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Vol. 31 No. 1 · 1 January 2009

The Theft of Iraq’s Antiquities

McGuire Gibson

Midway through the 2003 invasion, an American officer was shown on TV directing tank crews away from the site of Babylon, explaining to them that it was an important part of Iraq’s heritage. This led me to assume that the army had acted on information that I, among others, had given them about the significance of the ancient region of Mesopotamia. I imagined that when the army reached the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, there would be another photo op, and we would be told that the complex had been secured. By 8 April, the US army was reported to have reached the Ministry of Information, two streets away from the museum. I emailed Pentagon staff, reminding them of the importance of the museum. In reply, they asked me where it was. Since I’d been assured months before that the Pentagon knew where it was, I began to worry. So I emailed non-embedded reporters in Baghdad, asking them to check what was going on.

Looters running away from TV cameras in the public galleries were the first indication that something was badly wrong. What happened in the museum can now be seen as part of the destruction of virtually all governmental, cultural, educational and humanitarian institutions by looters, who carried on for months while the occupying forces stood by. Some Iraqis think that it was American policy to let the looting go ahead, so as to obliterate the institutional and cultural memory of the country, before it was remade in a neocon image. They find it hard to believe that the most powerful country in the world could carry out an operation that was badly planned, ineptly executed and marked by an arrogant ignorance of the land and people it was taking over.

For 24 hours after the US army took control there was relative quiet, since the Baghdadis assumed they were under curfew. When they found they weren’t, wide-scale looting began. The looting of the Iraq Museum was a three-day affair, in which more than 15,000 items were stolen from public galleries and storerooms. Most of the offices, labs and workrooms were stripped of furniture and equipment and ransacked. The museum was in a strategic area, with several ministries, the railway station, a bus station, and major street intersections. Troops in tanks not more than 50 metres from the museum entrance were asked by an employee to protect the institution, but said they didn’t have orders to do so.

The looters finally left on 12 April, when the media showed up. A few employees who lived nearby took advantage of this, barring the doors and putting up a large sign in Arabic saying that the building was under the protection of the Americans. The mob lingered, but there was no further looting. Of the 15,000 objects stolen only 6000 have been returned or held by customs agents abroad. These losses are on a scale well beyond previous thefts from museums. The offices and archives of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH), which administers all antiquities sites and museums in Iraq, were looted too, and thousands of records, photographs, maps and microfilms destroyed or damaged.

After senior antiquities officials arrived at the museum on 13 April, it was announced that the losses were major. Some very famous artefacts had been left on display, being judged too fragile or too heavy to move: the looters thought otherwise. In one ground-floor storeroom it was obvious even without electricity that many shelves had been emptied and numerous items smashed on the floor. Looters had also broken through the specially strengthened doorways that led to the underground storerooms where the most important artefacts had been kept. The lack of light prevented officials from making a proper inspection. Since the museum was still under threat from circling mobs and a number of key staff were still unable to report to work, it was impossible to begin a systematic assessment of the losses.

The mob had been more interested in furniture, light fixtures and wiring (the copper could be sold) than in antiquities, with the exception of the group of professional thieves that made their way to the underground storerooms, lighting their path with burning wads of Styrofoam. They headed for a specific corner, where an important collection of Islamic coins and the museum’s most precious cylinder seals were stored. They took more than 5000 cylinder seals and 5000 pieces of jewellery, but dropped the keys to the safes, so that the most valuable items survived the raid.

I reached the museum on 10 May, as part of a National Geographic group of Mesopotamian archaeologists. I was also a member of a Unesco fact-finding team, the rest of whom arrived in Baghdad several days later, having had difficulty getting permission to enter the country at all. In the meantime, the Geographic group had spent a couple of days in the Iraq Museum and then split into two units, one going north to Nineveh, Nimrud, Assur and Hatra, the other south to Babylon, Kish, Nippur, Uruk, Ur, Lagash. The Unesco team, however, was allowed only a limited stay in the country, was not permitted to go outside Baghdad, and its members had to live in tents in the UN compound.

