Looters in Iraq

Daniel Estrin of Associated Press wrote: “The plundering of antiquities in the war-torn Middle East has become a primary concern for the archaeological community, and some archaeologists even compare satellite images of sites in Iraq and Syria to moonscapes, after antiquities robbers went through them. Archaeologists claim the Islamic State extremists and militants from other groups are funding their activities in part through illegal trafficking of antiquities, and authorities worldwide have been taking action to try to stem the flow. [Source: Daniel Estrin, Associated Press, February 13, 2015]

“What first sparked awareness of the issue, archaeologists say, was a deluge of cuneiform artifacts on the Western antiquities markets after the first Gulf War in 1991. In the years that followed, archaeologists estimate that hundreds of thousands of small clay tablets with cuneiform inscriptions made their way into the hands of dealers. Many contained incrustations, indicating they were “fresh out of the earth,” said Robert Englund of the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative.

Websites and Resources on Mesopotamia: Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu.com/Mesopotamia ; Mesopotamia University of Chicago site mesopotamia.lib.uchicago.edu; British Museum mesopotamia.co.uk ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Louvre louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_periode.jsp ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/toah ; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology penn.museum/sites/iraq ; Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago uchicago.edu/museum/highlights/meso ; Iraq Museum Database oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/dbfiles/Iraqdatabasehome ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; ABZU etana.org/abzubib; Oriental Institute Virtual Museum oi.uchicago.edu/virtualtour ; Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur oi.uchicago.edu/museum-exhibits ; Ancient Near Eastern Art Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org

Archaeology News and Resources: Anthropology.net anthropology.net : serves the online community interested in anthropology and archaeology; archaeologica.org archaeologica.org is good source for archaeological news and information. Archaeology in Europe archeurope.com features educational resources, original material on many archaeological subjects and has information on archaeological events, study tours, field trips and archaeological courses, links to web sites and articles; Archaeology magazine archaeology.org has archaeology news and articles and is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America; Archaeology News Network archaeologynewsnetwork is a non-profit, online open access, pro- community news website on archaeology; British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine is an excellent source published by the Council for British Archaeology; Current Archaeology magazine archaeology.co.uk is produced by the UK’s leading archaeology magazine; HeritageDaily heritagedaily.com is an online heritage and archaeology magazine, highlighting the latest news and new discoveries; Livescience livescience.com/ : general science website with plenty of archaeological content and news. Past Horizons: online magazine site covering archaeology and heritage news as well as news on other science fields; The Archaeology Channel archaeologychannel.org explores archaeology and cultural heritage through streaming media; Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu : is put out by a non-profit organization and includes articles on pre-history; Best of History Websites besthistorysites.net is a good source for links to other sites; Essential Humanities essential-humanities.net: provides information on History and Art History, including sections Prehistory

Archeology and War in Iraq

Archeological work in Iraq has been greatly disrupted by the wars and sanctions. In the sanction era in the 1990s between the Persian Gulf wars there was little or no money to do archaeological work or protect sites from looters. Foreign archeologists were for the most part not allowed in the country. Many Iraqi archeologists were forced to find other kinds of work. Famous sites like Jatra were guarded by a single old man with a hunting rifle. In the Iran-Iraq war many sits along the border of Iran and Iraq were destroyed or damaged. In the first Persian Gulf war Saddam Hussein placed two Iraqi jets next to the ziggurat of Ur. After the war looting began almost immediately and peaked in the mid 1990s.

Before the first Persian Gulf war Iraq’s antiquities department employed 2,600 people. At the time Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 there was a great deal of archeological activity taking place in Iraq . Dozens of foreign and Iraqi teams were engaged in projects. All that came to a halt after Kuwait was invaded. The shortages of funding reduced the number of people employed in the antiquities department to a few hundred. All 33 archeological museums were closed to the public. There was few resources available to police sites and people took up looting to feed their families.

After the first Persian Gulf war excavation work did not begin again into 1997. Then work was only done at only 32 sites, with archeologists protected by armed guards. Only four sites were worked by foreign archeologists.

Did the U.S. Bomb the Ziggurat of Ur?

