[an error occurred while processing this directive]


Online Extra
October 2003

<< Back to Feature Page

UPDATE: What's Next for Iraq's Antiquities

Iraq's Treasures Online Extra
Photograph by Randy Olson

Winged bulls and lions with human faces stand guard at the gates of Nimrud, but they didn't protect the site from looters seeking more of the palace's riches.  Nimrud's gold was unearthed in the tombs of Assyrian queens by Iraqi archaeologists betweeen 1988 and 1990.  American soldiers now patrol the site, where more artifacts may still await discovery.

By George Stuteville

This summer more than 600 antiquities looted from the National Museum in Baghdad were recovered in New York, Rome, and in a third, undisclosed, location.

That's the good news—a glimmer of hope for historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists who have witnessed the war in Iraq and its bloody aftermath turn into the serial rape of a cultural heritage in a region that was a cradle for humankind.

The continuing bad news, says Henry Wright, a professor at the University of Michigan's Museum of Anthropology, is that the looting and ransacking of vulnerable archaeological sites is likely an everyday occurrence.

In a September 8 interview Wright, who led a National Geographic expedition into Iraq at the end of the war to assess the extent of looting and damage to museums and ancient sites, Wright said that the systematic destruction is distressing. But there are bright spots.

Wright said that in the northern reaches of Iraq near present-day Mosul, where the biblical city of Nineveh once flourished, United States troops, particularly Army detachments from the 101st Airborne Division, had established small garrisons to protect some of the major sites.

"We have no reason to believe that has changed," said Wright.

Somewhat more distressing to archaeologists, however, is the situation in the area around Baghdad and in central Iraq, where Wright said the reports he hears offer no definitive information.

"When we visited a number of sites in May, we found them perfectly okay, but we simply don't know today," Wright said.

When Navy Seabees with the First Marine Expeditionary Force entered the Babylon area at the beginning of the war, they discovered that looters had been there first—pillaging sites with histories that span thousands of years. It was in this region, located in the narrow plain between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, that a farming-based civilization dawned. The Seabees occupied a fortified area, which included one of history's most important archaeological treasures, and named it "Camp Babylon."

It is in the far southern zones of Iraq where the looting is most rampant, and likely continues, Wright said.

When his team visited last spring, they saw a pockmarked land left behind by well-armed and organized bandits seeking treasures for the illegal international antiquities market. In other cases the thefts were probably the result of poor local people hoping to find an item they could sell in bazaars. "They tear these sites apart because these heaps of debris have no meaning to them. To find one thing that would happen to be popular on the antiquities market requires ripping through great volumes of deposits that have a story to tell."

"Hundreds, if not thousands, of those stories are now lost," Wright said, comparing the losses to tearing out and tossing away the unread pages of a history book.

As discomfiting as the situation is for the plundering of antiquities, Wright said that archaeologists mourn the obliteration of important items of so-called lesser value that often give clues about the everyday lives of people who lived through the rise and fall of kingdoms.

In still other instances, villagers were not intent on ancient history, but were digging in areas for the bones and bodies of friends and loved ones thought to be in mass graves and burial sites left in the violent wake of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Though the protection of the sites throughout the country is precarious, Wright said that the best hope is that an emergent Iraqi government would take control of site protection.

It is reported that the Coalition Provisional Authority has assigned helicopters to fly over the major archaeological sites. It currently maintains guards at Babylon, Hatra, Nimrud, and Ur.

There is also some help coming from the United Nations. UNESCO held a meeting in Tokyo in August attended by 30 archaeologists and experts. They formed the establishment of an International Coordination Committee for the Safeguarding of the Cultural Heritage of Iraq.

And yet, with Iraq's estimaged 10,000 important sites, the task of protecting Iraq's archaeological treasures is formidable.

The region, which is known as the cradle of civilization, is now a place of violence and pillage, where the ancient clues of how humankind rose above a grim existence are being obliterated each day.


E-mail this page to a friend.

© 2003 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy       Advertising Opportunities       Masthead

National Geographic Magazine Home Contact Us Forums Shop Subscribe