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The Devastation of Iraq’s Past

Catastrophe! The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past

an exhibition at the Oriental Institute Museum, Chicago, April 10-December 31, 2008.
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Geoff Emberling and Katharyn Hanson. Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 87 pp., $29.95 (paper)

American Hostage

by Micah Garen and Marie-Hélène Carleton
Simon and Schuster, 288 pp., $15.95 (paper)

In May 2003—some eight weeks after the American invasion had begun— Abdul-Amir Hamdani, the archaeology inspector of Dhi Qar province in southern Iraq, traveled to Najaf to call on the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. He had an urgent request. “We needed his help to stop the pillage,” Hamdani recalled. The province, which is midway between Baghdad and Basra, covers much of what was once the land of Sumer. In the third millennium BC, it was a fertile plain densely populated by such cities as Ur, Lagash, Girsu, Larsa, and Umma; today, the shifting course of the Euphrates and Saddam Hussein’s brutal campaign to drain the marshes, to the southeast, have left it in large part an impoverished wasteland. With the fall of the Baathist regime, hundreds of poor farmers and villagers—often backed by armed militias—were turning to archaeological plunder; in some Dhi Qar towns, such as al-Fajr, the black market trade in antiquities was accounting for upward of 80 percent of the local economy.

Al-Sistani was sufficiently moved by Hamdani’s plea to pronounce a fatwa. He proclaimed that digging for antiquities is illegal; that both Islamic and pre-Islamic artifacts are part of Iraqi heritage; and that people who have antiquities in their possession should return them to the museum in Baghdad or in Nasiriya, the capital of Dhi Qar province. Copies of the fatwa were distributed widely in the south, and published in the Iraqi press. “At this point some of the looters stopped their work, because when Ayatollah al-Sistani says something, they listen,” Hamdani said.

The fatwa was a small victory in what has been, for Hamdani, a largely intractable struggle to save one of the deep sources of human culture. Settling in the southern part of what the Greeks later called Mesopotamia some six thousand years before the birth of Christ, the Sumerians developed year-round cultivation, built the earliest city-states, and devised a complex system of writing. Over time, the area came under the sway of the Akkadians, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians; later, it fell under Persian and Hellenistic influence before the Islamic conquest in the seventh century. Left behind were the rich remains of history and literature, often in the form of baked mud-brick tablets covered with wedge-shaped script called cuneiform; and small engraved seals—cylinder-shaped objects made of imported hematite, lapis lazuli, and other semiprecious stones that, when rolled onto wet clay or other soft material, produce intricate and often stunningly beautiful impressions of ancient life and ritual.

Remote and mostly lacking in monumental architecture above ground, the buried cities in which this material was preserved withstood centuries of violence, from the arrival of Cyrus the Great in the sixth century BC to the Mongol invasion in 1258. An absence of much subsequent urban development also meant that the archaeological record was unusually clear. Yet since 2003, several important sites have been destroyed beyond recognition; perhaps tens of thousands of cylinder seals and cuneiform tablets have been removed and channeled into the underground art market.

What is currently taking place in southern Iraq,” Gil Stein, the director of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, writes in the catalog to “Catastrophe!,” the institute’s disturbing new exhibition on the subject, “is nothing less than the eradication of the material record of the world’s first urban, literate civilization.” All the more remarkable, at a time of growing international concern for the devastating effects of archaeological plunder, the destruction of Sumer following the 2003 invasion was largely unchallenged by American and British forces. How did this happen?


Since the looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad in April 2003, the international press has accorded considerable space to the country’s imperiled ancient heritage. Much of this coverage, however, has been devoted to the museum, the impressive campaign to recover its stolen works, and the continued struggle to reopen its galleries. (They remain closed.) Only occasional, anecdotal reports—mostly from the first year of the conflict—have borne witness to large-scale plunder of archaeological sites, to which the damage is irreversible.