US bombers in Iraq

Bombing raids during the first Persian Gulf War in 1990-1991 left four craters in the temple precinct and 400 holes in the ziggurat. Who shot the ziggurat? David Wooddell wrote in National Geographic: “Some archaeologists—U.S. and international—believe the U.S. was responsible for shooting the ziggurat. They claim that since the Iraqis did not fly any aircraft in the gulf war, they couldn't have shot it themselves. Nor would they be likely to do so, since it was their own antiquity. But according to U.S. Central Command and the U.S. Marines, the Iraqis did fly during the 1991 gulf war—they flew to escape to other countries, or they flew and were shot down by coalition forces.

“A U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) photo, presented in a closed Pentagon briefing in February 2003, showed the ziggurat at Ur with two Iraqi MiG jets parked like decorations at either side of the grand staircase. The accompanying text from the briefing noted the Iraqis had set the aircraft there to try to provoke the U.S.-led coalition forces into attacking them and damaging the ziggurat. It also stated that the allies resisted attacking the MiGs.

“Going back and forth between the DOD and the Defense Intelligence Agency to check the reliability of the briefing photo did nothing to refute the serious claims made by U.S. archaeologists. They alleged that in 1991, Dick Cheney—at that time Secretary of Defense—had presented a different photo showing a MiG next to the ziggurat and claiming that our military "had taken care of it." Academics and some of the press took that to mean the U.S. had blown it up. When those same archaeologists visited the site after the 1991 gulf war, they counted a spray of some 400 holes in the surface of the old pyramid.

“A former Air Force attorney at Tactical Air Command, who in 1991 supervised the military lawyers who kept track of the legalities of what got bombed or shot by the Air Force, was confident the Air Force had not caused the damage during the 1991 gulf war. He suspected it was done by Iraqis during the rioting and uprisings that occurred right after the war, when Iraq's citizens realized that perhaps Saddam Hussein was not as firmly in power of his brutal, repressive regime as they had previously thought.

“News clips claimed that just before the 1991 gulf war Iraqi soldiers had caused the damage while digging in their machine guns or while establishing artillery on top of the ziggurat. Other news clips claimed the damage was caused by U.S. Marines digging in after they captured the ziggurat in 1991. One news story in a British newspaper was based on an interview with a U.S. officer who said he had called off the bombs that were targeting the ziggurat at the last minute because the site was listed on a document of historic locations provided by the archaeological community. So who shot the ziggurat? We will probably never know unless someone confesses.”

Looting of Ancient Treasures After the First Persian Gulf War

Looting of antiquities had been a problem in Iraq ever since the Iran-Iraq War, when attention was focused on war not archeology, and accelerated after first Persian Gulf War ended in 1991 and sanctions were imposed and money to protect archeological sites dried up. Looting was one of the ways a person could make money and get rich quick. Many famous archeological sites were looted; pieces that went missing from Iraq’s museums as ancient treasures from Iraqi’s great Mesopotamian cities flooded international markets.

Most of the pieces were small things like seals, cuneiform tablets and figures. They were sold for a few hundred dollars by looters, and often fetched thousands of dollars or more from buyers on the international market. Looters typically sold artifacts to middlemen and they sold them to dealers who in turn sold them to private collectors. Gold objects were sometimes melted own for their gold.

Items from Iraq that were rarely seen on the international art market before the first Persian Gulf War in 1990-91 became plentiful afterwards. In some cases cuneiform tablets could be purchased on E-bay for a little as $100. Art shops in London were filled with similar cuneiform tablets. American and British archeologists complied a list of more than 2,000 stolen objects stolen after the First Persian Gulf War. A decade later no more than half a dozen had been recovered.


Looted Archeological Sites and Museums after the First Persian Gulf War in 1990-91

Most of the looting in Iraq after the First Persian Gulf War in 1990-91 took place in the south. In the mid 1990s, looters dug up and removed a cuneiform archive from the ancient southern city of Umma. Some unexcavated sites in the south were worked over with bulldozers and dump trucks. The ancient cities of Isin, Larsa, Mashkan Shair and Nippur were also hit.

Sites in the north were not immune from looting. Statues and reliefs were taken from Hatra and Nimrud. In Khorsabad, a magnificent head of an Assyrian winged bull was cut off and sawed into 11 pieces so it could be moved. These thieves who took the head were caught and executed. Looters who looted and sawed into pieced the reliefs in the 30-meter-long throne room in Sennacherib’s palace in Nimrud were not caught and their reliefs ended up for sale on the world market.

