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.[1]

History[edit]

Looting throughout the Middle East including Iraq started many years ago. As early as 1884 there were laws passed in Mesopotamia about moving and destroying antiquities.[2] By the end of WW1, the British occupied most of Mesopotamia and had created protections for archeological sites where looting was beginning to become a problem.[3] They also established an absolute prohibition on exporting antiquities in order to try to stop them from being sold out of the country.[4] The British Museum was looking out for the sites and museums across Iraq during this time period. Gertrude Bell, well known for drawing the Iraq borders, also excavated many sites around Iraq and created what is now the National Museum of Iraq.[5] Mid 1920’s the black market for antiquities was created and looting began to pick up in all sites where antiquities could be found. After Iraq was independent and not under British control, the absolute ban on antiquity exports was gone and until mid 1970’s Iraq was one of very few countries to not have a law on exporting antiquities in and out of the country.[6] This made Iraq a great place for looters to find and sell black market items to collectors from around the globe. The aftermath of the Gulf War was that some 4000 artifacts were looted from Iraq sites.[7] Uprisings that followed the war also resulted in 9 of the 13 regional museums being looted and burned.[8] This was just a preview for what would once again happen after the 2003 war. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, archaeological looting has become an even 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. Hussein came into power in 1979 as the fifth president of Iraq. He believed that the past of Iraq was important to his national campaign and his regime actually doubled the national budget for archeology and heritage creating museums and protecting sites all over Iraq.[9] It wasn’t until his party the Ba’athists was under pressure in the 1990s did looting become a large problem once again for Iraq.[10] By 2000 looting had gotten so bad that the workers of the sites were even looting their own workplaces.[11] With the fall of his government on 9 April 2003, archaeology 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.

Failure to protect before the 2003 Invasion[edit]

Before the 2003 invasion by United States forces, the US government had been creating a pre-war plan for how the invasion would inevitably go and post-war planning for after combat. The US has been heavily criticized in the media and academic writings for not adequately planning protections for cultures and antiquities within Iraq while they were making a post-war plan.[12] This lack of planning ended in the looting of the National Museum of Iraq and, although less publicized, but possibly more damaging, the looting of hundreds of archeological sites around the country.[13] At the time of war planning it was the Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld who is documented as wanting to create a fast invasion with less men on the ground, meaning that there wouldn’t be enough soldiers on the ground to be able to guard buildings and sites as well as fight in combat situations. American troops had differed not only from other NATO allies but also form their own soldiers in their own past wars. American soldiers had seen themselves as warriors, and not security guards for cultural sites around Iraq.[14] Peacekeeping was seen as a lesser job then physically fighting in combat and President Bush’s suspension of former president Clinton’s policies for peacekeeping not only backed up this thought but also made the US’s duties to restore public order unclear.[15] American troops in Iraq didn’t trust Iraqi power of any kind meaning instead of using and training Iraqi police the US military took matters of security and policing into their own hands.[16] President Bush consistently would speak of troops helping with nation building but Rumsfeld clarified that American soldiers would not be used as police but instead international peacekeepers. Instead, these peacekeepers would train a national Afghan army and police force as well as Special Forces teams would work with regional warlords to keep control of their territories.[17] This decision to allow warlords to police their own areas has been credited with being a disastrous plan for the archeological sites in particular.[18] Arthur Houghton, a seasoned policy player, who also had an interest and some expertise in cultural heritage was one of the first to wonder what the pre-war plan was for the important Iraqi culture. He had worked in the State Department as a Foreign Service officer, as an international policy analyst for the White house and also served at an acting curator for the Getty Museum.[19] In late spring 2002, Houghton was approached by Ashton Hawkins, former Executive Vice President and Counsel to the Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum, and was asked to find out what was being done by officials to secure heritage sites in the upcoming war in Iraq.[20] What Houghton came to find out was that no one was on the issue at all, he could find no one designated with the task of protection and preservation of culture in Iraq.[21] One very well kept secret was there actually was a Future of Iraq Project that, with clearance from the Pentagon, who had people thinking about Iraq post war since October 2001. However, even under this Project no specific person had taken up responsibility of culture.[22] Even archeological organizations in the US hadn’t noticed the issue until fall 2002. The lack of planning from the military and the government alike were problems with the pre and post war cultural planning, but even when post war planning was taking place the US Agency for Cultural Development (USAID) met with estimated 150 NGO’s and not one brought up protection of cultural heritage.[23] One important NGO to point out is the Blue Shield, which considers itself the Red Cross of culture. If any NGO could have brought the culture discussion to the table it was they. However, in 2002-2003 the most crucial time of war planning, there was no Blue Shield committee in the USA.[24] UNESCO had in fact, after the Gulf War in 1991, attempted to go into Iraq and assess the damage to cultural sites but they were not allowed to enter the country.[25] UNESCO then focused, for the next decade, on reconstruction after the fact rather than prevention measures.[26]

