An international mission had found no evidence of recent looting at eight sites in south Iraq; some archaeologists were far from pleased

The unwelcome truth



The Art Newspaper’s exclusive report on a visit to Iraq by an international team of archaeologists published in our summer issue (pp1,4) has sparked off a controversy, particularly in the United States. We reported that eight southern sites had been visited, with the help of a British Army helicopter and troops, and that no evidence had been found of looting after 2003.

Dr John Curtis of the British Museum, who led the mission, admitted that he had been “very surprised” at the lack of recent looting. However, he stressed that the team had only been able to visit eight sites, although these are the most important in the south. “It may not be typical of the country as a whole, and the situation could well be worse further north,” he told us. Following our article, his full report has been posted on the British Museum’s website.

The Wall Street Journal picked up on the story, with writer Melik Kaylan pointing out that the international team’s report rebutted “the hitherto prevailing impression abroad in the world that the invasion has directly led to the mass destruction of Iraq’s archaeological heritage.”

An opposing view was put by Professor Lawrence Rothfield, of the University of Chicago. In a book that came out in the spring, he had claimed that “illegal digging on a massive scale continues to this day, virtually unchecked, with Iraq’s ten thousand officially recognised sites being destroyed at a rate of roughly 10% per year.”

In his blog, which has been widely circulated in the archaeological community, he accuses The Art Newspaper of publishing a “highly tilted” article. He writes: “Is it possible that sustained looting is occurring or has already occurred at many of the other 9,992 other sites? The answer is certainly yes for the years 2003-6.” (It is universally acknowledged that there was very serious looting during 2003, but the question is what has happened since.)

Professor Elizabeth Stone, a member of the international mission that visited Iraq (and a specialist at New York State’s Stony Brook University), feels that both ends of the spectrum are “completely distorting the situation”. In her view, the issue is being politicised: “What happens to archaeological sites is being used as a stick to beat the coalition troops.” She is astonished that the good news that no post-2003 looting was found at the eight key sites which were inspected has not been greeted with relief.

The hope now is that the international team may be able to widen their investigations to other sites slightly to the north of those that they were able to visit from Basra. This would require military protection from either British or American forces since travel in this area is extremely dangerous for foreigners. Among the key sites that should be inspected are Isin, Umma and Umm al-Aqrib, which are known to have been badly damaged by looters in 2003.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Unwelcome truth'