the looting in the south, was kidnapped by a gang with links to the Mahdi Army while visiting a black market in Nasiriya in 2004. He was held hostage for nine days, an ordeal recounted in Garen and Carleton’s recent memoir, American Hostage. The looters also have powerful connections that can intimidate their enemies: in early 2006, Hamdani was thrown into jail for three months on trumped-up charges after attempting to rein in the activities of a developer with close ties to the antiquities trade.

The dearth of firsthand accounts, in turn, has led to much confusion about the extent of the looting, its chronology, and its underlying causes. The destruction of sites, for example, has been blamed on everything from the Sunni insurgency and al-Qaeda in Iraq (also known as al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia) to treasure-hunting soldiers. The mystery has been heightened by the sense, among many in the art world, that remarkably little Iraqi material has been surfacing on the art market. Theories about the whereabouts of plundered objects have varied from storerooms in Damascus and Dubai to living rooms in the US and Japan.

This June, for the first time since 2003, a small group of archaeologists, led by John Curtis, curator of the Middle East collections at the British Museum, were able to visit eight major sites in southern Iraq in a helicopter provided by the British forces stationed in Basra. Their mission was limited—the eight sites were south of the region where looting has reportedly been heaviest. But at the sites they visited, they found that the digging was far from uniform. Uruk, Eridu, and Lagash suffered little or no looting; while Larsa and other sites had been extensively looted. "One shouldn’t underestimate the role that local people can play in this," Curtis told me after the trip. "No doubt that at Lagash, they were actively preventing looting. At other places, they might have been actively engaged in it."[1]

These new insights have been strengthened by an analysis of satellite images by Elizabeth Stone, an archaeologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook who accompanied Curtis on the June survey. In the months preceding the 2003 invasion, DigitalGlobe Corporation, a Colorado company, began taking satellite photographs of southern Iraq for the Pentagon. Stone realized that these high-resolution images were particularly suited to documenting the mounds, or tells, of buried Mesopotamian cities, including any fresh digging and trenches. With support from the National Geographic Society, the National Endowment for Humanities, the State Department, and several other institutions, she began buying up the images, and by the time she published her findings earlier this year, she had data on nearly two thousand archaeological sites.[2]

As sheer documentation of knowledge destroyed, the pictures are chilling. Some of the most revealing discoveries about Mesopotamia—from the royal tombs at Ur to the literary texts of Nippur—have come from excavations in southern Iraq. And yet, Stone estimates that the total extent of the recent looting is

many times greater than all archaeological investigations ever conducted in southern Iraq—and must have yielded tablets, coins, cylinder seals, statues, terracottas, bronzes and other objects in the hundreds of thousands.[3]

And since these objects have been ripped from their archaeological settings, which in many cases have been destroyed, much of the potential information contained in them—even if they do resurface—has been obliterated.[4]

Still more striking, however, is what the satellite pictures tell us about the looters. First, despite the existence of important Mesopotamian sites throughout the country, intense, organized looting has occurred only in certain areas. Others who reported on the issue immediately following the invasion concluded that sites in the north had not been much targeted. But Stone is also able to show that some areas of southern Iraq, including Central Babylonia, to the south of Baghdad, and the Eridu Basin south of Nasiriya have remained largely intact; the heavy looting has been mostly confined to a sizable, but well defined, swath of territory around northwest Dhi Qar and the borderlands of its neighboring provinces—precisely the area where Hamdani has observed a booming antiquities trade.

Second, the images make clear that the first big wave of looting actually occurred before the arrival of Coalition forces. By the end of 2002, state authorities had largely abandoned the region of Sumer, along with other parts of the south, and photographs from early 2003 show evidence of rampant fresh digging at numerous small and medium-sized sites, many of them unstudied by archaeologists. Stone suggests that the timing of these initial excavations coincided with "the threat of hostilities—and presumably the mistaken expectation of increased security [by the US invaders] thereafter." Digging at some larger sites also began around this time, but seems to have accelerated greatly—and in more organized fashion—after the looting of Baghdad, in April and May 2003, when several of the most important known sites, including Isin and Umma, were largely destroyed. (At Isin the holes appear much blacker in the satellite images than at other sites, indicating deep trenches that reach down to the earliest stratum of human history there.[5] )

Finally, Stone is able to show with some precision that the hard-core looting, where it has occurred, has been selective. Prehistoric and early Bronze Age sites down to the time of Uruk—the first great city-state, where, in the early third millennium BC, the legendary Gilgamesh was king—were not much disturbed. Nor were the many sites in the region from the Neo-Babylonian period (630–539 BC) or from the Islamic era. In contrast, digging amounting to ransacking is evident at some sites dating from the Akkadian period (2335–2100 BC), when cylinder seals developed into an elaborate art form; there was also heavy looting at sites from the Old Babylonian era (2000–1600 BC), particularly known for its cuneiform tablets; and at sites from the centuries when the region was under Persian and Hellenistic influence (538 BC–637 AD), when works of glass and coins were in wide circulation.