Nine of Iraq’s 13 regional museums were ransacked and around 3,000 objects were taken, Looters emptied the regional museums in Dohuk, Arbil,, Sulaimaniya in Kurdistan, Amara, and Kufa. Museums in Basra, Mosul and Karbala were badly looted. At a museum in Babylon, thieves broke into glass cases and took tablets with fine examples of cuneiform writing and signature seals.

In the mid 1990s in Babylon, thieves used sledgehammers to knock down the wooden doors of the small museum next to Ishtar Gate in broad daylight. Knowing exactly what they were after, the seized five large seals and 37 seal rings dating to the time of Nebuchadnezzar. After that all the museum in Iraq were ordered closed and all artifacts were ordered to be taken to Baghdad for safekeeping..

Archaeological sites and museums in Iraq were understaffed, In many cases the documents of the objects lost was less than ideal. In some cases taken objects were not even catalogued.

Looters After the First Persian Gulf War

Some of the looting was done by poor local people, desperate to earn some money due to the sanctions. Some of them were farmers or Bedouin herders who used to earn extra money working at archeological digs. Most the looting however it is believed to have been organized by organized criminals or professional international operators.

Looters in Iraq

The teams of looters were equipped with guns, knockout drugs, cars with false license plates, heavy machinery, and legions of laborers who are paid a small daily wage. In many cases they pretended they were with the government and used the knockout drugs to subdue guards. The looted materials wete often taken by smugglers to Jordan or through Kurdish areas into Turkey and then made their way to auction houses and dealers in the United States, Britain and Switzerland.

In the late 1990s, Saddam Hussein took up the cause of saving Iraq’s archeological treasures. He had his name inscribed on a plaque in Babylon next to Nebuchadnezzar’s. In 2000, ten Iraqi businessmen caught illegally selling Assyrian artifacts were executed live on television. But the at the same time Baath party members and Saddam relatives in the Antiquities department were selling objects abroad. Among those involved was Ali Majed—better known as Chemical Ali. He built a huge palace right on the second millennium B.C. site of Tell Al-Ward. There were also allegations that Saddam turned a blind eye to looting from some tribesmen to win the loyalty of their chiefs. Local leaders and chiefs were often paid by middlemen to allow looters to work unmolested in their territories.

Many of the worst looters are believed to have been people appointed by the Saddam regime to protect treasures and archeology sites. Looting at Hatra was done under the direction of a belly dancer who stole the heart of Saddam Hussein and was appointed director of an archeological site and museum. Saddam’s son Uday was also said to had a role in trafficking. An archeologist who complained to the government about the looting was imprisoned tortured and suffered permanent damage to his arms.

Looting After the Second Persian Gulf War Started in 2003

Looting was such a problem after the American invasion or Iraq in 2003 that the World Monuments Fund listed Iraq as one of the world’s most endangered sites—the first time an entire country was listed. Looters were very active in southern Iraq, sometimes working day and night. Satellite images revealed bulldozers digging holes and vehicles standing by to haul away any items that were found. Looting on this scale seems to been organized by organized crime gangs.

Umma continued to be mined by looters as it had been before the war. Immediately after the American invasion the site was ravaged, Hundreds of trench were dug, in some cases with heavy bulldozers. A number of groups, armed with shovels and picks and sometimes automatic weapons, worked openly unearthing vases, statues, urns and cuneiform tables at Isin (Isan Bakhriat), a 4,000-year-old Sumerian city in southern Iraq. Larsa, Fara and Uruk were seen as prime targets.

Looted objects were smuggled out of Iraq through Jordan, Iran and Turkey. The main route is believed to have been through the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq into Turkey, where they could easily make their way to Europe. Another route was through Jordan or Saudi Arabia to the Gulf states like Qatar or the United Arab Emirates. Travelers said that a gift of cigarettes or alcohol to a border guard was all that was required to have a bag overlooked.

Item were sold in the towns outside the archeological sites where they were looted. Cuneiform tablets, cylindrical seals and small figures were sold openly and were available on dozens of Internet sites.

