Looters Destroying Ancient Treasures

Archaeologists say unprotected remains of country’s historic civilisations are subject to widespread plundering.

Looters Destroying Ancient Treasures

Archaeologists say unprotected remains of country’s historic civilisations are subject to widespread plundering.

Experts are calling for Iraq's archaeological sites to be protected, saying that many have been severely damaged as a result of theft, illegal excavations and trespassing.

According to the Iraqi government, the country – which was once home to Assyrian, Babylonian, Sumerian and other ancient empires – has around 10,000 archaeological sites.

Most are located in central Iraq, an area badly hit by the chaos and lawlessness that has gripped the country over the past several years. While some of the country’s best known Mesopotamian sites, including Ur near modern-day Nasiriyah, are well-protected, many have no security.

The Iraqi government has just 1,200 guards to keep an eye on all of its sites, said Qais Rashid Hussein, director-general of excavations and inspection at the ministry of archaeology and tourism. Hussein said the lack of protection is “a huge problem” that has left antiquities vulnerable to gangs and smugglers.

Treasure-hunters illegally excavate the sites for valuable items which can be traded on the black market and are often smuggled out of Iraq.

Margarete van Ess, director of Oriental Science at the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin, estimated that illegal excavation in Iraq has caused ten billion dollars worth of damage.

“Many of the sites are far from town centres and cities and are under the control of tribes,” she said, which made them vulnerable to theft.

While Saddam Hussein’s regime secured most of the country’s sites and cracked down heavily on theft. Those caught steeling antiquities faced 15 years in prison, and, in some cases, the death penalty. These sentences, though still on the statute books, are rarely enforced today.

On Iraq’s black market, ancient coins, seals and other gold, silver and bronze pieces can be purchased for as little as ten dollars, but the same items can fetch a far greater sum outside the country. Thousands of artefacts from Iraqi sites have ended up in neighbouring Syria and Jordan.

“A [Sumerian] cylinder seal can be sold for less than 100 dollars, and gold coins for even less [in Baghdad],” said Said Mahmood, a 52-year-old antiquities collector from the capital. “[However] a cylinder seal can be sold for more than 2,000 dollars outside of Iraq.”

Although the government is offering rewards starting at about ten dollars for the return of antiquities, international black-market prices are so high that there’s little incentive for Iraqis to comply.

Iraq is now attempting to reclaim its artefacts, about 15,000 of which were stolen during the looting of the Baghdad Museum shortly after the US-led ousting of Saddam in 2003, said antiquities minister Mohammed Al-Uraibi in a press conference last month.

In June, Jordan returned more than 2,000 items dating back to 7,000 BC which were stolen from the museum and Iraq’s archaeological sites. Syria, in late April, handed back around 700 pieces, including gold coins and jewellery, which were seized by Syrian customs officials.

Meanwhile, guards employed to protect sites complain they are understaffed – and say that, in many cases, a lack of electricity makes them difficult to monitor at night.

Building and trespassing on sites is also a widespread problem which is difficult to control, according to Rashid.

In 2007, the ministry discovered housing projects that encroached on an ancient site in Karbala, while one in Baghdad was being used as a garbage dump until his staff intervened. In the southern province of Najaf, the ministry stopped the local government from unknowingly expanding an airport on a site.

Khalid Sultan, a Baghdad-based archaeology expert, said the Iraqi government and the international community need to make more effort to protect the sites.

He emphasised the significance of Iraq’s archaeological treasures, noting that Sumerians invented the first form of writing more than 5,000 years ago, while the Babylonian king Hammurabi created one of the first written codes of law in recorded history.

“The destruction of Iraqi antiquities after the 2003 war has been enormous,” said Sultan. “We need a massive effort from the international community to return the stolen pieces and to help us to protect the remaining archaeological sites. The government has to enact heavy punishments to put an end to illegal excavations.”

Brigadier Mohammad Al-Askari, spokesman for the ministry of defence, said his ministry is willing to help bolster protection of sites. “[They] belong to the Iraqis and to the rest of the world,” he said.

Daud Salman is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad.
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