What are we to make of these findings? For one thing, they bear out the observations of Iraqi archaeologists—and of the recent expedition led by John Curtis—that the people who have been involved at ground level belong to certain of the tribes native to Dhi Qar and neighboring provinces. Though underreported in the Western press, a system of tribes or khams has provided the backbone of rural Iraqi society for centuries. Until the first Gulf War, tribal hierarchies in the south were suppressed by the state, but they were increasingly reconstituted during the UN embargo of the 1990s, and tribal leaders have become a central source of authority in the vacuum of power since 2003. The area where heavy looting has occurred, for example, is largely under the control of a few tribes.

According to several archaeologists I spoke to, the support of their sheiks has been crucial to turning the plunder of artifacts from a criminal activity into what tribesmen now view as a legitimate form of income. A dealer in one of the market towns might pay five or ten dollars for small inscribed objects and fragments; a cylinder seal of particular beauty, or an intact cuneiform tablet, might get as much as fifty dollars—about half the monthly salary of an Iraqi civil servant. The dealers would in turn sell the objects to smugglers for many times their original value; by the time they reach the international art market, such objects could be worth four, five, or even six figures. Stone sculptures, which are relatively rare, might be worth far more.[6]

Tribes in the south often regard the ancient sites as part of their own land, and for some of them, these prices have made the harvesting of objects—from soil that is otherwise no longer arable —seemingly irresistible. "Most of the tribes approve of the looting," Donny George, the former director of the State Board of Antiquities, told me. (He was forced to leave Iraq in 2006 and is now a visiting professor at Stony Brook.) "And they control the towns where the antiquities trade is run."

That al-Sistani has been moved to intervene, moreover, suggests that some of those involved have attempted to use religious authority to give legitimacy to their digging. Behind the tribal activity in northwest Dhi Qar, then, is also a larger story about the fate of the Shiites—and the ancient land they inhabit—in the final years of Saddam’s Iraq.[7]


In a 1979 speech, Saddam Hussein declared that "antiquities are the most precious relics the Iraqis possess, showing the world that our country…is the legitimate offspring of previous civilizations which offered a great contribution to humanity." Saddam’s heavy-handed efforts to turn Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar into forebears for Baathist expansionism are well known. (A better model might have been the Assyrian tyrant Assurnasirpal II, whose reign of terror in the ninth century BC included mass incinerations of the civilian populations he conquered.) Still, the Iraqi dictatorship maintained one of the more successful archaeology administrations in the Middle East. The State Board of Antiquities was well funded; several generations of Iraqi archaeologists worked closely with their Western counterparts at sites across Iraq; a large and flourishing museum establishment was developed; and site looting was virtually nonexistent. (Saddam would later decree that looting was punishable by death.)

In his informative recent book, Reclaiming a Plundered Past: Archaeology and Nation Building in Modern Iraq, Magnus T. Bernhardsson, a historian at Williams College, suggests that this privileging of Mesopotamian history was owed in part to the controversial legacy of the British Mandate in the 1920s. An important aim of British power in the region, he observes, was securing unfettered access to ancient sites, although Gertrude Bell’s farsighted policy of dividing the spoils with the Iraqi state made possible a remarkable era of archaeological discovery. It also helped bring the Mesopotamian heritage to the forefront of Iraqi politics, to the point that, by the 1970s, the Baathist regime could view the pre-Islamic past as a way to construct an Arab nationalist ideology that transcended sectarian differences that the regime violently suppressed. Amply funded by the oil boom, Sumerian and Babylonian sites in the south were for the most part carefully maintained, and, according to several archaeologists I spoke to who worked in Iraq at the time, were often a source of local pride.