Looting of the Iraqi National Museum After the American Invasion in 2003

Iraq National Museum

The Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad—with one of the finest collections of Mesopotamian artifacts in the world and objects more than 50,000 years old—was looted in April 2003 soon after Baghdad fell after the American invasion of Iraq. Over two days, more than 15,000 items were taken. The museum was trashed. Glass cases were smashed and steel cages were torn open to get at the items inside. Ancient vases and ceramics were shattered. Statues were split open or had their heads knocked off. Vaults were pried open. [Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press, Reuters, National Geographic]

At one point thousands of men, women and children—some of them armed with rifles, pistols, metal bars and clubs—ran amok on the museum grounds and carried away stuff by the box-load and cart-full. Items that had been carefully removed from their display cases and placed in storage vaults were also taken after the vaults were broken into. This activity led to speculation that low-level employees of the museum or people familiar with the museum’s layout must have been involved. One British archeologist said, “You’d have to go back centuries, to the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258" to find looting “on this scale.”

It was originally thought that the looting was mostly done by ordinary Iraqis to earn some money to take care of their families. Later it was realized that much of it was done by professionals, who took priceless items while leaving behind flawless copies and destroying records so the objects would be hard to trace. It is believed that particular items were stolen to sell to private collectors for millions of dollars.

Initially it was reported that 170,000 items were taken, including some of the museum’s greatest treasure, and there were comparisons to the destruction if Library of Alexandria. It turned out that was not the case. The museum’s most valuable pieces has been stored in a secret vault before the American invasion had begun. Most of the artifacts that were taken were items such as shards of pottery and individual beads of lapis lazuli that were taken from storehouses and mostly of interest to archeologists. Only 33 items from the museum itself were lost.

Criticism of the United States Over Looting of the Iraqi National Museum

The American government was sharply criticized for not doing more to protect the Iraqi National Museum: placing a tank in front of it, for instance, to deter looters. The U.S. Defense Department said that American forces in Baghdad were still engaged in combat missions, which were their primary concerns. The bottom line was the American forces simply had too few troops and protecting the museum was not one of their highest priorities.

This didn’t sit well with scholars who, on numerous occasions, had alerted the Pentagon that measures needed to be taken to ensure such a tragedy wouldn’t take place. In many cases military officials told scholars the Iraqi National Museum would be safeguarded.. These same scholars asked why measures had been taken to protect the oil ministry and not the museum.

The Iraqi National Museum was located near the Communications Ministry and the state television and radio stations, likely targets for attacks. As American forces entered Baghdad there was two days of heavy fighting around the museum. Fearing for their lives staff members fled. When they returned two days later after Baghdad was in American hands the museum was in the process of being plundered. The plundering continued unchallenged for a couple of days. It was only after media attention was focused on the plight of the museum that American troops were sent to protect it.

Iraqi National Museum Pieces Stolen or Damaged

Adad-Nirari stela looted from the Iraq National Museum

Among the items that were stolen from the Iraqi National Museum were the Sacred Vase of Warka; the Warka head; the Harp of Ur; the Bassetki Statue; a black, headless statue of the Sumerian King Entemena, dated at 2430 B.C.; a large ivory relief depicting the Assyrian god Ashur; the head of a marble statue of Apollo, a Roman copy of a 4th century Greek original and a A.D. 12th century mosque door.

Some items were also damaged in the fighting and looting. The heads of the Lions of Tell Harmal were smashed. The body of the Apollo of statue from which the head was removed was found in pieces on the floor. A tank shell exploded right underneath an Assyrian relief at the facade of the museum. Fortunately just the bottom part of the frame was damaged.

The status of the 50,000-year-old Shanidar skull, the lizard-faced figurines, the Ubaid boat model, Little King, Statue of Sumerian Worshiper, the Stone Statue of the a Sumerian Scribe, the Cuneiform Calender from Nimrud and the Lioness Killing a Nubian Shepherd are initially unknown but later found to have been stashed out of harms way.

Certain galleries were severely hit while others were spared. The largest room with Assyrian sculpture was largely untouched while the gallery with artifacts from Hatra was badly looted and damaged. Greco-Roman statues of Apollo, Eros, Nike and Trajan were decapitated. Access to some vaults and storerooms by looters indicated some of the looters most have had some inside help.

Items Returned to the Iraqi National Museum

Items were recovered by U.S. Customs and at the borders of Iraq and Syria and Jordan, As of October 2004, 5,200 of the 13,000 items taken form the National Museum had been recovered in six countries, with 3,000 objects seized in Iraq, over 1,00 in Jordan, 300 in Italy and 200 in Syria. Kuwait and Iran were perhaps the least cooperative of all nation perhaps based on the wrongs committed against them by Iraq. The 600 objects retrieved in the United States were seized mostly in airports. Different sources gave different figures. One said as of July 2005, 3,627 of the 15,000 item taken form the National Museum had been recovered..