In large part, the problem for journalists is the number of sites—there are over a thousand, many of them remote, in Dhi Qar province alone—and the danger posed by any attempt to investigate them. Micah Garen, a freelance filmmaker and photographer who, along with his partner Marie-Hélène Carleton, is perhaps the only Western journalist to have reported extensively on the looting in the south, was kidnapped by a gang with links to the Mahdi Army while visiting a black market in Nasiriya in 2004. He was held hostage for nine days, an ordeal recounted in Garen and Carleton’s recent memoir, American Hostage. The looters also have powerful connections that can intimidate their enemies: in early 2006, Hamdani was thrown into jail for three months on trumped-up charges after attempting to rein in the activities of a developer with close ties to the antiquities trade.

The dearth of firsthand accounts, in turn, has led to much confusion about the extent of the looting, its chronology, and its underlying causes. The destruction of sites, for example, has been blamed on everything from the Sunni insurgency and al-Qaeda in Iraq (also known as al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia) to treasure-hunting soldiers. The mystery has been heightened by the sense, among many in the art world, that remarkably little Iraqi material has been surfacing on the art market. Theories about the whereabouts of plundered objects have varied from storerooms in Damascus and Dubai to living rooms in the US and Japan.

This June, for the first time since 2003, a small group of archaeologists, led by John Curtis, curator of the Middle East collections at the British Museum, were able to visit eight major sites in southern Iraq in a helicopter provided by the British forces stationed in Basra. Their mission was limited—the eight sites were south of the region where looting has reportedly been heaviest. But at the sites they visited, they found that the digging was far from uniform. Uruk, Eridu, and Lagash suffered little or no looting; while Larsa and other sites had been extensively looted. “One shouldn’t underestimate the role that local people can play in this,” Curtis told me after the trip. “No doubt that at Lagash, they were actively preventing looting. At other places, they might have been actively engaged in it.”1

These new insights have been strengthened by an analysis of satellite images by Elizabeth Stone, an archaeologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook who accompanied Curtis on the June survey. In the months preceding the 2003 invasion, DigitalGlobe Corporation, a Colorado company, began taking satellite photographs of southern Iraq for the Pentagon. Stone realized that these high-resolution images were particularly suited to documenting the mounds, or tells, of buried Mesopotamian cities, including any fresh digging and trenches. With support from the National Geographic Society, the National Endowment for Humanities, the State Department, and several other institutions, she began buying up the images, and by the time she published her findings earlier this year, she had data on nearly two thousand archaeological sites.2

As sheer documentation of knowledge destroyed, the pictures are chilling. Some of the most revealing discoveries about Mesopotamia—from the royal tombs at Ur to the literary texts of Nippur—have come from excavations in southern Iraq. And yet, Stone estimates that the total extent of the recent looting is

many times greater than all archaeological investigations ever conducted in southern Iraq—and must have yielded tablets, coins, cylinder seals, statues, terracottas, bronzes and other objects in the hundreds of thousands.3

And since these objects have been ripped from their archaeological settings, which in many cases have been destroyed, much of the potential information contained in them—even if they do resurface—has been obliterated.4

Still more striking, however, is what the satellite pictures tell us about the looters. First, despite the existence of important Mesopotamian sites throughout the country, intense, organized looting has occurred only in certain areas. Others who reported on the issue immediately following the invasion concluded that sites in the north had not been much targeted. But Stone is also able to show that some areas of southern Iraq, including Central Babylonia, to the south of Baghdad, and the Eridu Basin south of Nasiriya have remained largely intact; the heavy looting has been mostly confined to a sizable, but well defined, swath of territory around northwest Dhi Qar and the borderlands of its neighboring provinces—precisely the area where Hamdani has observed a booming antiquities trade.