All of this changed, however, with Saddam Hussein’s brutal crackdown on Shiites after the first Gulf War. During the 1991 uprisings that were encouraged by the US, Shiites (along with their Kurdish counterparts in the north) attacked and looted a number of regional state museums, which were associated with the regime. While archaeological sites were not immediately targeted in this way, Saddam’s ensuing punishment of the south—which destroyed the region’s fragile agricultural economy—had devastating effects. "Saddam was telling the people of southern Iraq, ’it’s not your civilization,’" Hamdani recalled. "And if it’s not your civilization, why protect it?"

Neglected sites in areas populated by impoverished farmers provided an opportunity for the international antiquities market. Together with small sculptures and Mesopotamian jewelry, cuneiform tablets or fragments containing mathematical or literary texts were attaining prices in the tens of thousands of dollars. Of even greater interest were cylinder seals, which had been actively pursued since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when J.P. Morgan had been a major buyer; in the 1990s, there were several international collectors acquiring them in large quantities. An auction of Near Eastern cylinder seals at Christie’s in 2001 netted close to $1.5 million, with top lots—such as a green serpentine seal, from the late third millennium, containing a remarkable depiction of bejeweled Akkadian deities; or an obsidian seal, from the thirteenth century BC, showing a Kassite aristocrat leading two restive horses—selling for well over $100,000.

By the mid-1990s, archaeologists were frequently identifying Iraqi material in auction catalogs and private galleries in London and New York, including clay tablets that, they said, clearly came from recent excavations at sites in Dhi Qar, such as Umma.[8] "It will forever be considered a marvel," the archaeologist John Russell writes in the catalog to "Catastrophe!," "that at the same time the United States was enforcing against Iraq the most rigorous sanctions regime in history…tens of thousands of previously undocumented Iraqi antiquities were sold openly on the US market."

The UN sanctions regime also made it possible for looters and smugglers to operate with impunity. "The no fly zone in the south of Iraq was essential to the trade," the archaeologist McGuire Gibson writes in The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq, a new volume of essays by different authors who have followed the crisis. "Without [Iraqi] helicopter surveillance, it was very difficult for the Iraqi authorities to control the countryside." Objects were leaving the country through Jordan, Syria, and Kurdistan, as well as the Gulf; most of the material was headed for the West.

In fact, this activity had begun to be brought under control in the years preceding the Iraq war. In 1999, with new funds from the UN Oil-for-Food Program, Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities began hiring local people to do year-round excavations at Umma and several other of the most vulnerable sites. The idea was that those formerly involved in looting could be trained to work as archaeologists—and given an alternative source of income. Donny George, who directed several of these excavations, told me that the looting did stop, and important recovery work was done. But as the Iraqi regime began to prepare for invasion in late 2002, the rescue excavations were shut down. Worse, there were now well-trained teams of local diggers who knew what to look for and where.

In the weeks following the US-led invasion and the sacking of the Iraq Museum in April 2003, the international press began to report large-scale looting at several archaeological sites in southern Iraq. In late May, a front-page story in The New York Times described how the remains of the Sumerian city of Isin, northwest of Nasiriya, were being destroyed by "mobs of treasure hunters." The plunder was attributed to the general "anarchy and lawlessness" that followed the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime —a further instance of the looting that had occurred in Baghdad a few weeks earlier.

In fact, what appears to have been taking place at Isin was less anarchic rampage than an organized enterprise involving entire tribes and their communities. In another essay in The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq, Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly, a Lebanese journalist and archaeologist, describes her visit to a number of sites in the south in May 2003. "Dhi Qar," she writes, was under the total control of the looters and antiquities dealers. Heavily armed, they controlled the main roads leading to the biggest archaeological sites thereby providing security for their "employees." These were hundreds of farmers who had left behind their families to actually live on the sites and search for antiquities…. Their days started before sunrise for a few hours, and then the heat would force them to stop until late afternoon when a second shift would begin, continuing until late into the night. They were well equipped: they carried shovels and hammers, and they had made their own lamps run off car batteries.

Largely ignored by Coalition troops stationed in the south, this mass mobilization had created a new looting economy controlled by the tribal hierarchies and the dealers they worked with. Archaeologists who witnessed the looting in 2003 and 2004 have pointed out that they had to have the authorization of the local sheik even to gain access to a site. But there also was another important source of legitimacy for this former capital offense: the religious and sectarian parties the invasion had brought into power.