The treasures from Nimrud and Ur it turned out were not looted. They were found in a flooded vault of the Central Bank of Baghdad, where they had been stored since the first Persian Gulf war. Most of the other museum treasures initially reported as plundered—including many of those on display in the public gallery— were hidden safely in a secret storage facility before the start of the war. The only items that had not been placed on storage were either too large or too fragile to be moved or were attached to their displays.

Over time items were returned. One man who returned a statue of the Assyrian King Shalmanezzar III dated to the 9th century B.C. said he taken it to save it from looters. He wept as he told the New York Times, “This is our heritage. How could we do this to ourselves. It is our heritage, our heritage.”

The Warka vase was returned but in pieces. The breaks were mostly old and the pieces were large so it cold be restored. In September 2003, the Warka Mask was recovered outside Baghdad. It had been buried in an orchard by a looter who had been unable to sell it because the object was so well known. It was retrieved by American troops after receiving a tip off. In November 2003, two priceless looted pieces—the Akkadian Bassetki, and an Assyrian brazier carved in wood and bronze, dated to 850 B.C.—were found in a Baghdad cesspool.

Jordanian custom officials seized an Assyrian ivory carving dated to 2000 B.C. that is believed to have adorned the bed of a king. The carving had been broken into pieces to make smuggling easier. In June 2003, the National Museum reopened in order show off the treasures of Nimrud, which has not been on display since 1991.

Efforts to Recover Items Taken from the Iraqi National Museum

Assyrian Hall of the National Museum of Iraq

As of June 2003, 33 very important pieces were still missing. Of the 14 objects highlighted by National Geographic, eight were still unaccounted for in November 2003. Several dozen high-profile sculptures and heads of statues removed from the museum’s galleries are believed to be gone forever. Thousands of pieces remain missing. including nearly 5,000 cylindrical seals, which have provided much information about religion in Mesopotamia.

To get items looted from the National Museum and other places back archeologist suggested offering an amnesty to looters who returned items, giving the looter some money for returned items, and establishing a moratorium on Iraqi antiquity sales. There were radio broadcasts encouraging people to return stolen item or provide tips leading to their recovery.

Other efforts to retrieve stolen items have included tightening border controls, circulating photographs of specific pieces, training police how to recognize suspected pieces and figuring out where they might be hidden. International efforts focused on stemming trade and sale of looted items was weak and half-hearted. The political will was not there,

Damage, Looting at Other Iraqi Sites and Museums After the American Invasion in 2003

The Museum of Modern Art, the National Archives, the National Library, the Central Library of Baghdad University, the Science Academy and the Central Religious Endowment Library, all in Baghdad, were badly looted and damaged. Other museums around the country were also hit. More than 160 pounds of treasures from Nimrud, including a queen’s crown and jewelry and hundred of gold and ivory items, were looted from a vault in the national bank.

The Mosul Museum of Antiquities—containing treasures from Nineveh, Nimrud and Hatra—was also badly looted. Particularly devastating was the loss its rare book and manuscript collection. The Basra museum and library and museum in Kirkuk were also hit. A librarian at the Central Library in Basra was able to save 30,000 rare books (70 percent of the library’s collection) by taking them to her house. Looters also struck archeological sites such as the ancient city of Isin. Buildings associated with archeological sites in Kirkuk, An Naja, Baquba and Ashnuna were also looted. Both guards and looters have been killed.

Damage to archeological monuments during and after the Second Persian Gulf War occurred at Ummm al-Aqarib, a Sumerian site near Umma. Nineveh, the ziggurat Ur, the spiral minaret at Samarra and the temple precinct of Babylon were all damaged.

