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Matt Moyer, World Picture News    
By Andrew LawlerPhotographs by Steve McCurry and Randy Olson

When the spring offensive by U.S.-led forces ended, another battle began: the fight to preserve Iraq's ancient sites and artifacts from looters. A team of archaeologists races from Baghdad to Babylon to report from the field.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

"Don't shoot! We're Americans!" Henry Wright shouts as he thrusts his head out the window. It's dark, but dead center in our headlights is a jumpy young U.S. marine aiming his weapon at the windshield of our white SUV. This team of archaeologists and journalists who've come to assess the damage to Iraq's ancient sites had been warned of armed looters, not friendly fire. But cruising the backstreets of the battered town of Nasiriyah after dark in search of the local museum, we've run into a Marine roadblock. The museum, we discover, is now a military barracks.

Grim tales of mass looting have brought our expedition, sponsored last May by the National Geographic Society and led by Henry Wright, a researcher at the University of Michigan's Museum of Anthropology, to this dusty place where humanity's first great cities once dominated the vast Mesopotamian plain. While media attention has focused on the loss—and recovery—of artifacts in Baghdad's Iraq Museum, we're investigating reports that poverty-stricken villagers and organized bandits are ransacking ancient mounds across the country, feeding the foreign appetite for antiquities. The five archaeologists on the team are anxious to see what's happened to the sites in the decade since the 1991 gulf war prompted U.S. restrictions that kept Americans from digging in Iraq.

Our expedition finds both tragedy and reason for hope. Some sites resemble moonscapes, cratered with freshly dug holes and trenches where looters may have ripped out more artifacts in a few weeks than archaeologists have excavated in decades. Others shimmer intact and silent in the desert heat. While half the expedition team travels through southern Iraq, the other half probes the situation in the north, where the damage is less dramatic but still a cause for serious concern.

In Nasiriyah we are in luck. Marine Maj. Glenn Sadowski is extremely helpful. He has organized an armed escort to take Iraqi archaeologist Abdul Amir Hamdany to survey the local sites, and he invites us along. The two men are an unlikely duo. Sadowski is a strapping reservist whose platoon lost seven men during the 1991 gulf war. Hamdany is a soft-spoken scientist who's been evicted from his own museum, where off-duty marines are pumping iron to heavy metal music. Neither speaks the other's language. But Hamdany returns day after day to stand on the burning sidewalk and ask Sadowski's help. "In the bazaars they are selling antiquities," he says. "We have to do something."

The aim of the National Geographic survey is to put a spotlight on the crisis. Without U.S. troops or paid Iraqi guards providing round-the-clock protection, many sites will remain vulnerable. Keeping Iraq's treasures safe will require a level of security that at this point is elusive at best. But Hamdany knows that careful assessment of site damage is a critical first step.

"You can tell he has a passion for this," Major Sadowski says, after agreeing to supply the escort. "It's the least I could do." On such slender threads of trust and respect hangs the future of Mesopotamia's past.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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VIDEO Expedition leader Henry Wright and photographers Steve McCurry and Randy Olson returned from Iraq in late May. In these video clips they describe some of their experiences.

AUDIO (recommended for low-speed connections)
RealPlayer  WinMedia

Online Extra

Get an update on the looting of Iraq's antiquities.


Looting of Iraq's archaeological sites needs to be stopped. Yet the war has created urgent needs among the Iraqi people. How can those in charge prioritize: priceless human history vs. immediate human need?


Flashback to 1933-34  when an ancient gypsum relief of a winged Assyrian god was excavated from the site of King Sargon II's palace.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Who shot the ziggurat? In the 1991 gulf war, or perhaps in the months or years after, someone fired on the ziggurat at Ur in southern Iraq. About 4,000 years old, the ziggurat at Ur is a large structure that resembles a flat-topped pyramid, and is believed by some to be Abraham's birthplace.
Some archaeologists—U.S. and international—believe the U.S. was responsible for shooting the ziggurat. They claim that since the Iraqis did not fly any aircraft in the gulf war, they couldn't have shot it themselves. Nor would they be likely to do so, since it was their own antiquity.