As was the case in the 1991 uprising, the looting of Baghdad in April 2003 was partly motivated by animosity toward the Saddam regime. Targets included ministries, office buildings, the houses of Baathist leaders, and official cars, as well as institutions like the Iraq Museum and, tragically, the National Library, which was looted and burned; and many of those involved were angry young Shiites from Sadr City. In his informative new account of the Sadrist movement, Patrick Cockburn, a veteran Iraq correspondent, describes Muqtada al-Sadr’s startling response to the mass looting of state property:

The looters became universally known in Iraq as al-Hawasim, meaning "the finalists." The term was a derisive reference to Saddam Hussein’s claim that an American invasion of Iraq would provoke "a final battle." In May, Muqtada issued what became known as the al-Hawasim fatwa, saying that looters could hold on to what they had expropriated so long as they made a donation (khums) of one-fifth of its value to their local Sadrist office.

It remains unclear whether there were explicit edicts along these lines in reference to archaeological sites. But Iraqi officials I spoke to say that local religious leaders affiliated with the Sadrist movement have condoned the antiquities trade insofar as it produces funds and does not—in theory—involve Islamic material. "Some of the followers of Sadr were writing on banners at some of the archaeological sites that [Muqtada] does not stop anyone from looting if they would sell [the looted objects] to get weapons or build a mosque," Donny George told me. For Hamdani, it became clear that to change the local plunder economy, he would need the tribal and religious authorities on his side. He cultivated ties to the sheiks; he began visiting mosques in the principal black market towns, to try to get the message out in Friday sermons; and then he decided to call on the Ayatollah al-Sistani himself.

Since many poor Shiites in the south are not followers of al-Sistani, his fatwa against looting did not solve the problem. But it did result in a remarkable breakthrough: a looter who had been moved by al-Sistani’s order contacted the museum in Nasiriya, where Hamdani was stationed. "He told me he had a lot of information about the smugglers and the black market," Hamdani said. Hamdani gave him a digital camera and a Global Positioning System device that looked like a cell phone and sent him back to work. He became a key informant for the State Board of Antiquities, providing photographs and locations about diggers and the people who hired them. With the help of Italian forces then stationed in the south, dozens of arrests were made, and hundreds of antiquities were recovered. But the Italians left in 2006, leaving unanswered a more perplexing question: Where was all the looted material going?


In late January, I was taken to a large warehouse in East Amman, the working-class part of the Jordanian capital that has absorbed tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees since the war began. The warehouse was owned by the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, and it was full of Iraqi materials: Aramaic incantation bowls, Akkadian seals, Old Babylonian agricultural records, stone sculptures, Sassanian glass, Parthian jewelry, Roman and Islamic coins, and other antiquities— some of them marked with labels from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad.[9]

Along with other neighboring states, Jordan is frequently mentioned as one of the principal gateways for illicit archaeological material from Iraq, and these objects, confiscated by Jordanian officials in only a handful of seizures, give some idea of the extent of the cross-border trade in looted cultural property. (Saad Eskander, the director of the Iraq National Library and Archive, who has spent the last five years rebuilding this institution in war-torn Baghdad, told me that he had been contacted by a person in Amman who claimed to have some important documents stolen from its holdings. He wanted to sell them back to the library for $50,000.)

Yet perhaps most interesting about the artifacts in the warehouse was their variable quality. Among some important pieces, there was a lot of junk, and the Jordanian archaeologist who accompanied me suggested that a number of the artifacts were modern fakes. Most had been confiscated in the months immediately following the invasion, and some of them appear to have been in possession of everyday refugees who had little sense of their value. Fawwaz al-Khraysheh, the director of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, told me that no major seizures of looted artifacts have occurred since 2004.

Several people who are familiar with the antiquities market in the region suggest that larger smugglers are not working through Jordan, which is relatively far from the principal area of looting and which, together with Syria, has cooperated with Iraq on policing antiquities theft. (In late April, Syria returned to Iraq some seven hundred antiquities confiscated since 2003; in June, Jordan returned more than two thousand objects, including those I had seen in Amman.) Rather, the principal smuggling routes appear to be across the Iranian and other southern borders, to the Persian Gulf, where the material might be "warehoused" for a number of years, or privately sold with few questions asked.

As the Persian Gulf states, funded by the oil boom, have become Middle East trade hubs, they have also quickly developed into centers of art and antiquities collecting. According to a cuneiform scholar I spoke to with extensive contacts in the Middle East, a prominent Kuwaiti sheik has amassed a large collection of Mesopotamian artifacts, including much recently looted material from Iraq. Another destination may be Israel. The country is known for its liberal approach to the antiquities trade; one American curator told me it is possible to buy "virtually anything" in Jerusalem’s old markets. In September 2005, Israeli officials seized a container full of looted Iraqi artifacts at the airport in Tel Aviv. The Israeli press reported that it had passed through Dubai and London, and was the largest such seizure in Israeli history.

