Tomb raiders (Iraq)

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Three years after Iraq's ancient treasures were first stolen and smashed, the cradle of civilisation is still being looted. It's a catastrophe, says former arts minister Mark Fisher.

The media joined archaeologists in condemning President Bush and the US. Eleanor Robson, a council member of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, compared the US under President Bush to the Mongol hordes, and the destruction of the museum's collection to that of the library of Alexandria in the 5th century.

Col. Bogdanos announced an amnesty and slowly artefacts began to be returned, including one of the museum's most beautiful and precious objects: the alabaster Warka Vase, carved in Uruk 5,000 years ago and now brought back in 14 pieces in a plastic rubbish bag. The pictures on the vase tell us much about life in ancient Mesopotamia, showing scenes of agriculture, religious and ritual offerings. Other pieces were recovered in raids, including the Bassetki statue, a copper statue base with the lower half of a man holding a standard or doorpost. It was hidden in a cesspool, submerged.
As these successes were reported, and estimates of the total losses revised down to around 15,000 artefacts, the media's initial horror was replaced by a mood of relief, even of defiant complacency. David Aaronovitch wrote in this newspaper that "the only problem with [reports that the museum 'was looted under the noses of the Yanks, or by the Yanks themselves'] is that it's nonsense. It isn't true. It's made up. It's bollocks." The robbing of the Iraq National Museum slipped from the headlines. The caravan of outrage passed on. Gradually, however, the extent of the loss and damage to Iraq's heritage across the country became clearer. Many of the Iraq National Museum's major pieces, too big and heavy to move, had been smashed. At Mosul, 16 bronze Assyrian door panels from the city gates of Balawat (9th century BC) had been stolen, as had cuneiform tablets from Khorsabad and Nineveh. In Baghdad, the National Library and State Archives building was burned down and the national collections of contemporary Iraqi and European art, including works by Picasso and Miró, were looted.

Even more serious, perhaps, has been the damage to Iraq's archaeology. In this cradle of civilisation, more than 10,000 sites of interest have been identified, of which only 1,500 have been researched. These sites are currently undefended from looters. Willy Deridder, the head of Interpol, has said that these sites - particularly those in the south, such as the 4,000-year-old ziggurat at Ur - are almost impossible to protect.

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