BAGHDAD (AFP) – Archaeological sites in southern Iraq have been systematically looted for over two years, but experts say the dig will have to go much deeper to find out where thousands of lost artifacts have ended up.
“The complete lack of knowledge is devastating,” says archaeologist Elizabeth Stone, who spent years excavating the Old Babylonian city of Mashkan Shapir.
“One article said that a billion Iraqi dinars worth of artifacts had been smuggled to Syria, but that’s absurd. We just don’t know what’s gone,” she says.
The mystery has emerged as new site protection forces finally begin to make a dent in thefts from the cradle of civilisation, rampant since the US-led invasion of March 2003, but experts say it may be years before the riddle is solved.
Meanwhile, artifacts are surprisingly absent from the ever-hungry illegal market. “Artifacts aren’t turning up yet,” says Seth Richardson of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. “The market’s too hot. People don’t want to trade them, for good reasons and
bad.” “We’ll probably have to wait four or five years for this stuff to turn up. And it could be anywhere — London, New York, Geneva, Tokyo.”
What is known is the shocking breadth of looting, with satellite images showing ancient sites turned into chessboards of square-shaped holes. “There’s been more dirt moved after the (2003) war by looters than there ever was by archaeologists and looters combined before the war,” says Stone.
On the ground, archaeologist Abdal Amir Hamdani, in charge of antiquities for Dhi Qar province, home to some of Iraq’s most famous archaeological sites, says his focus has shifted from looters to smugglers.
“I’m not an archaeologist. I’m a policeman,” he says.
Hamdani uses what he calls a “hunting dog” — a former looter turned paid informant — who follows up on rumours and goes out with a digital camera and global positioning system (GPS) equipment to locate and mark smugglers’ houses. Italian carabinieri forces disguised as Bedouin then go with Hamdani to carry out often fruitful raids. “This is the war within the war, the forgotten war,” he says of his dangerous job.
Last October, eight Iraqi customs officers were found dead and their recently seized cargo of antiquities disappeared on the road to Baghdad. Al-Fajir, 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of Hamdani’s base in Nassiriyah, is rife with smugglers and dealers, he says, and 60 suspect homes in the small town of 10,000 have already been identified.
Hamdani shows photos of seized artifacts: Parthian glasswork, Sumerian statues and erotic images on temple tablets, hundreds of coins, gold jewellery and bowls inscribed in ancient Aramaic, some clumsily glued together, damaged forever. “I don’t know how much they’re worth to a dealer,” says Hamdani. “To me, they’re priceless.”
He laments what he says are lax sentences of two or three years handed down to smugglers. “It’s not enough. They should be getting 10 years or more. I would like to kill them, but then what happens to human rights in this country?”
Stone says that families in the area have been selling artifacts for generations, but the lawlessness of recent years combined with increased demand from the West, Japan and Israel has made them more daring.
“You can see the purposefulness of it. People are very well-organised. They come with food and water and guns. That’s different from what Iraq has always had, farmers and villagers coming to take something to sell at the local souk.” “The assumption is that they won’t have to hold onto it for 100 years. But some families have been doing it for generations and might think their grandchildren will sell it. There must be warehouses bursting with the stuff,” she says.
“It will start coming onto the market when people decide authorities can’t be bothered to prosecute anymore.” While the director of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, Donny George, says that an object sold by a farmer in Baghdad for 50 dollars can fetch “200,000 to 300,000 dollars in New York,” the financial loss pales in comparison to the cultural one.
“The frightening thing is objects going to private collectors, where they are hidden, just for investment, like hoarding gold,” says George. He says ill-informed buyers in the West, such as the man who paid 80,000 dollars for a non-descript cylinder seal, are also inflating prices and inspiring more thieves.
“They’ve been taking out at least 3,000 tablets a week, by the truckload. That’s got to be 400-500 dissertations,” says Richardson, adding that some looters die when the tunnels they use collapse, becoming artifacts themselves. Iraq currently has 12,000 registered archaeological sites, but once the whole country has been surveyed, that number will jump to 100,000, says George.
Hamdani says there are 800 sites around Nassiriyah alone, with 200 site
protection forces to patrol them in just seven vehicles. As a result, no amount of policing is going to suffice and the museum is
placing its hopes in changing people’s mindsets. “Ninety percent of schoolbooks used to be dedicated to Saddam and the Baath
party. If we can dedicate five percent of books to antiquities, children can
learn a lot — and they can teach their parents.”
Meanwhile, generous foreign aid is well-intended, but not always useful. In the corner of George’s office is a box of 40 satellite phones donated for site protection forces by UNESCO. “We’ve had them for three months, but they didn’t give us SIM cards,” says George. “Now we have extra funding so we can buy the cards and use them.”