Iraqis themselves suggest that the most plausible smuggling routes have been through Iran and Kurdistan. Donny George observes that the governments of Iran and Turkey have until now demonstrated little interest in policing their borders for antiquities smugglers, and Kurdish and Iranian dealers are believed to be involved in the trade. Since the 2003 invasion, moreover, large numbers of Iranians have been making pilgrimages to Najaf, Karbala, and other Shiite holy sites, creating cross-border traffic that facilitates smuggling.

Some of this material has already reached Western shores. Since 2003, Britain and the United States have had bans in force against trading in recently surfaced Iraqi antiquities, and unlike during the 1990s there have not been large auctions featuring cuneiform tablets and other Mesopotamian material. Even eBay has taken measures to prevent trading in looted artifacts.[10] Yet newly surfaced Iraqi material—in particular objects of lower and middle value—has been traded on the Internet, through smaller on-line auction and gallery sites. In recent Google searches, I found several Web sites that sell foundation cones—small cone-shaped objects covered with dedicatory inscriptions that were embedded in the walls of important buildings in the third and early second millennia—and other cuneiform artifacts for prices ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Some are identified as coming from particular sites in "Southern Mesopotamia."


For several years now, archaeologists and cultural property specialists, as well as nongovernment groups such as UNESCO and the World Monuments Fund (which in 2006 took the unprecedented step of putting Iraq as an entire country on its list of most endangered sites), have been voicing alarm about the rapid destruction of Iraq’s ancient past. These efforts, many of which are documented in a new collection of policy-minded essays, Antiquities Under Siege, have done much to keep this neglected aspect of the Iraq crisis in view. They have also underlined the failures of US and British forces to plan for—and, after the invasion, to provide—even basic protection of archaeological sites.

Yet in reading these essays, one often senses a detachment from the reality of what has been happening in Iraq. Since the bombing of the Samarra mosque in early 2006—itself a terrifying indication of the degree to which cultural monuments have become part of the war—foreign cultural officials have largely avoided travel outside of the main cities and military bases. UNESCO’s Iraq office, for example, has for some time occupied a temporary facility in Amman; when I visited officials there early this year, I was told that travel to Iraq had been strictly limited for security reasons.

In Baghdad, meanwhile, the cultural administration has suffered from larger power struggles within the Iraqi government. In 2006, the State Board of Antiquities was subsumed into a new Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, which has been controlled by the Sadrist bloc in parliament. The ministry has shown little interest in providing resources for site protection, and "tourism" appears to refer mainly to pilgrimages to Islamic shrines. By late 2007, there was very little fuel available to gas up the trucks that had been supplied by a private American foundation and by UNESCO for Iraqi patrols of archaeological sites.

Today, there are signs that the worst looting may be over. To the extent that the excavations have produced the quantity of material estimated by Elizabeth Stone, the underground market has surely been saturated by now, bringing down prices. Stone and John Curtis also found that none of the eight sites they visited with British forces in June had been looted since the immediate aftermath of the invasion. Indeed, some of the damage discovered by the British expedition was a result not of looting, but of defensive positions that appear to have been dug by the Iraqi army shortly before the US-led invasion. In the case of Ur, the site has been protected from looting by an adjacent military air base, but has suffered degradation from the thousands of Coalition troops who until recently had open access to it. (A more shocking case of site damage by Coalition forces occurred in 2004 at Babylon, as documented by Zainab Bahrani, a scholar of Near Eastern art and archaeology at Columbia University.[11] )

Of course, these findings provide scant consolation for what appears to have been one of the most concentrated and devastating episodes of archaeological destruction in modern history. In The Buried Book, his recent account of the rediscovery of The Epic of Gilgamesh, David Damrosch observes that the poem portrays Gilgamesh as one of the great kings of Sumer by emphasizing his accomplishments as "custodian of ancient cities and monuments that have to be maintained and repaired." Indeed, in the prologue of the epic, the poet describes the story he is about to tell as an artifact of the past, to be discovered—as in fact it was by archaeologists in the nineteenth century—and carefully preserved:

[See] the tablet-box of cedar
[release] its clasp of bronze.