Jason Felch wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Damage from illegal excavations in Iraq has far exceeded the more notorious thefts from the Iraqi museum in 2003, experts say. At the ancient Sumerian city of Umma, for example, thousands of tablets...have been found by looters who have dug pits over an area the size of 3,000 soccer fields in search of new finds. At the height of the looting, an estimated 150,000 cuneiform tablets were being stolen from Iraq every year. [Source: Jason Felch, Los Angeles Times, November 3, 2013]

Checking Out Archaeological Sites in Iraq Soon After the American Invasion in 2003

Andrew Lawler wrote in National Geographic, “Don't shoot! We're Americans!" Henry Wright shouts as he thrusts his head out the window. It's dark, but dead center in our headlights is a jumpy young U.S. marine aiming his weapon at the windshield of our white SUV. This team of archaeologists and journalists who've come to assess the damage to Iraq's ancient sites had been warned of armed looters, not friendly fire. But cruising the backstreets of the battered town of Nasiriyah after dark in search of the local museum, we've run into a Marine roadblock. The museum, we discover, is now a military barracks. [Source: Andrew Lawler, National Geographic, October 2003 |]

“Grim tales of mass looting have brought our expedition, sponsored last May by the National Geographic Society and led by Henry Wright, a researcher at the University of Michigan's Museum of Anthropology, to this dusty place where humanity's first great cities once dominated the vast Mesopotamian plain. While media attention has focused on the loss—and recovery—of artifacts in Baghdad's Iraq Museum, we're investigating reports that poverty-stricken villagers and organized bandits are ransacking ancient mounds across the country, feeding the foreign appetite for antiquities. The five archaeologists on the team are anxious to see what's happened to the sites in the decade since the 1991 gulf war prompted U.S. restrictions that kept Americans from digging in Iraq. |

“Our expedition finds both tragedy and reason for hope. Some sites resemble moonscapes, cratered with freshly dug holes and trenches where looters may have ripped out more artifacts in a few weeks than archaeologists have excavated in decades. Others shimmer intact and silent in the desert heat. While half the expedition team travels through southern Iraq, the other half probes the situation in the north, where the damage is less dramatic but still a cause for serious concern. |

“In Nasiriyah we are in luck. Marine Maj. Glenn Sadowski is extremely helpful. He has organized an armed escort to take Iraqi archaeologist Abdul Amir Hamdany to survey the local sites, and he invites us along. The two men are an unlikely duo. Sadowski is a strapping reservist whose platoon lost seven men during the 1991 gulf war. Hamdany is a soft-spoken scientist who's been evicted from his own museum, where off-duty marines are pumping iron to heavy metal music. Neither speaks the other's language. But Hamdany returns day after day to stand on the burning sidewalk and ask Sadowski's help. "In the bazaars they are selling antiquities," he says. "We have to do something." |

“The aim of the National Geographic survey is to put a spotlight on the crisis. Without U.S. troops or paid Iraqi guards providing round-the-clock protection, many sites will remain vulnerable. Keeping Iraq's treasures safe will require a level of security that at this point is elusive at best. But Hamdany knows that careful assessment of site damage is a critical first step.

"You can tell he has a passion for this," Major Sadowski says, after agreeing to supply the escort. "It's the least I could do." On such slender threads of trust and respect hangs the future of Mesopotamia's past.” |

Damage caused by US bombing

Looters After the Second Persian Gulf War

There are basically three different kinds of looters in Iraq; 1) professionals who have taken some of the rarest and most valuable stuff; 2) indiscriminate thieves who have taken whatever they could get their hands on; and 2) insiders, who took advantage of the chaos and breakdown of law to steal themselves or get associates to do it for them.

Much of the looting is believed to be organized by organized gangs. Many seem to be working aor outside interests. Money earned from stolen treasures is believed to have been used to fund insurgent groups. Some of the looters are armed with Kalashnikovs and grenade launchers and have attacked archeologists surveying sites and even ambushed them. Guards and looters have been killed. According to Los Angeles Times, “The antiquities trade has also been a source of funding for insurgent groups. Most famously, 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta attempted to sell antiquities looted from Afghanistan to raise money for the terrorist attacks.”

Low-level looters are often poor people who dig with shovels picks. In some cases they have sold pieces to middlemen for $10 or $15 with the same objects selling for tens of thousands of dollars in Europe and the United States. These same kind of looters are sometimes paid wages by organized looting operations.