I remained in Iraq after both groups had gone, and was taken along by the US army on a helicopter tour of southern Iraq, to assess damage at more than 20 archaeological sites. The devastation caused by looters was obvious almost everywhere we went; there were between 250 and 300 men at work on some of the mounds. At Umma, the diggers fled when we touched down, but at Isin, near Diwaniyah, they flocked to the helicopter, assuming that the US army did not care that they were digging illegally. Many of the pits and tunnels were ten metres deep across a large part of the mound. The size of the looted areas at these sites has at least doubled since then. From a satellite image taken last year, it’s clear that the looting at Isin still goes on, and there is abundant evidence that it continues too at hundreds of other sites in the four southern provinces.

By this time the museum and the SBAH offices had been secured by US troops, and with the arrival of Colonel Matthew Bogdanos and a team of investigators on 21 April, the inventory of the museum and its storerooms was begun. When I got there in May, there was evident tension between the Bogdanos team and the SBAH. The museum staff may have suspected that the investigators were going to take the best objects out of the country, and so were unwilling, initially, to divulge information about secret storerooms. The almost simultaneous arrival in Baghdad of the Geographic group, the Unesco team, and Lamia al-Gailani Werr and Selma al-Radi, two Iraqi archaeologists living abroad, meant that familiar figures could act as intermediaries between the antiquities staff and the investigators. We all kept insisting to the occupying authorities that there should be no drastic changes in the administration of SBAH in order to allow for an orderly assessment of the situation.

The museum looting story died, essentially, after the airing on 8 June 2003 of a BBC documentary by Dan Cruickshank, in which he claimed that many of the missing objects had been stolen before the war by the museum authorities at the behest of Saddam. Two days later, in the Guardian, David Aaronovitch seconded Cruickshank, and right-wing commentators in the US took up the story. Later that month, many of the same media figures used part of a statement by Donny George, the director of the Iraq Museum, to bury the story that had embarrassed the Bush administration. George said that the original figure given by the media of 170,000 stolen items was incorrect, but that at least 33 items were missing from the public galleries. When he said later in the interview that, after an initial inspection of the storerooms, it was certain that thousands of artefacts had been stolen, the statement was ignored. Nor did anyone mention that the woman who gave the figure of 170,000 to the press, and who had been identified as the museum’s deputy director, was a former low-level employee who had not been in the museum for years. Because she lived in the neighbourhood, she went in at the same time as the first reporters. Seeing the glass cases empty, she assumed that the objects had been stolen. ‘It’s all gone,’ she said, even though several objects could be seen in the background. Where she got the figure of 170,000 from is still a mystery. Those of us familiar with the museum knew that the staff would have put the exhibits in storerooms, as they had done at the time of the first Gulf War in 1991. In reply to press inquiries about the number of losses I always said that there would be no way to tell what had been lost until the museum staff had made an inventory, which would take months.

It has always been very difficult to get media coverage of the continuing destruction of thousands of archaeological sites in southern Iraq. There was a big splash in July 2008, after the visit of a small group of foreign archaeologists to assess the damage. They found that the eight sites they went to had not been looted, which led to a mini-frenzy in sections of the media and right-wing blogs, and the resurrection of old stories based on Cruickshank’s documentary. Once again, the story was that archaeologists had been making up a tale of widespread destruction when there was actually little damage.

