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See Inside December 2008

Digging Ancient Iraq: How Mesopotamia Has Weathered the War

How badly damaged are the archaeological remains of ancient Mesopotamia?

More than five and a half years into the Iraq War, the condition of archaeological sites and antiquities in Iraq remains a frustrating and contentious topic among archaeologists and art historians. Two surveys in the past year—one in northern Iraq in May, the other in the south in June—have persuaded some that the ongoing damage is far less extensive than most observers had believed. Yet with more than 10,000 registered sites and numerous other mounds of earth that may still conceal uncatalogued treasures from the “cradle of civilization,” many archaeologists question whether the surveyed sites are representative of conditions elsewhere.

The report of the May survey, conducted by U.S. and Iraqi investigators, stated that “none of the sites showed signs of looting or extensive vandalism.” Likewise, the June report, by a team of Iraqi and British archaeologists who visited eight southern sites, found little evidence of looting since the war began.

Nevertheless, the report of the Iraqi-British project cautioned that “it is difficult (and dangerous) to generalize” from the conditions of the sites the group visited. One big anomaly in both surveys was the prevalence of guards, which should deter looting. According to Lawrence Rothfield of the University of Chicago, three of the seven sites in the north (Hatra, Nimrud and Nineveh) “have been guarded since they were looted soon after the invasion of 2003.” Similarly, three of the eight sites surveyed in the south were guarded (Lagash, Ur and Uruk).

But guards at most archaeological sites in Iraq are a rarity. Elizabeth C. Stone of Stony Brook University, who was a member of the Iraqi-British project, tells how the survey team concluded that Larsa, another of the sites in the southern survey, was unguarded: “It was supposed to be visited occasionally, and it didn’t look as though it was ... because we found a hawk’s nest with a rather cheerful baby hawk in it sitting on their watchtower.” Part of the problem, Stone explains, is that although there is a mobile force of 1,500 Iraqi guards with trucks for patrolling the sites, “nobody has put any budget line in for fuel.”

“There has been no comprehensive survey done to establish with certainty exactly what percentage of the 10,000 registered sites has been looted,” Rothfield says. Military satellite imagery “would enable analysts to tell us the whole truth,” he adds, but the military “has not been willing to share it.”

Scholars and analysts must therefore base their estimates on satellite data from commercial sources, on eyewitness accounts and on what is being recovered by police and customs officials. Stone herself bought $150,000 worth of satellite images to look for the telltale signs of looting. With them she has documented looting holes equivalent to an area of 15.75 square kilometers—more than a quarter of the area of Manhattan. Most of the images she purchased, though, were made in 2003; more recent data are patchy—and expensive to come by.

The good news, she notes, is that a trade embargo and the threat of stiff legal sanctions seem to have dried up the market for looted artifacts—hence, perhaps, some of the incentive for looters. The sales of objects such as clay tablets and cylinder seals, Stone says, “just came to a screaming halt in 2003”—as the international community reacted to the sacking of the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad with tough laws against buying and selling Iraqi antiquities.

Not all the damage to Iraq’s ancient heritage is the fault of looters. At two sites (Tell al-Lahm and Ubaid), military command posts “had been established at the top of the site,” according to the report of the Iraqi-British project. “Shelters for vehicles (tanks or armored personnel carriers) had been created” by cutting into the ancient mounds. The construction has presumably dug away “previously undisturbed archaeological deposits,” the report added. At the site of Babylon, Stone remarks, military activities have removed areas of surface mounds totaling six hectares, or more than 13 football fields—to fill sandbags, carve trenches and bulldoze earth for parking lots.

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