Jason Felch wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Objects looted from sites are smuggled out of Iraq and find their way to the international art market. Along the way, dealers rely on experts to authenticate the objects and describe their significance, facts that can determine their market value. "You buy tablets and you're feeding the antiquities market," said Elizabeth Stone, a professor at New York's Stony Brook University who has directed archaeological digs in Iraq since 1975. "That feeds an enormous amount of destruction."” [Source:Jason Felch, Los Angeles Times, November 3, 2013]

Efforts to Get Looted Items Back After the Second Persian Gulf War

The Jordanians have been the most successful getting looted item back. Customs officials in Jordan routinely seized treasures coming out of Iraq and Israel such as hundreds of 5000-year-old cylinder seals. In the first two years after the American invasion recovered more than 2,000 objects, enough to fill a warehouse room. By contrast, Iran and Turkey seized virtually nothing.

After the American invasion there were simply too many other problems that required security forces that no manpower was left over to protect archeological sites. In Umma in May 2003, U.S. marines arrived in the area and hundreds of looters were detained. That brought an end to large scale looting there but small scale looting continued. A single guard patrolled the site. He worked only in the day. The looters worked predominately at night. Italian national police conducted random patrols of the area.

In 2004, scholars adopted a policy that required the permission of Iraqi authorities before publishing studies of objects that may have been looted,. Associated Press reported in 2015: “The American Schools of Oriental Research, an academic research association, bans scholars from publishing articles on artifacts illegally excavated or exported from their country of origin after 1970, when the U.N. adopted its policy against antiquities trafficking. But in 2004, the association made an exception, allowing publications about cuneiform artifacts that have no record of how they were unearthed — under the condition that Iraqi antiquities authorities give their consent and that the artifacts are eventually returned to Iraq. The exception was made because the esoteric wedge script writings are so valuable to historical study, said Eric Meyers of the association. The policy is now again a point of contention in the field. Over the past year, scholars at the association have debated changing the policy again, with most experts leaning against publishing articles on cuneiform artifacts as these objects continue to hit the markets, Meyers said.”

Loss to Scholars and Archaeologist from the Looting in Iraq

The loss of objects and damage to sites were in themselves tragic but archeologists were also robbed of the chance to understand the object and sites and people who use them by being deprived fo the opportunity to study the objects in situ where they were found. Elizabeth Stone, a professor of anthropology at the State University of New York in Stony Brook wrote in National Geographic: “The aim of history is to humanize the past, but each object ripped from its context loses its voice, and becomes mute, a mere pretty thing. And in this part of the world, many of the objects indeed speak, Mesopotamia’s written tradition survived the vagaries of time because it was inscribed in sturdy clay tablets. Private letters, contracts, works of literature, and records of institutions can be found in the building where they were created. “But the tablets in the antiquities market? They can’t tell a story. Often the less saleable bits and pieced are ignored or destroyed...Today’s looting means we will never know what was lost. For instance, we’ll never know anything about the cemetery at Dahalia,. We were stunned when we reached thus important area where tens of thousands of people lived 3,700 years ago and that now lies de in the desert. Looters clearly found the place productive—there were holes everywhere, I’d always wanted to excavate here, Since this was a short-lived city, its tablets and artifacts could have provided insights into the old Babylonian period...What fueled this destruction are those in the West who buy illegally exported antiquities—it’s just like the drug trade.”

Cornell Returns 10,000 Ancient Tablets to Iraq

In 2013, Cornell University agreed to return the 10,000 ancient cuneiform tablets, dating back to the 4th millenium B.C. to Iraq. The tablets were donated to the university by the family of antiquities collector Jonathan Rosen. It was one of the largest returns of antiquities by an American university. Jason Felch wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “New York antiquities collector Jonathan Rosen and his family began donating and lending the tablets to Cornell in 2000. Many scholars have objected to the arrangement, suspecting the tablets were looted in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. [Source: Jason Felch, Los Angeles Times, November 3, 2013 |:|]

“The source of the Garsana tablets was the subject of a 2001 investigation by the Department of Homeland Security, according to records obtained by Harvard researcher Benjamin Studevent-Hickman under the Freedom of Information Act. Buying and possessing antiquities illegally removed from countries such as Iraq, which claim them as government property, can be a violation of U.S. law. Investigators also looked into potential violations of the Trading With the Enemy Act, which at the time barred doing business with Iraq, and tax fraud, the records said. The 1,679 tablets were valued at less than $50,000 when they were imported, but the donor received a $900,000 tax deduction when they were given to Cornell in 2000, the records said. |:|

