Iraq's ancient artefacts still missing

Three years after the Baghdad Museum was looted, thousands of archaeological artefacts have still not been accounted for, the museum remains closed and all excavation and research in Iraq has ground to a halt.

    Men in Basra captured with stolen artefacts

    Following the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, looters raided the museum and other historical sites in Iraq (there are 15 provincial museums in the country), making off with thousands of pieces.

    The US military at the time said it had not anticipated such dangers and promised to pursue investigations to trace what had become of the artefacts.

    In May 2003, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 1483 which stressed "the need for respect for the archaeological, historical, cultural, and religious heritage of Iraq, and for the continued protection of archaeological, historical, cultural, and religious sites, museums, libraries, and monuments".

    However, Iraqi experts fear smuggling of Iraqi artefacts may be ongoing.

    In October 2004, Jordanian border officials seized six pieces dating to 1500 BCE in the boot of an Iraqi car.

    Dr Lamia Al-Gailani-Werr, an Iraqi archaeologist and member of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and former adviser to the Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council, says the destruction of Iraq's heritage is leaving a bitter legacy for future generations.

    Currently living in England, al-Gailani-Werr returned to Iraq as a consultant immediately after the museum was looted. How would you describe the current state of Iraq's antiquities?

    Al-Gailani-Werr: Dismal. There isn't one pressing issue, but many. The museum is sealed off because of the security situation and it is very difficult to get to the objects inside.

    It is necessary to have an inventory of the antiquities in the museum, to know exactly what has been stolen. Without such an inventory, anyone can steal more and attribute it to the day when the museum was looted in April 2003.

    The archaeological sites particularly in the south are still systematically being looted.

    I cannot picture the enormity of the loss to the heritage of Iraq.

    What must be done to recover the country's historical wealth?

    If you mean the looted antiquities from the Iraqi Museum, it will take years and maybe never. For instance, 5000 objects were looted from the museums in the south after the 1991 uprising [after Iraq's defeat and ousting from Kuwait]. Only a handful has been recovered.

    How many pieces were looted after 2003?

    Until there is precise inventory we cannot say how many objects have been looted. But it is estimated at around 15,000 pieces.

    Were international smuggling rings involved?

    It is difficult to answer this; definitely there must be contact between the looters that are roaming the country devastating the archaeological sites and outside middlemen.

    You hear about Lebanese antique dealers involved, but where do these antiquities go?

    Some have appeared in Europe and USA, but many have found their way to the Arab Gulf states.

    Are there international organisations which have a global effort to locate and return these items?

    Yes, Interpol [International Criminal Police Organisation] is involved, also the Italian antiquities police, and all the customs authorities in Europe and US.

    How involved is the Iraqi government in recovery, restoration and protection efforts?

    The antiquities authorities, particularly in the provinces, are involved in pursuing the dealers and looters.

    As for restoration efforts, the laboratory in the museum is undertaking many projects, including restoring objects that had been damaged by the looters.

    Italian conservators are helping in the preservation and restoration of the Assyrian reliefs, which date to 880-612 BCE.

    In January 2005, the British Museum issued a report condemning the US and Polish military presence in the ancient city of Babylon, 90km south of Baghdad. The report cited "substantial damage" caused by US military forces including the destruction of a paved road built in 600 BCE.

    In April 2006, US commanders apologised for the damage their military encampments (a helicopter landing area was built atop ancient ruins) and operations had caused the ancient city.

    You dismissed the US apology as unsatisfactory and insulting.

    Why do you feel insulted?

    As if we are little children, and when a grown up says sorry, we are meant to be pleased.

    They were warned from the very beginning that they are doing damage to the antiquities and yet did nothing.

    But the US did help in the recovery of looted artefacts.

    Yes, the US did help in the recovery, immediately after the looting of the museum in April 2003 a whole team of investigators worked for several months towards that goal.

    During that time over 3000 objects were returned, including the famous Warka Vase [the oldest ritual vase in carved stone discovered in ancient Sumeria dating to 3000 BCE] and the Warka Head.

    Are there any archaeological projects in Iraq at the moment?

    If you mean is there any research being done or any excavation, no there are none, first because of the security situation. Second according to international law, foreign archaeological expeditions are not allowed to work as long as the country is under occupation.

    Most of the archaeologists and the employees of the Museums and the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage are undergoing training courses outside Iraq, particularly in Jordan, Germany, Italy, Great Britain, United States, and Japan to name a few.

    One of the important projects, sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) and the Getty Institute, is an inventory of every archaeological site in Iraq.

    Around 20 archaeologists are being trained. The museum itself was being prepared to re-open; however, this is on hold at the moment.

    SOURCE: Aljazeera



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