Patterns of Looting in Southern Iraq

Article excerpt


Southern Iraq, sometimes called the 'cradle of civilisation', witnessed the world's first cities, writing, professional art and many other manifestations of complex society. Moreover, its unique combination of well preserved archaeological remains together with cuneiform tablets makes ancient Mesopotamia potentially the most knowable of all early civilisations. This archaeological heritage was well protected before the first Gulf War, but the subsequent economic embargo led to a dramatic reduction in the funding and personnel of the Iraqi Department of Antiquities, leaving Mesopotamian archaeological sites largely unprotected. The pillaging of sites, especially in the south, has been reported sporadically since the mid-1990s, and received greater attention following the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. Photographic evidence of significant damage to the major sites of Isin, Umma, Umm al-Aqarib, Zabalam, Tell Schmid, Bad Tibira, Abbas al-Kurdi and Mashkan-shapir, many of which were supposed to have site guards, was obtained by three helicopter overflights between May 2003 and January 2004. Visitors to Adab, Umm el-Hafriyat, Nippur, Larsa, and several other less well known sites in the Nasariyah area also reported significant damage (Gibson 2003; Lawler 2003; Figure 1). These largely anecdotal reports left open key questions regarding the looting: Was it restricted to the largest sites, or were sites of all sizes affected? What role does the distribution of the modern population within Iraq play in the damage to sites? Are looters selectively targeting sites dating to particular periods and therefore likely to generate particular kinds of artefacts? What was the effect of the 2003 invasion and its aftermath on the looting of archaeological sites?

The availability of high resolution commercial satellite imagery makes it possible to begin to provide answers to these questions. Here I report the results of high resolution Digital Globe imagery used to investigate patterns of archaeological site looting in southern Iraq both before and after the 2003 war. Data from more than 1900 sites were investigated to determine how their location within the plain, their size and the date of their dominant surface assemblage affected the likelihood of looting. More limited data were developed on the timing of the looting by comparing imagery from both before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The study focused on the geographic area included within the archaeological surveys conducted by Robert McC. Adams in the Nippur area (Adams 1981), by Henry Wright in the vicinity of Eridu (Wright 1981), and by Adams and Hans Nissen (1972) around Uruk. The reasons behind this focus are twofold: all of the sites with anecdotal reports of significant looting were within this area, and this same area had been imaged at 60cm resolution by the Digital Globe Corporation.


Iraq became a high priority for the Digital Globe Corporation when war was imminent, and a majority of our images were acquired either immediately before the 2003 war or during the following summer. Images were taken only sporadically in 2002, and after 2004. All imagery used in this study was acquired by the spring of 2006, so the latest image available for this study dates to early in 2006. A total of 9729 [km.sup.2] of imagery was examined, within which 0.87 per cent was occupied by known archaeological sites. Only rarely is there imagery dated more than a year apart for any one site; nevertheless, more than one third of the sites have multiple images taken at least a month apart. The surveys recorded data on 1838 sites, almost all of which have been located within the imagery and form the database for this study. Those sites surveyed but not included are the few apparently destroyed by modern construction and those in the Eridu Basin located beyond the range of Digital Globe's coverage. There are 1760 sites in our database which had been recorded in the Uruk, Nippur and Eridu surveys and were located on the Digital Globe imagery. …