Within the US military the Civil Affairs (CA) forces were important to the protection of culture and, as they were mostly reservists, included experts in a variety of areas including archeology.[27] The plan was to spread the expertise among fighting forces in order to warn them of cultural sites in the area, this unfortunately was only the theory of what should happen.[28] Instead, CA was left out of the pre-war planning until January 2003, when it was to late to be of any real significant help. There were so many threats facing the CA that they needed to prioritize the small amount of CA troops to what they thought was necessary, which inevitably wasn’t culture.[29] The CA did, however, pull the only two archeologists in Civil Affairs to be on a culture team, Maj. Chris Varhola and Capt. William Sumner.[30] These two men, however, in the end were sent to other places when the conflict began. Varhola was needed to prepare for the refugee crises that never amounted and Sumner got reassigned to guard a zoo after pushing his advisor too hard on antiquities issues.[31] Any acts to help protect culture or discussions about the necessity to secure sites and buildings were stopped due to the priorities of other matters. Essentially no one who had archeological expertise was high enough in the rankings to get anything done.[32] Another branch of the US government that had interest in culture was the Foreign Area Offices (FAO). Unfortunately though, they were focused on customs and attitudes not at all about archeological sites.[33] Something that was accomplished was the creation of a no-strike list created by Maj. Varhola just like two archeologists before him had done during the 1991 Gulf War which had a great out come of saving antiquities from bombings.[34] One piece of international law that is important for this conflict is the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, this Convention states that parties in conflict must “under take to prohibit, prevent and, if necessary, put a stop to any form of theft, pillage or misappropriation of, and any act of vandalism directed against, cultural property.[35]” This provision was constructed for the parties actually in combat within the war and not civilians within their own state. As the upcoming years would prove, there are exceptions to this Convention and they would result in Americans firing on the Iraq National Museum. By fall 2002, post-war planning was sporadic and improvised. The cultural planning aspect needed to have leadership that it never got.[36] Deputy Assistant under the Security of Defense, Joseph Collins, recalls some forces spent more time working on projects that ended up not being needed like a refugee crises plan. He says he can’t remember if there was even an organizational plans to solve specific issues.[37] The first known effort by cultural interests to contact US officials was October 2002. After a meeting of powerful players in culture, Houghton sent a letter asking for departments to tell forces to avoid damaging monuments, soldiers were to respect the integrity of sites, and lastly to work quickly to get the antiquities services in Iraq up and running again.[38] Following this, the Archeological Institute of America (AIA) also sent a similar letter to the Pentagon in December 2002 asking for governments to take action to prevent looting in the aftermath of the war.[39] As 2002 came to an end the media and government were only broadcasting the good done by the troops in not destroying cultural heritage themselves but not on the looting done by people in Iraq and the Americans duty to protect the antiquities.[40]

Large Scale Looting[edit]

