AS United States troops begin withdrawing from Iraq, we should take stock of the staggering damage that Iraq’s ancient archeological sites have suffered from looting over the last few years. After the 2003 invasion, swarms of looters dug huge pits and passages all over southern Iraq in search of cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals. At Isin, where a Sumerian city once stood, I watched men sifting through tons of soil for 4,000-year-old objects to sell to Baghdadi dealers. It was mass pillage.
The worst of the looting appears to be over, say the experts who monitor archeological sites with armed inspections and aerial photographs. With security improving, Iraqi authorities now have the chance to bring long-lasting protection to what’s left of the country’s ancient heritage. They could take some pointers from an unexpected place: Peru.
In 1994, residents of eight villages in northwestern Peru — a region of deserts and oases that looks much like Iraq — organized citizens’ patrols. The patrols weren’t out to stop house burglars or cattle rustlers. They were looking for looters, who, for several years, had plundered the area to feed the robust international market for pre-Inca artifacts.
I spent a few days with one of these patrols in the village of Ucupe in 2002. The members were unarmed and well organized, and they knew the terrain as well as you know your dining room. When they spotted looters digging up the overgrown ancient burial mounds that dot the landscape, they surrounded them and called the police. In this way, I saw the patrols apprehend three potential looters without firing a shot.
Last year, archeologists excavated an intact tomb at Ucupe that contained the remains of a lord who ruled during the Moche civilization around A.D. 450. He was buried with golden headdresses, war clubs, silver rattles and opulent jewelry. If sold piecemeal on the black market, these objects could have fetched millions. Instead, their discovery opened the door to a new understanding of how power was exercised in the Moche world.
Without the civilian patrols, this tomb would certainly have been emptied by looters. The people of Ucupe will now benefit from the archaeological tourism that often follows such discoveries and that, in Peru, is booming. They protected a community asset, and it paid off.
This kind of grassroots organizing — where local officials, police officers and archaeologists join forces with local residents — is the best way to combat looting and protect sites from being swallowed up by the illicit antiquities trade. A similar strategy has proved effective in Mali, a country that has little in common with Peru besides a rich archaeological heritage. It would work in Iraq and elsewhere.
Surprisingly, though, relatively few governments have focused on getting rural people involved in protecting threatened sites. Most spend their energy pressing museums in the United States or Europe to repatriate looted artifacts, instead of focusing on safeguarding the archaeological riches still in the ground. Repatriation is a valuable goal, but an immense amount of historical information is lost whenever looting occurs and sites are damaged, even if the objects are later recovered. The government’s time would be better spent expanding the patrols to prevent looting in the first place.
In Iraq, the authorities could start by inviting provincial museums and archaeologists to work with local governments and police departments on organizing residents who live near key ancient sites. Rural citizens’ patrols aren’t expensive — they need binoculars, cellphones, maybe a few dirt bikes and some basic training. Financing could come from international conservation and community development organizations and should include money for education to encourage people to see the ruins in their midst as valuable community assets as much as potable water or clean streets. Once organized, the patrols need to be lightly armed if armed at all, and they have to be well regulated by the police. But as the good citizens of Ucupe have shown, they work.
Roger Atwood, a contributing editor at Archaeology magazine, is the author of “Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers and the Looting of the Ancient World.”