- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2005

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.”

Though some ancient grounds in southern Iraq were looted during Saddam’s regime, “75 to 90 percent of the looting at the sites has happened since 2003 when the war started,” Mr. Russell says.

Widespread vandalism has damaged some archaeological remains beyond repair. “Some of the most important Sumerian sites are already so destroyed that they will probably never be excavated scientifically again,” says Mr. Gibson, who toured some of the damaged sites in 2003.

“The looters were sent to the best-known sites that had already been excavated by foreign or Iraqi expeditions because it was known that they would produce material that collectors would buy.”

The hardest-hit ruins, according to scholars, are in southern Iraq. They include Isin, a regional hub that prospered around 2000 to 1800 B.C.; Umma, a city that flourished from about 3000 to 2000 B.C.; and Zabalam, a large city associated with the Sumerian goddess of love and war.

In south-central Iraq, the site of Nippur, an important religious city in ancient Babylonia, was robbed for two months in 2003, Mr. Gibson says. He also cites extensive damage to the ancient ruins of nearby Bismya and dozens of other sites. “The looting is spreading,” he warns. “It is only a matter of time before it goes farther and farther north.”

To protect archaeological sites from further damage, security guards have been dispatched to some locations. Mr. Russell says 1,750 guards have been hired recently to augment the Iraqi protective force. Last year, guards received 20 pickup trucks, funded by the Packard Humanities Institute and the State Department, to patrol the sites. The U.N. Development Group has allocated $5.5 million for a three-year cultural program for Iraq, including 45 vehicles and equipment to strengthen security at archaeological digs.

“This isn’t enough,” Mr. Russell says. “They still need about 100 more trucks equipped with radios and adequate weapons.”

Helping preserve cultural treasures are the New York-based World Monuments Fund and the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles. They provided $17,000 to install a new roof over the mud-brick structure of Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh, an ancient imperial capital in northern Iraq that was plundered after the Gulf war in 1991.

The two organizations are collaborating on a computer-based inventory that would be used by Iraqi archaeologists to evaluate and monitor historic sites throughout the country.

The first course for training employees of Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in this collection of data was held in Amman, Jordan, in November and December. According to Tim Whalen, director of the Getty Conservation Institute, surveying of Iraqi sites will begin later this year, while training continues over the next four years.

While well-intentioned, this preservation effort may come too late to save Iraq’s endangered heritage. It may serve only to record the damage already done rather than prevent further vandalism at archaeological sites.

“Until there is a real Iraqi government with a strong department of antiquities that will have enforcement powers,” Mr. Gibson warns, “the sites will remain the prey of anyone who wants to loot them.”

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