Stealing undiscovered history in Iraq

It's low-tech and bloodless but it is a crime which is slowly robbing humanity of the roots of its own existence.

    Illustration of a 5000 year old mask stolen during the invasion

    Across southern Iraq, often in the dead of night, tomb

    raiders and temple thieves are systematically looting ancient

    treasures that have lain undiscovered for thousands of years. 

    Using spades and working by the light of makeshift petrol

    lamps, armed gangs are digging into the shifting sands at the

    edges of the Euphrates river plain to spirit away priceless

    artefacts buried with the Sumerian dynasties 5000 years ago. 

    Before archaeologists can properly identify and excavate the

    sites, scattered across the river valley south of Babylon, the

    looters have already torn apart ancient temples, palaces and

    tombs that hold clues to the foundations of civilisation. 

    And since archaeologists don't know precisely what was

    there, no one will likely ever know what's missing, meaning

    robbers are stealing history even before it's been discovered. 

    "It is a crime, it is a crime against humanity," said Abd al-

    Amir Hamdani, director of antiquities for Iraq's Dhi Qar

    province, as he inspected fresh looting at Dubrum, an ancient

    Sumerian settlement near the village of Dhahir. 

    "We are losing our heritage, we are losing pieces of our

    civilisation," he said, picking up the remains of a clay pot

    dating from around 1800 BC, discarded by looters as they fled

    the site probably because it was deemed of too little value. 

    Some of the priceless treasures 
    are up to 5000 years old

    The looting, which began more than a decade ago, has picked

    up sharply in the past year amid the chaos that has sprung up

    since the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

    And as it has grown

    more pervasive, so it has become more organised and ingenious.

    Wealthy collectors


    Investigators describe a chain starting with looters who

    steal to order, deliver artefacts to local merchants, who

    smuggle them out of Iraq to dealers connected to wealthy

    collectors in the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the United



    "We are losing our heritage, we are losing pieces of our


    Abd al-Amir Hamdani,
    Director of antiquities,
    Dhi Qar Province, Iraq

    The most sought-after items include cuneiform tablets - s

    ymbol-rich clay palettes that contain the origins of writing -

    cylinder seals, which were used to identify or mark ancient

    documents, intricate figurines and items of bronze jewellery. 


    Hamdani says looters - generally penniless villagers

    familiar with the locations of the sites - get as little as $13

    for a whole cuneiform tablet. 


    "It will be sold on for tens of thousands of dollars, but

    really it is priceless," he said, shaking his head at the damage

    inflicted on Dubrum.


    Archaelogical looting


    In the year since US-led forces invaded Iraq, the focus of

    attention has been on battling a determined resistance 

    and restoring security.


    But bit by bit, attention is also being

    paid to stopping desecrations like archaeological looting.


    Italy, one of the closest US allies in Iraq and a country

    with a history of fighting organised crime, has sent units of

    its Carabinieri paramilitary force to lead the battle to protect

    sites in a large swath of southern Iraq. 


    Catching heritage looters has
    proved to be a tough job

    With several hundred sites to monitor in Dhi Qar alone, the

    task appears far beyond the capacity of a force that numbers in t

    he hundreds. 


    Instead, the Carabinieri have concentrated on securing the

    most important areas and are trying to patrol as many others as



    At the same time, they are training Iraqis to protect

    major sites and collect information on looting habits. 


    Often it is a cat-and-mouse game, with robbers growing

    familiar with the Carabinieri's techniques and sometimes getting

    warning of their approach - not difficult when they arrive

    across miles of open desert in convoys of armoured cars. 


    Only by using helicopters in flash raids and with an element

    of surprise have they managed to catch thieves red-handed.


    Increasingly, looters work at night. Sometimes they raid

    sites just beyond the Italians' strictly defined area of

    responsibility, betting they won't stray out of the zone.


    Not enough


    In the eight months since the Italian specialised unit began

    its operations, only 47 robbers have been caught, although

    precious objects have also been rescued.


    Historic buildings are dotted all
    over the country

    "There are more than 700 sites and there are a million

    potential looters," Hamdani said. "Whatever we do is not



    A year ago, in the immediate aftermath of Saddam's o

    verthrow, the National Museum in Baghdad was the focus of

    archaeologists' concerns.


    Gangs of looters broke into the museum

    and stole hundreds of priceless artefacts - ancient statues,

    low-relief carvings, Akkadian jewellery and Sumerian cylinder



    Many of the most important pieces, including the fabled

    treasures of Nimrud, have been recovered or were found stashed

    safely in the vault of Iraq's central bank. 


    Since most of the museum pieces were catalogued, it has even

    been possible to track down many of those that were spirited



    "To lose those objects is to lose the source of our

    identity, it's like losing the mother of civilisation" 

    Mario Bondioli-Osio,
    senior adviser to Iraq's Ministry of



    Court cases are pending in the United States and

    Switzerland to recover several that are still missing. 


    But the same process cannot be used with ancient treasures th

    at no one yet knows ever existed. For archaeologists and art

    historians it is an unfathomable loss excruciating to bear.


    "To lose those objects is to lose the source of our

    identity, it's like losing the mother of civilisation," said

    Mario Bondioli-Osio, senior adviser to the Iraq's Ministry of

    Culture and formerly the president of Italy's commission for the

    recovery of stolen art.


    Funding and training


    Bondioli-Osio has been frustrated by the lack of attention

    paid to the problem with the US-led coalition having to focus

    instead on combating the year-long insurgency.


    Post-invasion confusion lead to
    widespread looting of artefacts

    With more funding and training, he says, a stop could be put t

    o the thieving.


    Iraqis need to be taught how to police ancient

    sites, they need weapons and communications equipment. A recent

    tightening of Iraq's borders was a positive step, he said. 


    Just a week ago, Jordan announced it had seized some 700

    pieces smuggled out of Iraq and would return them.


    For archaeologists, Iraq, often referred to as the cradle of

    civilisation, offers the richest possible vein for discovery.


    Some say the world's archaeology books could be rewritten

    after just a few years of excavation in the country.


    That will be impossible if the looting continues.


    "We risk losing our understanding of how civilisation came

    into being," said Bondioli-Osio, his face tense with concern as

    he showed visitors around Baghdad's shuttered national museum.


    "It is a rape of our humanity." 

    SOURCE: Reuters


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