Archaeological looting in Iraq

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A tank guarding the National Museum of Iraq following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. A hole caused by a shell can be seen in the wall above the tank. The museum was looted after the invasion, and thousands of items remain missing. A great many antiquities were destroyed as well, by looters, as well as by shells and the like.[citation needed]

Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, archaeological looting has become a problem.Though some sites, such as Ur and Nippur, are officially protected by US and Coalition forces, most are not. Saddam Hussein treasured his national heritage immensely and acted to defend these sites and the artifacts within them; with the fall of his government on 9 April 2003, these sites have been left completely open to looting. Looters have therefore descended upon many of these sites and are in the process of destroying them and extracting artifacts to sell to collectors and dealers. Past archaeological research is being destroyed in the process, as is the potential for future research.

A series of international agreements banned the trade in looted antiquities in 1970, and in 2003 the United Nations passed UN Resolution 1483, which called upon all member states of the UN to act to prevent the trade of Iraqi cultural properties without verifiable provenance. However, this has done little to put a dent in the looting and international sale of Iraqi artifacts.

Recovered artifacts on display in late 2008

Authorities have recovered shipments on a number of occasions, but overall a ban such as this one is very difficult to enforce. Four hundred items, most stolen from the National Museum of Iraq, were captured by Iraqi paramilitary units in May 2003 when they stopped a car near the Iranian border purely by chance. By June, customs inspectors and other authorities in the United States had seized over six hundred of the museum's artifacts. Nearly everything stolen from the museum still had its accession number, preceded by the letters "IM" for "Iraqi Museum," written on it; this way the buyers of the stolen goods could be assured of their provenance. Italy has recovered many of these items as well. Meanwhile, Jordan recovered over one thousand artifacts in those few months, and is one of Iraq's only neighbors to be taking great measures to prevent themselves being used by the looters and their buyers for shipping or concealing the stolen goods.

Sites affected[edit]

  • Adab - an ancient city plagued by hundreds of looters.
  • Babylon - saw the construction of "a 150-hectare camp for 2,000 troops. In the process the 2,500-year-old brick pavement to the Ishtar Gate was smashed by tanks and the gate itself damaged. The archaeology-rich subsoil was bulldozed to fill sandbags, and large areas covered in compacted gravel for helipads and car parks. Babylon is being rendered archaeologically barren" (Simon Jenkins in The Guardian, 8 June 2007).[1]
  • Hatra - looters with stonecutters have stolen elements of friezes and reliefs straight off the ancient architecture here.
  • Isin - over two hundred looters' pits are organized around the former site of the Temple of Gula; countless artifacts have been removed from the site here, including innumerable cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals, and votive tablets, some of which could sell for as much as $30,000.
  • Nimrud - home of the palace of Assurnasirpal II and described by the Old Testament as the "principal city" of Assyria, Nimrud is one of the few sites that is militarily protected. However, weeks before the arrival of the site's US guards, looters attacked the friezes and statues with stonecutting tools, stealing images distinctly belonging to Nimrud, and thus unmistakenly known to any potential buyers to be stolen; the items have been sold, presumably, nevertheless. Those few looters that managed to break into this site despite its protection have given every indication that they know precisely what they are looking for, where to find it, and how to get at it. Like many looters throughout Iraq and across the world, they have presumably been hired to obtain specific images; this separates them from the looters who dig up and sell whatever they can find.
  • Nineveh - one of the more thoroughly researched sites, experts have little difficulty identifying objects stolen from Nineveh. The site was severely looted and damaged nevertheless after the first Gulf War, and chunks of its unique and ancient friezes have appeared on the European and American art markets.
  • Nippur - the great ziggurat here has only three major looters' pits cut into it, which are the first in over forty years of valuable research and excavation.
  • Umma - looters descended upon the site as soon as Coalition bombing began; the site is now pockmarked with hundreds of ditches and pits. When archaeologists "tried to remove vulnerable carvings from the ancient city of Umma to Baghdad, they found gangs of looters already in place with bulldozers, dump trucks and AK47s".[2]
  • Ur - one of the few sites protected by a US military presence. According to Simon Jenkins, "its walls are pockmarked with wartime shrapnel and a blockhouse is being built over an adjacent archaeological site".[3]

See also[edit]


  • Atwood, Roger (2004). Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  • Bogdanos, Matthew. Thieves of Baghdad: One Marine's Passion to Recover the World's Greatest Stolen Treasures. Bloomsbury USA (October 26, 2005) ISBN 1-58234-645-3
  • Looting of ancient sites threatens Iraqi heritage 6/29/2006

The Global Heritage Fund website

  • [4]
  • U.S.-Led Troops Have Damaged Babylon, British Museum Says, New York Times article [5]
  • Zainab Bahrani. 2004. Lawless in Mesopotamia. Natural History 113(2):44-49
  • Farchakh, Joanne The massacre of Mesopotamian archaeology: Looting in Iraq is out of control, Tuesday, September 21, 2004 [6]
  • The massacre of Mesopotamian archaeology [7]

External links[edit]