[Lift] the lid of its secret
[pick] up the tablet of lapis lazuli and read out
the travails of Gilgamesh, all that he went through…

The example of Gilgamesh was forgotten in 2003, and we may never know how many other such "secrets" have been lost as a result.

—July 15, 2008

[1] Citing the June survey, recent reports in The Art Newspaper and The Wall Street Journal have somewhat breathlessly suggested that little or no looting in southern Iraq actually occurred. To the contrary, the findings provide further evidence that organized plunder was both extensive and selective, bearing out earlier indications that some large sites were not affected. For a formal report on the eight sites inspected in the survey, see www.britishmuseum.org/iraq.

[2] Elizabeth C. Stone, "Patterns of Looting in Southern Iraq," Antiquity, Vol. 82 (Spring 2008), pp. 125–138. A less technical account of her findings is contained in her essay in the catalog to "Catastrophe!"

[3] It should be stressed that until further information comes to light, any attempt to quantify the number of objects removed is by nature conjectural. The number of cuneiform texts that have surfaced in the West remains small, although anecdotal evidence indicates that far larger quantities may be in the Middle East or elsewhere. Thousands of cylinder seals remain at large from the Iraq Museum alone, and the extent of the looting holes and the number of sites involved give some weight to a number well into the tens of thousands, if not higher.

[4] It has been observed that archaeological "context" may matter less for inscribed objects, whose own texts contain important historical information and often identify where they are from. Mesopotamian texts have frequently been found together, however, in buried libraries or collections of tablets, the existence of which has made it possible to use texts to draw broad conclusions about politics, culture, and daily life. Once texts from such a group are dispersed it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct that group and its significance. I am grateful to Piotr Michalowski for this point.

[5] For a study of the damage at Isin and its surrounding area using similar techniques as Professor Stone’s, see Carrie Hritz, "Remote Sensing of Cultural Heritage in Iraq: A Case Study of Isin," in TAARII Newsletter, The American Academic Research Institute in Iraq, Spring 2008, available at www.taarii.org/newsletters/.

[6] In December 2007 a three-and-a-half- inch limestone Standing Lioness Demon, dating from the beginning of the third millennium and said to be found near Baghdad in the early twentieth century, sold at Sotheby’s for $57 million, an auction record for an antiquity or piece of sculpture.

[7] Notwithstanding claims made in the press, a direct connection between the plunder and Sunni insurgent groups appears unlikely, according to Iraqi officials I spoke to and to archaeologists who have studied the satellite evidence.

[8] The attraction of Umma, a city of great importance in the late third millennium, can be attributed to environmental factors as well. Covered by dunes for many decades, it had been inaccessible to archaeologists; but the shifting sands exposed it again by the 1990s, and it quickly became known among looters, as it had been early in the twentieth century, for its cuneiform tablets from the Ur III period. Around 20,000 tablets have been published from the site. I am grateful to Robert K. Englund for this point.

[9] Many of these works were helpfully catalogued by a research team from the Center for Archaeological Research and Excavations in Turin. See An Endangered Cultural Heritage: Iraqi Antiquities Recovered in Jordan, edited by Roberta Menegazzi (Florence: Le Lettere, 2005).

[10] In August 1990, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the UN mandated general sanctions on goods from Iraq. It was not until the second Iraq War, however, that legislation specific to Iraqi cultural property was enacted in the United States. In May 2003 the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for the return of cultural goods to Iraq and the prohibition of trade in such items. In 2004, the US Congress passed the Emergency Protection for Iraqi Cultural Antiquities Act, which allows the president to impose restrictions on the import of any artifacts illegally removed from Iraq after August 1990.

[11] Professor Bahrani, at the time an adviser to the Iraq Ministry of Culture stationed at Babylon, published her findings in "Days of Plunder," The Guardian, August 31, 2004. See also the British Museum report on Babylon by John Curtis, who concludes that the site suffered "substantial damage" as a result of its occupation by Coalition forces.


* Catastrophe! The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past, an exhibition at the Oriental Institute Museum, Chicago, April 10–December 31, 2008. Catalog of the exhibition edited by Geoff Emberling and Katharyn Hanson.
* The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq, edited by Peter G. Stone and Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly
* Antiquities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection After the Iraq War, edited by Lawrence Rothfield
* Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq, by Patrick Cockburn
* Reclaiming a Plundered Past: Archaeology and Nation Building in Modern Iraq, by Magnus T. Bernhardsson
* The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Epic of Gilgamesh, by David Damrosch
* American Hostage, by Micah Garen and Marie-Hélène Carleton