Scholar: The looting of Iraq's treasures is bad. Very bad.

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[McGuire Gibson is Professor of Mesopotamian Archaeology, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago.]

I have just been comparing a satellite image from February 2003, when the Antiqutities organization was excavating at Umma, with one taken within the past month, June 2008. In the 2003 image, it is quite clear that looting that had been done in the 1990s and earlier was restricted to a very small part of the site, mainly on a part of the mound across from the front entrance of the Shara temple that the Iraqis were excavating. The looted area at that time cannot have been more than 5 or 10 percent of the site. (We are in process of measuring and estimating the area.) We know for certain that the Iraqi expedition stayed at Umma until a couple of weeks before the war in April 2003; the expedition left 18 guards on the site, who prevented any looting while they were there. Those guards reported to the SBAH in Baghdad that on the day the war started, looters came out in force and drove the guards off the site. When I visited Umma on May 21, 2003 by helicopter with Ambassador Cordone, I counted over 250 looters at work, and the disturbed area was much bigger, my impressiond being that it was perhaps 5 times greater than it had been before the war. The new image, from June 2008, however shows that the ENTIRE site of Umma is riddled with holes. What proportion of the looters' holes are current or very recent we can't say from the image, nor can we know exactly when the looting of the site was stopped, if it has been. We know that because of the efforts of Abdul Amir Hamdani, the Director of the Antiquities office in Nasiriyah, and the Italian carbinieri, looting was lessened on the major sites in Dhi Qar province, including Umma. Their program to stop the sale of stolen antiquities in the small towns near the major sites must have had a chilling effect, but Abdul Amir says that the activity was shfited ot smaller sites. If you look at Google Earth images of Dhi Qar province you can find dozens of small, unidentified sites as well as major ones with differing percentages of looter holes. With Umma, as with other sites, we cannot say exactly when all illegal digging ceased without a series of images, at least yearly,from 2003 to 2008. But clearly the actions of a relatively SMALL military force, cooperating with the local Antiquities official in this one province made a difference and shows that if even a minimum of attention had been paid to antiquities sites in other provinces, much of the looting in the south may have been stopped or reduced substantially.

Elizabeth Stone has been trying to assess damage to sites all over the south of Iraq through comparison of satellite images, and she has reported some of her findings in Antiquity as well as in the catalogue for the Catastrophe exhibition at the Oriental Institute. In the recent trip, she could have directed the team of archaeologists to many sites that would have shown fresh damage, instead of to the eight sites that the group did visit. The point has been made in previous postings on this site that this was an odd set of sites to investigate. It would be surprising to find damage at Ur and Uruk, since there was plenty of evidence that no looting has been going on there. Curtis had visited Ur before, and the German expedition has been keep apprised of the condition of Uruk. It would also be surprising to find that Lagash (Al-Hiba) was being looted because I saw it in 2003 and it was intact and in satellite images as late as 2007, it was still not being dug illegally. I am a bit surprised to hear that the group found no damage at Larsa because an image from 2006 shows that part of the lower part of the mound was being erased by some kind of machine, a grader or front-end loader, leaving long parallel marks on the surface. I await the team's official report to explain what those marks were. The lack of damage at Ubaid and Eridu, as well as Tell al-Lahm, may be the result of the closeness of a large group of American troops and/or to patrolling by the Antiquities police, as is reported for Tell al-Lahm. Donny George has explained the good condition of Tell al-Oueilli by the fact that it is prehistoric and therefore of very little interest to the looters, the dealers, and collectors.

Had the group gone to Qadissiyah province (Diwaniyah) instead of Dhi Qar, they would have seen a lot of fresh holes, where there has been much less of an attempt to stop looting. As far as I can find out, the digging is still going on at Isin and in smaller sites around it. In a recent issue of the TAARII newsletter (available on-line) Carrie Hritz analyzes the progressive extent of looting at Isin and at nearby sites. Fara, Adab, and many other sites near them show clear looting in satellite images. Maybe there is nothing going on right now (which I doubt), but you can track the progressive spread of looter holes from 2003 to 2008 in images. Even without specially-ordered images, anyone can go onto Google Earth and see massive damage on many sites. I was looking at the area around Tell al-Wilayah yesterday. That site itself is in one of those dead zones, where there is poor imagery and you can make out Wilaya only if you know what to look for. But just to the north and east, going towards Kut, there is fine quality coverage, and you can see dozens of small sites with fresh looking holes on them. Nippur was looted for about a month in 2003, but it was stopped by police from Afak. Subsequent posting of Antiquities guards at the site, in a house newly built for them, and the erecting of a perimeter fence in 2005 have secured Nippur proper. There is ample evidence of continued looting of sites away from cultivation in the desert to the north and east of Nippur.

With the kind of images that are available to scholars, we can't say for sure that the illegal digging is continuing. This can be known only by comparing this years's image with one from a few months or a year ago and some from months to come. It would be great if the looting has stopped, but I doubt that it has. But maybe enough money has been spread around the south to give people jobs that are not as arduous, dangerous (tunnels can collapse), and unrewarding as the work that the local men do as looters. They get very little for the objects that they pass on to the agents of dealers and would not do the work if there were alternatives.

One last remark: It is odd that the people who want to cover up, diminish, or shift the blame for the devastating loss of cultural heritage in Iraq can find all kinds of newspaper articles in which quoted scholars can have their words twisted to serve a view that is exactly the opposite of their position, and they can find Cruikshank's wildly inaccurate and even libelous documentary to cite, but they cannot find the scholars' own articles (in print and on-line) or more responsible journalistic accounts (e.g., Andrew Lawler's August 2003 Science Magazine report on the looting of the Iraq Museum).

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