It might seem odd that the visiting group chose to inspect a set of sites that included three they knew were safe: the first, Ur, is within the perimeter fence of a US airbase and had already been inspected a couple of years before by John Curtis of the British Museum; Margarete van Ess of the German Archaeological Institute knew that a second site, Uruk, the city of Gilgamesh, had been kept intact by its guards, whom she had continued to pay; and a third site, Lagash, was intact in 2003 when I visited, and successive satellite photos studied by my colleagues at Chicago showed that it was still not damaged at least as late as November 2007. But we could have directed the group to hundreds of other sites in the area that are still being destroyed. The sites they visited are in Dhi Qar province in southern Iraq, where an extraordinarily brave representative of the State Board of Antiquities, Abdul Amir Hamdani, has set up a co-operative effort with the Italian carabinieri, the only occupation force which has extensive training in cultural protection. But Hamdani is the first to say that although he was able to safeguard some sites, the looters just moved on to other, less well-known ones and are still at work. A Spanish colonel in Diwaniyah made a tour of sites in the area with the local antiquities official, and wrote up a report that proposed paying local tribesmen to act as guards. But when he left, no one carried on the project. Had even a minimum of effort been expended by other forces in southern Iraq, looting might have been halted altogether.

The illegal digging is the supply end of a long chain of agents, Iraqi dealers, smugglers, foreign dealers and academics who authenticate objects for collectors, and museums that provide the market. The men who do the digging are poor farmers and townspeople, many of them disbanded Iraqi soldiers who have no alternative employment. Local taxi drivers provide transport. A few sheikhs provide some organisation, while agents for regional dealers arrive periodically to pick out the best pieces. Smugglers carry the artefacts out of Iraq by a number of routes. Jewellery and antique shops in Aleppo, Damascus, Amman and Beirut sell some; a lot seems to be going through the United Arab Emirates, to judge by websites located there. But the best pieces are sent to Europe, where shops in Germany, Holland and elsewhere offer them openly. In London, formerly the key market, government action has halted the trade – for now. The same is true of the US, which had the most active buyers until a presidential order put a stop to it.

Looting in Iraq has a long history. Mesopotamian antiquities became a focus of international interest after the Napoleonic era, when British and French soldiers, commercial officers and diplomats began to explore the area and map it. In the process, they often made attempts to identify cities known from biblical and classical sources. Claudius James Rich, of the East India Company, correctly identified, explored and mapped Babylon and Nineveh, and visited many other sites. Excavation and extraction began in earnest in 1842, when Paul-Emile Botta, the French consul, dug huge winged bulls and wall slabs decorated with the exploits of Assyrian kings from palaces at Nineveh and Khorsabad. When the shipments of Assyrian reliefs reached the Louvre, they caused an international sensation. The British diplomat Austen Henry Layard began excavations in Nimrud (the ancient capital Kalhu) in 1845 and worked there and at Nineveh until 1851, sending back to the British Museum numerous reliefs and other objects. Financed only in part by the BM, Layard repaid private investors with wall slabs, which might be built into a house or a school, but eventually found their way onto the international market and came to rest in other parts of Europe, America, Australia and later Japan.

Once it became clear that there was a monetary value to antiquities, and that limestone reliefs had a greater value as objects to be sold to foreigners than as stones to be broken up and cooked for lime, Iraqis began to dig for themselves, removing thousands of objects, particularly cuneiform tablets. There are reports from the 1880s of boatloads of tablets being sold to local dealers and foreigners in Baghdad. Especially important as sources were the ancient cities of Umma (modern Jokha) and Puzrish-Dagan (modern Drehem), where Sumerian tablets could be found close to the surface of the mounds.

By the 1870s, the Ottoman government had promulgated an antiquities law, and soon excavations were being carried out by scholars rather than diplomats and commercial agents, although the digging methods had not improved. The first American expedition, at Nippur (1888-1900), was far from scientific, but supplied the scholarly world with thousands of cuneiform documents that increased knowledge of the Akkadian language (Babylonian and Assyrian), as well as enabling the decipherment of Sumerian. It’s clear from the notes and letters of the expedition members that they were also buying objects for themselves and their own or other universities from dealers in Istanbul, Baghdad or Hilla, 0r from the Ottoman officials who accompanied them.