Second, the images make clear that the first big wave of looting actually occurred before the arrival of Coalition forces. By the end of 2002, state authorities had largely abandoned the region of Sumer, along with other parts of the south, and photographs from early 2003 show evidence of rampant fresh digging at numerous small and medium-sized sites, many of them unstudied by archaeologists. Stone suggests that the timing of these initial excavations coincided with “the threat of hostilities—and presumably the mistaken expectation of increased security [by the US invaders] thereafter.” Digging at some larger sites also began around this time, but seems to have accelerated greatly—and in more organized fashion—after the looting of Baghdad, in April and May 2003, when several of the most important known sites, including Isin and Umma, were largely destroyed. (At Isin the holes appear much blacker in the satellite images than at other sites, indicating deep trenches that reach down to the earliest stratum of human history there.5 )

Finally, Stone is able to show with some precision that the hard-core looting, where it has occurred, has been selective. Prehistoric and early Bronze Age sites down to the time of Uruk—the first great city-state, where, in the early third millennium BC, the legendary Gilgamesh was king—were not much disturbed. Nor were the many sites in the region from the Neo-Babylonian period (630–539 BC) or from the Islamic era. In contrast, digging amounting to ransacking is evident at some sites dating from the Akkadian period (2335–2100 BC), when cylinder seals developed into an elaborate art form; there was also heavy looting at sites from the Old Babylonian era (2000–1600 BC), particularly known for its cuneiform tablets; and at sites from the centuries when the region was under Persian and Hellenistic influence (538 BC–637 AD), when works of glass and coins were in wide circulation.

What are we to make of these findings? For one thing, they bear out the observations of Iraqi archaeologists—and of the recent expedition led by John Curtis—that the people who have been involved at ground level belong to certain of the tribes native to Dhi Qar and neighboring provinces. Though underreported in the Western press, a system of tribes or khams has provided the backbone of rural Iraqi society for centuries. Until the first Gulf War, tribal hierarchies in the south were suppressed by the state, but they were increasingly reconstituted during the UN embargo of the 1990s, and tribal leaders have become a central source of authority in the vacuum of power since 2003. The area where heavy looting has occurred, for example, is largely under the control of a few tribes.

  1. 1

    Citing the June survey, recent reports in The Art Newspaper and The Wall Street Journal have somewhat breathlessly suggested that little or no looting in southern Iraq actually occurred. To the contrary, the findings provide further evidence that organized plunder was both extensive and selective, bearing out earlier indications that some large sites were not affected. For a formal report on the eight sites inspected in the survey, see www.britishmuseum.org/iraq.

  2. 2

    Elizabeth C. Stone, “Patterns of Looting in Southern Iraq,” Antiquity, Vol. 82 (Spring 2008), pp. 125–138. A less technical account of her findings is contained in her essay in the catalog to “Catastrophe!”

  3. 3

    It should be stressed that until further information comes to light, any attempt to quantify the number of objects removed is by nature conjectural. The number of cuneiform texts that have surfaced in the West remains small, although anecdotal evidence indicates that far larger quantities may be in the Middle East or elsewhere. Thousands of cylinder seals remain at large from the Iraq Museum alone, and the extent of the looting holes and the number of sites involved give some weight to a number well into the tens of thousands, if not higher.

  4. 4

    It has been observed that archaeological “context” may matter less for inscribed objects, whose own texts contain important historical information and often identify where they are from. Mesopotamian texts have frequently been found together, however, in buried libraries or collections of tablets, the existence of which has made it possible to use texts to draw broad conclusions about politics, culture, and daily life. Once texts from such a group are dispersed it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to reconstruct that group and its significance. I am grateful to Piotr Michalowski for this point.

  5. 5

    For a study of the damage at Isin and its surrounding area using similar techniques as Professor Stone’s, see Carrie Hritz, “Remote Sensing of Cultural Heritage in Iraq: A Case Study of Isin,” in TAARII Newsletter, The American Academic Research Institute in Iraq, Spring 2008, available at www.taarii.org/newsletters/.

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