Fears of the continued plunder of ancient antiquities in war-torn Iraq may be laid to rest, according to a new survey of eight of the most important archaeological sites in the south of the country.
An international team of scholars who visited the historic sites in June found no obvious evidence of recent looting, according to a report recently published by the British Museum in London.
The findings came as a surprise to antiquities experts and scholars who had expected continued destruction of Iraqi heritage sites after the U.S. invaded in 2003.
“We didn’t see any new looting at the eight sites, which was really very, very encouraging,” said team member Elizabeth Stone, a Mesopotamia specialist from Stony Brook University in New York.
While the study team cautions that the situation may be very different elsewhere in Iraq, the findings suggest a dramatically improved situation at the eight locations since 2003, when widespread illegal digging was recorded in the region.
The survey, however, uncovered other significant damage to ancient Mesopotamian monuments caused by neglect and military activity.
The British Museum-led expedition to Basra and three other southern provinces was supported by the British Army, which provided armed security and helicopter transport.
Using high-resolution satellite images from 2003, Stone, a National Geographic Society grantee, identified extensive looting at more than 200 sites in southern Iraq.
Larsa, an important second millennium B.C. city nearly 150 miles (240 kilometers) south of modern-day Baghdad, was among the badly looted sites visited by the team.
“If there was major recent looting there we would have expected to find it,” Stone said. “But I didn’t see anything that was there in late 2003 or early 2004.”
Looting activity identified at other southern sites, including Tell el-‘Oueili, Tell al-Lahm, Lagash, and Eridu, is also thought to have occurred at least four years ago.
Other types of damage were revealed at sites such as Ur, capital of the Sumerian civilization from 2100 to 2000 B.C.
Famous for its terraced temple, called a ziggurat, and royal tombs, Ur was hit during the bombing of the adjacent Tallil Airbase in the first Gulf War (1990-1991).
Stone says one of the temples, the Kassite temple next to the ziggurat, has “deteriorated considerably” since she last inspected it in 1992.
She now suspects the bombing may have cracked a protective concrete covering, allowing water to erode the temple’s ancient brickwork.
The team additionally found that walls of the royal tombs have begun to collapse.
“In places like Ur we’re seeing this kind of wear and tear,” Stone said.
Damage to monuments caused by Iraqi defensive positions dug prior to the 2003 invasion and subsequent potentially harmful uncontrolled access by coalition troops was also highlighted in the report.
“Tens of thousands of military boots tramping over an archaeological site is not what we want,” observed team member Paul Collins, curator of later Mesopotamian collections at the British Museum.
But, overall, the most serious threat is neglect, Collins said.
“The ongoing problem is not so much looting or military damage, it is the fact that these sites have faced 30 years of neglect,” he said. “The lack of resources for the Iraqi Department of Antiquities means they simply haven’t been able to inspect the sites or do conservation or restoration work.”
Many ancient buildings “are simply eroding away,” Collins said.
The apparent halt to looting at the study sites may be partly due to better security since Iraq’s Facilities Protection Service (FPS) was set up with Italian assistance in 2003, Collins said.
The FPS started as a unit of 4,000 government-building guards and by 2006 had grown into a paramilitary force of nearly 145,000. U.S. officials have repeatedly called it unreliable.
However, Collins said the research team found the FPS to be very effective. “They turned up, fully armed, at several of the sites we visited,” he said.
At some sites local tribes have taken responsibility for guarding ancient artifacts from potential looters, he added.
Not the Whole Picture?
Collins stresses that the study gives only a limited snapshot of the current situation in Iraq.
“It’s just eight sites out of tens of thousands of archaeological sites, most of them unexplored,” he said.
Similar surveys need to be undertaken across Iraq to “really get a picture of what did happen and what the situation is now,” he added.
Lawrence Rothfield, director of the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, believes there are good reasons why the sites visited by the team didn’t show evidence of recent looting.
Some sites were located near or within coalition bases, while others “did not contain artifacts of interest to collectors,” Rothfield wrote in an email.
“There is plentiful evidence that serious plundering of sites since 2003 has occurred,” Rothfield said.
He noted, for instance, that Polish and Italian forces in Iraq have reported “widespread looting” and “continuous and methodical illicit digging.”
“We know that as of 2006, 17,000 artifacts looted from unregistered archaeological sites had been recovered, surely only a fraction of what has been lost,” Rothfield said.
“If there is any grounds for optimism from this report,” he said, “it is that it shows that an intelligently devised anti-looting policy by the military could have prevented much of the looting that has occurred, and that future looting can be controlled as well, if the Iraqis can get the support they need to do the job.”