Edgar James Banks, one of the first American scholars of Mesopotamia, was hired by the University of Chicago to dig at Adab in 1904-5. He was caught trying to smuggle objects, banned from further digging and fired by Chicago. He spent the rest of his life buying and selling antiquities. Just before the First World War, he bought a very large number of Mesopotamian objects, and began offering them to museums, libraries and universities across America. In almost any public library, university library or museum in the US, you have an excellent chance of finding a few clay tablets (usually from Umma and Puzrish-Dagan) and even some cylinder seals bought from Banks. Banks’s letters implied or even admitted that these objects had been removed from Iraq without the permission of the authorities, but the institutions still bought them.

The German expedition to Babylon, from 1899 to 1917, brought the first orderly system of excavation to Mesopotamia. German operations at Assur, Babylon and Samarra laid the groundwork for the training not only of archaeologists but of local workmen. During the First World War, when the British army reached Babylon, it found crates of objects that the Ottoman authorities had given to the German expedition to be sent to Berlin. The crates were impounded and the British Museum argued that it should keep the objects as war booty, as opposed to returning them to the Germans or to the newly ‘independent’ Iraq. Gertrude Bell, echoed by the Foreign Office, wanted the materials turned over to the projected Iraq Museum. Much of it was eventually sent to Britain, where it was divided among 17 institutions in Europe, North America and the Near East; the BM and the Berlin Museum received the best pieces.

When the Iraq Museum was founded in 1923, Bell, its first director, oversaw the adoption of an antiquities law patterned on the Ottoman one. It allowed foreign expeditions to excavate at their own expense and to receive a share of the objects discovered. Criticised by some Iraqi nationalists as favouring foreign expeditions, the law actually ensured the very swift establishment of a collection for the Iraq Museum at little expense.

The existence of a Directorate General of Antiquities did not halt illegal digging or smuggling, although with the end of the British Mandate in 1932, there was a marked change in attitude. Antiquities were seen as a way of bolstering national identity and as providing a potentially important source of revenue from tourism. In 1936, the Iraqi parliament adopted a stricter antiquities law. Under it, all antiquities and archaeological sites became the property of the state. Several foreign archaeologists left for Syria, where the regulations were less onerous. The Iraqis began to carry out their own digs, initially at Islamic sites. After the Second World War, with the foreign expeditions gone, and with newly trained Iraqi archaeologists and ancient language experts back from abroad, the Directorate General began to sponsor important excavations in prehistoric and pre-Islamic sites, although still with a British adviser, Seton Lloyd. This work formed the basis for our current knowledge of the roots of Mesopotamian civilisation.

The revolution of 1958 brought about the virtual elimination of the antiquities trade. From then until 1990, there was strong control over the sites. A new Iraq Museum was opened in 1966, and staff numbers increased. With the oil boom of the 1970s, and a great increase in funding, Iraq developed the best antiquities service in the Middle East and had an excellent record of protecting its cultural heritage.

A series of events in the late 1980s created conditions for looting to begin again. One was the stock market downturn, leading investors to seek profits elsewhere. At about the same time, the Moore and Erlenmeyer collections, formed long before the 1970s cut-off date decreed by the 1972 Unesco Convention on World Heritage, were put on sale in a series of auctions. Because they were ‘clean’ collections, museums and universities felt able to make bids. Objects that would previously have fetched a few hundred dollars now brought thousands. The auctions raised the price for Mesopotamian antiquities in general. Although there were no antiquities dealers per se in Iraq, there were dealers in antiques, jewellery and rugs who were interested in antiquities, if not already involved in the illicit trade. So when, in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, nine regional museums were looted, the stolen objects found ready buyers in Baghdad and ended up on the international market. Not much later, a cylinder seal fetched $400,000 at auction. Dealers in Baghdad and elsewhere began to encourage illicit digging, especially on sites in the desert between the Tigris and Euphrates.

