Years after Widespread Looting of Museums, Iraq’s Antiquities Remain Vulnerable

Fears of museum looting have calmed since the immediate aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, when some 15,000 objects were stolen from the Baghdad museum after Saddam Hussein’s fall. But the difficulty of securing Iraq’s many archeological sites in the midst of violence and poverty has left them vulnerable to theft.

Spread out over hundreds of miles of often remote desert, Iraq’s more than 12,500 registered archaeological sites are home to some of humankind’s first writings and legal systems.

That record is in serious jeopardy, according to Elizabeth Stone, a professor in the department of anthropology at Stony Brook University. She has tracked the looting at the country’s archaeological sites using satellite imagery since she traveled to Iraq to investigate reports of mass looting in 2003.

Stone said that what she and her team of specialists sponsored by the National Geographic Society found was disheartening. Andrew Lawler wrote in his National Geographic article about the trip that “some sites resemble moonscapes, cratered with freshly dug holes and trenches where looters may have ripped out more artifacts in a few weeks than archaeologists have excavated in decades.”

When Stone returned to the United States, she began to quantify just how much had been taken, working with 2,000 satellite images to construct a picture of the degeneration of the sites since the first Persian Gulf war in 1991.

In some cases, Stone used multiple shots of the same sites over time, and in other cases a single image to document the damage. In all, she estimated that some 16 square kilometers of Iraqi archeological sites, much of it in the south, have been looted compared to the 0.2 square kilometers of sites that were professionally excavated.

“The difference is absolutely phenomenal,” said Stone. “We’re probably talking about a factor much larger than the looting at the Iraq museum.”

Much of what is driving the looting is cuneiform tablets, which feature one of the earliest forms of written expression, cylinder seals and coins, Stone said. Few of those objects show up on the international market, giving researchers little information about the looting process.

“We don’t really know where the triage happens,” she said. “The worst scenario would be that they [the looters] take everything off and have some expert sort it.”

Should the looted item even be found, the research impact of the discovery has already been compromised. Archaeologists often discern much from where an object is found in relation to other buildings, she explained.

While the need to protect archaeological sites is urgent, conservation efforts in Iraq face many challenges, from the logistical to the cultural.

After the looting of the Iraq Museum, international organizations from UNESCO to Interpol, the international police agency, offered their services to protect the country’s archaeological heritage and crack down on the illicit antiquities trade.

Much of this support, however, flowed to the museums, which could easily identify which items had been stolen. The majority of archaeological sites, many of which had never been professionally excavated, were more difficult to document and protect.

From the mid-’50s through the 1980s, looting was rare in Iraq and few illicit antiquities from the country were sold on international markets. After the 1991 war, however, reports of looting began to surface. And by 1995, Iraqi antiquities started appearing on international markets.

In the wake of the 2003 looting, the Los Angeles-based Getty Conservation Institute partnered with the World Monument Fund in March 2004 to address the issue of site conservation.

Iraqi archaeologists had been cut off not just from the West, explained GCI Director Tim Whalen, but also from other professionals in the region for over 10 years. Protecting the country’s archaeological sites meant bringing Iraqi archeologists up to speed on international charters and site assessment techniques.

Because of continued violence, though, neither group has been able to visit Iraqi sites in person. Whalen said that many of his researchers would like to go, but the institute has been unable to secure insurance for them.

As a result, the joint initiative has been hosting courses for Iraqi archaeologists in Amman, Jordan, on topics such as the use of Global Positioning Systems and “rapid assessment” techniques that would allow researchers to visit sites and quickly gather important information. The groups also have been working with the Jordanian antiquities office to pilot a web-based global information system which will eventually hold maps and data about Iraqi sites.

After some initial success, Whalen said the program has encountered roadblocks. Staffing changes at the Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage have forced the GCI-WMF initiative to build new relationships with Iraqi officials.

Donny George, a former head of research for the antiquities board who had collaborated with international researchers, fled to the United States in late 2006 after receiving death threats. The GCI -WMF team is still working to finalize a memorandum of understanding with George’s successor, Abbas Ali al-Hussainy.

But Whalen said the importance of Iraq’s history motivates the group to persevere.

“Iraq holds the cultural DNA for the West,” he said. The continued commitment to the country’s culture “speaks to the value of that heritage and the degree to which people worldwide understand its significance.”

George, now a visiting professor in the department of anthropology at Stony Brook University, echoed the sentiment, “The whole Iraqi people is losing a lot of its memory. The whole mankind is losing a lot of its heritage. … A huge amount of material that we are still using started there. … [But] I don’t lose hope. Peace will come to our country.”