On September 25, 2008, the United States Senate voted to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. This international convention regulates the conduct of nations during war and military occupation in order to assure the protection of cultural sites, monuments, and repositories, including museums, libraries, and archives. Written in the wake of the widespread cultural devastation perpetrated by Nazi Germany during the Second World War, and modeled on instructions given by General Dwight Eisenhower to aid in the preservation of Europe’s cultural legacy, the Hague Convention is the oldest international agreement to address exclusively cultural-heritage preservation. The US now joins 121 other nations in becoming a party to this historic treaty. By taking this significant step, the US demonstrates its commitment to the preservation of the world’s cultural, artistic, religious, and historic legacy.
Although the US signed the convention soon after its writing, the Pentagon objected to ratification because of increasing cold-war tensions. Only with the collapse of the Soviet Union did the US military withdraw its objections, and President Bill Clinton transmitted the convention to the Senate in 1999. The public attention given to the looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad in 2003 and the looting of archaeological sites in southern Iraq during the ensuing years revived interest in the convention, and the Senate finally voted to give its advice and consent to ratification last week.
A number of understandings were established in connection with the ratification, mostly to ensure that the convention does not interfere substantially with the US military’s ability to wage war. The final element of the ratification is a “declaration,” which states that the treaty, though self-executing: (a) does not require the US government to prosecute anyone who violates the convention (implicitly meaning that such prosecution is required only if a US law is also violated); and (b) does not give individual persons a right of redress in US courts.
Peter Tompa at the Cultural Property Observer provides a summary and commentary on what happened in the Senate. CAA has posted PDFs of both the introduction of the Hague Convention to the Senate by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the ratification of the treaty, from the Congressional Record.
Statements by Hague Convention Advocates
While US policy has been to follow the principles of the convention, ratification will raise the imperative of protecting cultural heritage during conflict, including the incorporation of heritage preservation into military planning; ratification will also clarify the United States’ obligations and encourage the training of military personnel in cultural-heritage preservation and the recruitment of cultural-heritage professionals into the military. Cori Wegener, president of the US Committee of the Blue Shield (USCBS), noted that “Ratification of the Hague Convention provides a renewed opportunity to highlight cultural-property training for US military personnel at all levels, and to call attention to cultural-property considerations in the early stages of military planning. The US Committee of the Blue Shield will continue its commitment to offering cultural-property training and coordination with the US military and to increase public awareness about the 1954 Hague Convention and its international symbol, the Blue Shield.”
Patty Gerstenblith, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation (LCCHP), cited among the advantages of ratification, “Most importantly, it sends a clear signal to other nations that the United States respects their cultural heritage and will facilitate US cooperation with its allies and coalition partners in achieving more effective preservation efforts in areas of armed conflict.”
The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) has advocated ratification of the Hague Convention for more than fifteen years. John Russell, AIA vice president for professional responsibilities, commented that “By ratifying the 1954 Hague Convention, the US has affirmed its commitment to protecting cultural property during armed conflict. The Archaeological Institute of America will continue to work with the Department of Defense to integrate the Convention’s provisions fully and consistently into the US military training curriculum at all levels.”
Since the founding of the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation in 2004 and of the US Committee of the Blue Shield in 2006, ratification has been among their primary priorities. AIA, LCCHP, and USCBS formed a coalition of preservation organizations that submitted testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in support of ratification and worked with members of the Senate to achieve this historic step. The Statement in Support of US Ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention urging Senate ratification, joined by twelve other cultural preservation organizations, is available from LCCHP.
LCCHP acknowledges the additional assistance of the Society for American Archaeology and the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago in the effort to achieve ratification of the Hague Convention.
CAA Standards and Guidelines
CAA has advocated for the ratification of the convention for decades. CAA has also published its own Standards and Guidelines on issues related to international cultural heritage: the CAA Statement on the Importance of Documenting the Historical Context of Objects and Sites (2004), A Code of Ethics for Art Historians and Guidelines for the Professional Practice of Art History (1995), part of which addresses trafficking in works of art; and the Resolution Concerning the Acquisition of Cultural Properties Originating in Foreign Countries (1973).
Iraqi diplomats in Germany have stopped the sale of 28 Mesopotamian artifacts believed to have been smuggled from the country in the years since the 2003-U.S. invasion.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has asked the Iraqi embassy in Germany to appoint a lawyer and launch a lawsuit to have the artifacts returned to Iraq.
Under an Iraqi law issued in 2007, Iraqi envoys in foreign countries are required to report on the exhibition of Mesopotamian artifacts or their auctioning.
Information on the Iraqi items is passed to experts who determine whether they were part of tens of thousands of items that have been looted or illegally dug in the past few years.
The items whose sale has been blocked in Germany dated to the ancient civilizations that flourished in southern Iraq, particularly the Sumerians.
Iraqi scientists say Germany is not doing enough to have the smuggled items on its territory returned to the country.
But Iraqi envoys in Germany have already won a court case for the return of a priceless gold item of astounding beauty.
The gold piece which is more than 4500 years old is currently in the possession of Iraq Museum.
The court victory has encouraged Iraqi diplomats across Europe to resort to judicial procedures to crack down on Iraqi antiquity smugglers.