The greatest danger to Iraq’s cultural heritage at this time was caused by the imposition of economic sanctions, enforced by a no-fly zone. The sanctions were felt most keenly by the poorest, many of whom lived in the south. Probably trying to find something to sell so they could feed their families, men began to go out to isolated sites and dig. As early as 1994, it was evident from the international market that large-scale illicit excavations were taking place at sites like Umma, Umm al-Hafriyat (near Nippur) and Adab. A flood of objects was reaching dealers in London and other centres of the trade, and collections were quickly being amassed in Europe, the US, Japan and the Persian Gulf. One major collector in New York was heard to say: ‘This is the golden age of collecting.’ You could not buy Iraqi dates in the US or Britain but you could buy looted antiquities by the dozen. In an antiques market in London in the mid-1990s I was offered a cloth bag containing 100 cylinder seals for $1000; the dealer apologised for the mediocre quality, saying that buyers from Hong Kong had visited the day before and taken the best ones. In those years, London dealers would send boxes of Iraqi artefacts to the US on approval, allowing customers to return what they didn’t want.

In 2001 I went to Iraq for a conference, and asked to see the salvage projects at Umma and elsewhere. Donny George led a small group from Baghdad on a one-day trip, taking only about two hours to reach the nearest town, but almost two hours more to travel the 15 kilometres through the desert to Umma and Umm al-Aqarib. It was clear from surface indications that although there had been extensive illicit digging at both sites, the areas affected were relatively concentrated. One very large and deep hole at Umma was probably the location of much of the looting in the late 19th and early 20th century. The pits from the 1990s were relatively shallow. The excavations by the State Board of Antiquities in the two years before my visit had exposed astonishing architecture and led to important finds. In order to keep the looters from returning, the expedition had to work throughout the year, even in the heat of summer. At Umma, there were as many as 18 guards, an extraordinary number for a site under excavation. But even this proved inadequate when large groups of armed men arrived at the sites on the day the 2003 war started.

Once it became clear that Iraq was not going to be a walkover, antiquities sites were given very low priority, while lots of well-publicised activity went on at the Iraq Museum. Colonel Bogdanos’s team was able to get back some of the most famous stolen items: archaeologists abroad had posted images of them on the web, which made it hard for the looters to sell them. In the museum, the damage was repaired, galleries and offices refurbished, an electrical generator installed, a computer network and some security systems supplied. A new Antiquities Guard corps was set up to protect archaeological sites, but it has taken years for them to become at all effective in stopping the plunder.

The situation for antiquities in Iraq today is still perilous, but there may be signs of improvement. The Iraq Museum remains closed, which is its best safeguard. A couple of rooms with large-scale Assyrian sculptures and Islamic architecture are opened up occasionally for visiting dignitaries. Recent reports of the return of objects from Jordan, Syria and the US might lead one to think that the recovery of stolen artefacts continues, but these items were included among the 6000 already listed as returned or recovered out of the more than 15,000 taken.

Although there are said to be virtually no antiquities coming into the US and Britain, there is a plentiful supply abroad, and not just on the Continent. The Gulf Emirates have become a new marketplace, and the internet is a major outlet. And some new collections are being accumulated in the Gulf itself. I have a suspicion that many objects are being held in warehouses for dealers and collectors until the heat is off and the trade can resume, even in America and Britain. When popular magazines tout antiquities as the ‘hottest’ (in two senses) area of investment in the current slump, and a three-inch stone lioness (identified, probably incorrectly, as being from Iraq rather than Iran) fetches $57 million at auction, as it did in December 2007, it’s probable that no museum or ancient site anywhere is safe.

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Vol. 31 No. 2 · 29 January 2009

McGuire Gibson writes that ‘it has always been very difficult to get media coverage of the continuing destruction of thousands of archaeological sites in southern Iraq’ (LRB, 1 January). Perhaps it would have been better if he had addressed his concerns to National Geographic, his sponsor in Iraq, who fired their reporter Peter Arnett on 31 March 2003 for his criticisms of US planning of the war.

Tom Nagel

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