Archaeological sites in south Iraq have not been looted, say experts

Despite widely publicised fears of damage to ancient sites, a team of specialists found that eight of the most important have not been touched after 2003

LONDON. An international team of archaeologists which made an unpublicised visit to southern Iraq last month found no evidence of recent looting—contrary to long-expressed claims about sustained illegal digging at major sites. The visit required the assistance of the British Army, which provided armed protection and a Merlin helicopter.

The Art Newspaper can reveal that specialists visited eight sites, to the north of Basra: Ur, Ubaid, Eridu, Warka, Larsa, Tell el-Ouelli, Lagash and Tell el-Lahm. These are in the four southerly provinces, which have been under the responsibility of the British Army. Despite the good news on looting, some military damage was found.

The mission involved 25 personnel: five helicopter crew, four international archaeologists, three Iraqi archaeologists, seven protection officers, two senior army officers assigned to the project, two military photographers, a signaller and a medic.

The Cultural Heritage Initiative, organised by the British Museum and the British Army, has the support of Major General Barney White-Spunner, military commander in south-east Iraq. He met the archaeologists at Basra air base on a daily basis. His assistant, Major Hugo Clarke, acted as liaison officer and accompanied the team.

Organised by Dr John Curtis, keeper of the British Museum’s Middle East department, the group had three other international specialists. These were Professor Elizabeth Stone (from New York State’s Stony Brook University), Dr Margarete van Ess (director of the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin) and Dr Paul Collins (a British Museum Mesopotamian specialist). They flew to Iraq in an RAF plane from Kuwait.

Three senior Iraqi archaeologists joined them in Basra: Qais Hussein Raheed (director of excavations), Mehsin Ali (Iraq Museum) and Abdulamir al-Hamdani (antiquities inspector for Nasiriya).

The group assembled at Basra air base on 3 June, for three further intensive days of site visits, with two overnights at Tallil air base, 300 kilometres south-east of Baghdad.

For logistical reasons visits had to be brief, between 40 minutes and two hours on the ground, but they were meticulously planned, with archaeologists (accompanied by armed officers) separating to examine different areas of a site. There were also brief aerial inspections before and after landing. Dr Curtis believes the time was sufficient for initial condition assessments.

With two exceptions (Dr Curtis has visited Ur and Eridu since last year), none of the sites seen last month had been inspected by international specialists since 2003, although they are monitored periodically by Iraqi archaeologists.

Looking for looting

Since the 2003 coalition invasion there has been repeated concern expressed about looting of archaeological sites. We reported last month, in a review of a new scholarly book on Iraq’s cultural heritage, that Professor Lawrence Rothfield of the University of Chicago claims that sites are being “destroyed at the rate of roughly 10% a year”. Professor Stone, a member of the recent mission, has also repeatedly expressed her fears of extensive looting.

The international team which visited southern Iraq last month had been expecting to find considerable evidence of looting after 2003, but to their astonishment and relief there was none. Not a single recent dig hole was found at the eight sites, and the only evidence of illegal digging came from holes which were partially covered with silt and vegetation, which means that they must have been at least several years old.

The most recent damage was found at Larsa, Tell el-Ouelli, Tell el-Lahm and Lagash. However, this probably dated back to 2003, during and in the aftermath of the coalition invasion. At Ur, Ubaid, Eridu and Warka, no evidence was found of any looting.

Dr Curtis admits that he was “very surprised” at the lack of recent looting, but stresses that the team had only been able to visit eight sites, although they are the most important in the south (an area which represents very roughly one fifth of Iraq). “It may not be typical of the country as a whole, and the situation could well be worse further north,” he warned.

When asked why the feared looting had not occurred in the southern sites, Dr Curtis offers a number of explanations: the watchtowers erected with Italian assistance in late 2003, roving police teams which supplement site guards, efforts by local antiquities staff, and the drying up of the international market for Iraqi antiquities.

The team also searched for damage caused by the military, either by Iraqi troops during the invasion or by coalition forces in the subsequent occupation.

The worst instance of this was found at Ubaid, where in the spring of 2003 Saddam Hussein’s forces had dug a dozen trenches into the mound, to disguise and protect tanks and armoured personnel carriers. A command post had also been built on top of the site. Both had involved considerable digging into archaeologically important deposits. Similar damage was found at Tell el-Lahm.

Much less damage was discovered to have been caused by coalition forces, although paper food wrappers at Tell el-Lahm were evidence of the later US military presence. However, significant damage had been caused at Ur by large numbers of troops walking over the site in desert boots.

When asked whether the British Army might have avoided flying the archaeologists into sites that had been damaged by the coalition, Dr Curtis refuted the suggestion, saying his team had visited “all the places on our initial list”.

The final issue investigated by the international team was neglect at sites. This was particularly bad at Ur, where ancient buildings reconstructed in the 1960s and 70s are beginning to collapse, from weathering. “They require urgent repairs to prevent further damage,” says Dr Curtis.

Plans for further visits by the international team are now being considered.

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