But according to U.S. Central Command and the U.S. Marines, the Iraqis did fly during the 1991 gulf war—they flew to escape to other countries, or they flew and were shot down by coalition forces.

A U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) photo, presented in a closed Pentagon briefing in February 2003, showed the ziggurat at Ur with two Iraqi MiG jets parked like decorations at either side of the grand staircase. The accompanying text from the briefing noted the Iraqis had set the aircraft there to try to provoke the U.S.-led coalition forces into attacking them and damaging the ziggurat. It also stated that the allies resisted attacking the MiGs.

Going back and forth between the DOD and the Defense Intelligence Agency to check the reliability of the briefing photo did nothing to refute the serious claims made by U.S. archaeologists. They alleged that in 1991, Dick Cheney—at that time Secretary of Defense—had presented a different photo showing a MiG next to the ziggurat and claiming that our military "had taken care of it." Academics and some of the press took that to mean the U.S. had blown it up.

When those same archaeologists visited the site after the 1991 gulf war, they counted a spray of some 400 holes in the surface of the old pyramid.

A former Air Force attorney at Tactical Air Command, who in 1991 supervised the military lawyers who kept track of the legalities of what got bombed or shot by the Air Force, was confident the Air Force had not caused the damage during the 1991 gulf war. He suspected it was done by Iraqis during the rioting and uprisings that occurred right after the war, when Iraq's citizens realized that perhaps Saddam Hussein was not as firmly in power of his brutal, repressive regime as they had previously thought. 

News clips claimed that just before the 1991 gulf war Iraqi soldiers had caused the damage while digging in their machine guns or while establishing artillery on top of the ziggurat.

Other news clips claimed the damage was caused by U.S. Marines digging in after they captured the ziggurat in 1991. One news story in a British newspaper was based on an interview with a U.S. officer who said he had called off the bombs that were targeting the ziggurat at the last minute because the site was listed on a document of historic locations provided by the archaeological community.

So who shot the ziggurat? We will probably never know unless someone confesses.

—David Wooddell

Did You Know?

Related Links
The National Geographic Society's Cultural Assessment of Iraq
The report from the team of archaeologists sent by the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration.

Iraq Antiquities
Learn more about efforts to retrieve missing artifacts.

Iraq Museum Baghdad
Insight into Iraq's cultural heritage, with photos of the collection and general information.

Oriental Institute
Learn about the lost treasures of Iraq.

UNESCO and Iraq
UNESCO also sent teams into Iraq to make cultural assessments, and to help protect Hatra, a one World Heritage site.


Lawler, Andrew.  "Destruction in Mesopotamia," Science (July 6, 2001), 32-43.

Mallowan, M.E.L. Nimrud and its Remains, Vols. 1 and 2. Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1966.

Roux, Georges. Ancient Iraq, 3rd ed.  Penguin Books, 1992.

Russell, John Malcolm.  The Last Sack of Nineveh.  Yale University Press, 1998.

Russell, John Malcolm.  "The Modern Sack of Nineveh and Nimrud,"  Culture Without Context.  (Autumn 1997).

Woolley, Leonard.  Spadework in Archaeology.  Philosophical Library, 1953.


NGS Resources
Boulat, Alexandra. "Baghdad Before the Bombs," National Geographic, (June 2003), 52-69.

Edwards, Mike W. "Eyewitness Iraq," National Geographic, (November 1999), 2-27.

Wilkinson, T. J. "Land-use Diversity in Bronze Age Upper Mesopotamia," National Geographic Research Journal, (Spring 1992), 196-207.

Severy, Merle. "Iraq: Crucible of Civilization," National Geographic, (May 1991), 102-115.


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