As the world found out about the looting of the National Iraq Museum, policy makers and culture experts from around the globe went to work devising ways to take back control of the museum and also get back the antiquities that were looted.[41] While this was happening, McGuire Gibson one of the leading archeologists and experts on Mesopotamia was trying to get the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (OHRA) to understand the artifacts in the museum were only a small part of what the archeological digs around the country had.[42] In Iraq there was an estimated half a million sites with only 25 thousand sites registered . The OHRA didn’t at this time have the resources to put their small amount of staff on this problem. Gibson had suggested helicopter fly over’s to determine the scale in which the sites were looted.[43] By April 24, 2003, looting had taken place in Umma, Umm al-Hafriyat, Umm al-Aqarib, Bismaya, Larsa, and Bad-tibira and most of which at the time were unguarded.[44] Unfortunately, most the looting was actually done by workers at the site who were once employed by the now fallen State Board of Antiquities and Heritage.[45] A local tribe was guarding the World Heritage Site of Hatra while others were open to attack by anyone.[46] There were actually rumors spreading throughout the Dhi Qar Province that looting was being allowed as long as the selling of the antiquities was going to funding the uprising.[47] By May, international help began to arrive but their focus was on the already looted museum and not on helping sites that were scattered.[48] The US military conducted a raid in May on Umma where they found hundreds of trenches with many looters all over the site.[49] On May 7 the Bush Administration replaced Gen. Jay Garner with L. Paul Bremer who was given much more power and began with the banning of high-ranking Ba’ath Party members form holding government jobs and disbanded what was left of the Iraqi army.[50] This meant the few guards at archeological sites that were left were unpaid for months as no one could get to them. The guards were also now not allowed to carry guns.[51] Now, instead of dealing with civilian looters, the unarmed guards were dealing with large mobs of armed people determined to loot with no way of protecting themselves.[52] At the end of May 2003, it finally became clear how badly the sites were looted when a trip sponsored by National Geographic went out to assess the damage.[53] There was a northern and southern team that all set out in cars to assess the post-conflict damage by land.[54] What they found was most of the famous sites such as Babylon, Hatra, Nimrud and Ur were under US military control.[55] The less known sites were completely unguarded and the Civil Affairs teams that were supposed to be securing them didn’t even know where they were.[56] Every place the National Geographic team saw, except one that was guarded by barbed wire, had been damaged.[57] Gibson, the Mesopotamian expert, was on the National Geographic team and after they had toured the north he sent back a report to the White House science advisor John Marburger.[58] While the National Geographic team went out to survey the damage there were archeologist experts in both the US and Britain waiting for invitations to head to Iraq and help. After Gibson’s report got to the White House they were all given invitations to create a team in Iraq.[59] Early July, UNESCO revealed there was still looting going on in sites across the country.[60] At this point, other military services such as Japanese and Dutch troops were offering to come and secure sites but heard nothing back from the US.[61] July 8, Gen. John Abizaid announced that a military-like defence of ten battalions, heavily armed, would work with the US military and a new security guard force known as the Iraqi Facility Protection Service (FPS) would protect sites all around the country.[62] Then on July 14 the State Department announced it was working on the formation of a group that would assist in the rebuilding of Iraq’s cultural heritage.[63] By the end of August these announcements from Gen. John Abizaid and the State Department had yet to help the looting and illegal selling of artifacts out of Iraq. McGuire Gibson on September 11, 2003 shot back a response to one of the military geographers saying, "The continuing destruction of sites all over southern Iraq and the theft of thousands of artifacts every week, with no visible effort on part of the US authorities, makes the question of ethical behaviour by museums pointless. Your unit of the Pentagon is capable of demonstrating the location and expansion of illegal digging. Are you at least doing that much?"[64]

Aftermath[edit]

Recovered artifacts on display in late 2008

There is no way to actually collect data on how much destruction has happened since the 2003 invasion.[65] By 2004 the maps the US were using still didn’t have archeological sites on them.[66] Archeologist Elizabeth Stone purchased satellite images of seven thousand square kilometers in Iraq that are home to many sites.[67] She then counted 1 837 new holes comparing 2001-2002 with 2003 images.[68] Looters were smart and only went after sites that had the most valuable artifacts for collectors. The best estimates of artifacts out of the ground from 2003-2005 is 400 000 to 600 000 items based on average yield size. This number is 30-40 times greater than the number of artifacts stolen from the museum.[69] Britain alone between 2004-2006 seized 3-4 tons of plundered artifacts.[70] Some artifacts have been found by accident like the archeologist that was watching a home decorating show when he saw a second century stone head from Hatra sitting on the decorator’s mantle.[71] The illegal black market for goods was so overstocked that the prices in the market were actually going down after 2003 said an antiquities researcher who specializes in illicit dealings.[72] The overall revenue to looters generated by the trade in looted antiquities is estimated by the Archeological Institute of America to be $10 to $20 million annually.[73] Terrorists actually have a long history of using stolen artifacts to finance their operations.[74] By the end of 2003, 1 900 Iraqi antiquities had been confiscated form bordering countries: 1 450 in Jordan, 36 in Syria, 38 in Kuwait and 18 in Saudi Arabia.[75] According to Marine Corps reservist Matthew Boulay, even on the American Military bases illicit trading was going on.[76] Flea markets authorized by the camp commanders included a booth with antiquities for $20, $40 or $100 each.[77] Boulay actually emailed Gibson to find out if the artifacts were real, they were, and Gibson asked Boulay to get his base commander to stop. When Boulay when to his platoon commander he got a “cease and desist” to send any more emails about the issue to anyone.[78] Other institutes from America and around the world have contributed different amount to protect the sites around Iraq, but this is still not enough. The US is now teaching military personnel that are going to be shipped over to Iraq the importance of cultural heritage and how not to hurt sites themselves, but is still nothing taught about how to stop civilian looting.[79] Donny George who was an employee at the Iraq National Museum was appointed to Director of Museums in 2004, and by summer 2006, a force of 1400 guards were at sites around the country.[80]

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".[81]
  • 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]

References[edit]

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  81. ^ (Simon Jenkins in The Guardian, 8 June 2007).[1]
  • 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
  • Global Heritage Fund, [4]
  • 'Looting of ancient sites threatens Iraqi heritage 6/29/2006
  • 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]
  • Rothfield, Lawrence. The Rape of Mesopotamia behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2009. Print.

External links[edit]