Looted art

Unchecked looting of archaeological sites continues in midst of Iraqi war

The Art Newspaper takes inventory of the worst casualties


Iraq’s archaeological sites have been largely ignored by the international media. Access to the sites is difficult, but the first survey has been conducted by a team organised by the US National Geographic Society. Led by Henry Wright, of the University of Michigan, its report will be published in the October issue of the magazine.

The worst looting is in the south of Iraq, and team member Professor McGuire Gibson visited some of the sites in May, protected by US troops. He reported that Umma, Isin and Adab, Sumerian settlements of the 3rd millennium BC, are still being pillaged.

At Umma, Professor Gibson witnessed 200 looters at work. “ In every direction there was fresh digging. The diggers began to return, and since many were armed, we went back to the helicopter and took off.” At Isin, Professor Gibson saw 200 to 300 looters. “We told them that it was forbidden, and the army men fired over their heads to speed up their exit.”.

These were the worst affected places visited by the team and the good news is that many of Iraq’s most important sites do not seem to have suffered systematic looting during or since the recent war - although some have faced isolated examples of pillaging. Ashur appears to have been untouched. The site of Babylon does not seem to have suffered damage, although the museum was looted. Hatra has lost one important item, the head of a figure. Two reliefs were taken from Nimrud, but these appear to be the only major losses. Ur seems to have escaped relatively unscathed.

There seems to have been little damage to sites because of the recent fighting, but pillaging is continuing. Pietro Cordone, the official advisor on culture to the Coalition administration, admits that “many archaeological sites throughout the country have been looted.” “It’s happening at almost every site,” explained Tofiq Abed Muhammad, director of antiquities for the province of Samawa.

Adab Severe damage. More than 200 looters seen at work and site appeared to have been targetted for some years.

Ashur Recently the Iraqis began work on a dam which will flood part of the site.

Babylon No evidence of damage to the site (but museum badly looted).

Bad-Tibira Some recent looting.

Ctesiphon Children are climbing on roof and throwing bricks.

Dahaileh Heavily pitted by looters.

Eridu Minor signs of attempted looting, but no losses.

Girsu Minor recent looting.

Hatra A recent loss is the head of a figure which had decorated an arch within the temple complex.

Isin Severe damage. Up to 300 looters recently seen at work and damage has been of long duration.

Khorsabad Minor damage caused by trenches in nearby military camp.

Lagash Not damaged.

Larsa Extensive recent looting, particularly on baked brick buildings.

Nimrud Two recent thefts in NW palace, with reliefs stolen from rooms B and I (plus damage to a relief in room S).

Nineveh Concerns over expansion of new suburbs of Mosul. Three forms of recent damage to Sennacherib SW palace - general decay of reliefs over period of sanctions (including loss of corrugated iron roof), vandalism of reliefs in two galleries, and digging of two holes in the chambers.

Nippur A few recent looters’ pits, but little damage.

Tell Billa Site of a former Iraqi army camp which has now been razed to the ground.

Tell Harmel No damage.

Tell Mohammed No damage, but pillbox built by Iraqi troops.

Tell Rimah Undamaged. The nearby prehistoric village of Qirmiz Dere suffered some damage from bulldozing and to a lesser extent by military action. Some damage has been caused to Tell Afar by the extension of fields and buildings. There is concern that the Coalition forces may now extend the Tell Afar airfield.

Tell Shmid Signs of recent looting.

Tepe Gawra Olive orchard planted in last five years could destroy evidence of a lower town.

Ubaid No recent damage to main site, but a nearby early historic village site had been pitted by looters very recently.

Umm al-Aqarib Looters seen at work.

Umm al-Hafriyat Riddled with recent digging.

Umma Severe damage. More than two hundred looters seen at work. Landscape is devastated. An Early Dynastic cemetery was being plundered and other buildings were being riddled with new holes.

Ur No evidence seen that US personnel had taken bricks. Some military fox holes dug in site.

Uruk No damage.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Archaeological sites the worst casualties'