Robbing the Cradle of Civilization; International Campaign Fights Widespread Looting

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 29, 2005 | Go to article overview

Robbing the Cradle of Civilization; International Campaign Fights Widespread Looting


Byline: Deborah K. Dietsch, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

As Iraqis prepare to vote to establish their political future, international efforts are under way to protect their cultural past.

But with the illicit plundering of Iraq's incomparable legacy of archaeological ruins growing rapidly in scope and sophistication, will international preservation efforts prove too little too late?

Coordination among government and law enforcement agencies has led to the recovery in six countries of thousands of treasures stolen from the National Museum in Baghdad in the earliest days of the American occupation. The museum, still closed to visitors, has been fortified by security fences, storage vaults and other safeguards to protect its collections.

Far less secure are thousands of archaeological sites throughout Iraq. Many excavations have remained unprotected since the war began, allowing vandals to ransack them for statuary, clay tablets, jewelry and other precious antiquities.

"So many sites have already been destroyed," says McGuire Gibson, professor of archaeology at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute. "Illegal digging has been going on now for 22 months, virtually unhindered."

War also has taken its toll on Iraq's ancient heritage. Since 2003, U.S. and Polish troops have used Babylon, once the capital of the ancient world, as a military depot and filled sandbags with earth and archaeological fragments from its historic sites. "This is tantamount to establishing a military camp around the Great Pyramid in Egypt or around Stonehenge in Britain," states a recent report by the British Museum.

Archaeologists who have visited Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein say they are worried about continuing damage to cities where conflicts between insurgents and coalition forces continue. "Places of Shi'ite pilgrimage such as Najaf remain endangered because of possible terrorist activities," says Gaetano Palumbo, director of archaeological conservation at the World Monuments Fund. "Historic centers, from Baghdad to Mosul, remain endangered, but so far, war damage seems to have been relatively limited."

Much more devastating to Iraq's rich cultural heritage is the plunder of archaeological sites, where many of the oldest settlements and structures in the world were built. Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq, is the very birthplace of civilization. The first cities were built in this ancient land, with temples, palaces, markets and residential neighborhoods. Literature, religion and, ironically, organized warfare all began here, as well.

For archaeologists - and thieves - the country is a treasure trove of more than 10,000 identified ancient sites. "Virtually all of Iraq is an archaeological site," notes John Malcolm Russell, an art history and archaeology professor at the Massachusetts College of Art.

From September 2003 to June 2004, Mr. Russell worked in Iraq to secure the National Museum and other institutions as an adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority's cultural office. He and other scholars rely on the fragile ruins to understand the ancient societies that inhabited Iraq. When such irreplaceable evidence is destroyed or randomly hauled away, archaeologists are unable to piece together the history of civilization. Pillaging of ancient sites, therefore, has more dire consequences than the theft of artifacts from museums.

"The loss of the objects is one thing," Mr. Gibson says, "but the destruction of the ancient context is a tragedy of far greater importance."

Vastly more damaging than small holes dug with shovels, the illicit digging is often the work of organized teams using backhoes and bulldozers, Mr. Gibson says. "The damage," he explains, "consists of huge holes, some of them very deep - 20 meters (22 yards) or so at some sites - with tunnels running off in all directions from the sides of the pits. …

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