“Ultimately, there were no findings of wrongdoing because investigators could not determine precisely when or where the objects were found, the records show. Harold Grunfeld, attorney for Jonathan Rosen, said all of the tablets "were legally acquired" and that the federal investigation found "no evidence of wrongdoing." He said the tablets at issue were donated by Rosen's late mother, Miriam. "It has always been the Rosen family's intent that these tablets reside permanently in a public institution for scholarly research and for the benefit of the public as a vast informational tool in explaining life in the ancient world," Grunfeld said. The Iraqi government requested the return of the tablets in 2012, and the U.S. attorney's office in Binghamton, N.Y., brokered the transfer. "We're not accusing anyone of a crime, but we believe they should be returned," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Miro Lovric. |:|

“Cornell's acceptance of the cuneiform tablets from Rosen has stirred controversy among scholars who contend that publishing studies of antiquities that were possibly looted increases their value on the art market and fuels the illegal digging seen across the region in recent years. On the other side of the debate are scholars such as David Owen, the Cornell Assyriologist who has led the research of the Rosen tablets. Owen has argued that ancient texts should be studied regardless of how they were excavated. To do otherwise, he said, would be to forsake valuable information about the ancient world. |:|

“Thanks to funding provided by Rosen, Owen and a team of international scholars have worked with experts at UCLA to carefully conserve, photograph and study the tablets, publishing their work in more than 16 volumes over six years. "Study of these cuneiform tablets is providing much new data on the history, literature, religion, language and culture of ancient Iraq that is filling major gaps in our knowledge of Mesopotamian civilization," Owen said in a statement released by Cornell. Some have questioned whether Iraq is stable enough to care for the delicate tablets once they are returned. About 600 antiquities that the U.S. returned to Iraq in 2009 later disappeared. "We know there are problems there, but the Iraq museum seems to be secure at this point," said Richard Zettler, a curator at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, which will soon return tablets borrowed from Iraq decades ago. "The real thing is, they belong to Iraq.": |:|

Islamic State and Mesopotamian Sites in Syria and Iraq

Islamic State of Iraq flag

In the early and mid 2010s, Islamist militants from so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) viciously attacked Mesopotamia-era archaeological sites and museums in Syria and Iraq with sledgehammers, bulldozers and explosives. The militant group released videos of the destruction of the Temple of Baalshamin, one of the best-preserved ruins at the Syrian site of Palmyra, the demolition of monuments in the Assyrian capital of Nineveh and the smashing of Assyrian statues and artifacts at the museum in Mosul.

Andrew Curry of National Geographic wrote The destruction is part of a propaganda campaign that includes videos of militants rampaging through Iraq's Mosul Museum with pickaxes and sledgehammers, and the dynamiting of centuries-old Christian and Muslim shrines’. [Source: Andrew Curry, National Geographic, September 1, 2015]

For a few years ISIS controlled “large stretches of Syria, along with northern and western Iraq. There' was little to stop its militants from plundering and destroying sites under their control. The militant group was one of many factions fighting for control of Syria, where a civil war has left more than 230,000 dead and millions more homeless.”

“The group claims the destruction of ancient sites is religiously motivated; Its militants have targeted well-known ancient sites along with more modern graves and shrines belonging to other Muslim sects, citing idol worship to justify their actions. At the same time, ISIS has used looting as a moneymaking venture to finance military operations. “It’s both propagandistic and sincere,” says Columbia University historian Christopher Jones, who has chronicled the damage on his blog. “They see themselves as recapitulating the early history of Islam.”

Mesopotamian Sites and Artifacts Destroyed or Damaged by Islamic State

Mesopotamian-era sites and artifacts destroyed or damaged by Islamic State included Mari in Syria and Ninevah, the Mosul Museum and Nimrud in Iraq. Andrew Curry of National Geographic wrote: “Mari flourished in the Bronze Age, between 3000 and 1600 B.C. Archaeologists have discovered palaces, temples, and extensive archives written on clay tablets that shed light on the early days of civilization in the region. According to reports from locals and satellite imagery, the site, especially the royal palace, is being looted systematically. [Source: Andrew Curry, National Geographic, September 1, 2015]

“Nineveh: Iraq: Ancient Assyria was one of the first true empires, expanding aggressively across the Middle East and controlling a vast stretch of the ancient world between 900 and 600 B.C. The Assyrian kings ruled their realm from a series of capitals in what is today northern Iraq. Nineveh was one of them, flourishing under the Assyrian emperor Sennacherib around 700 B.C. At one point, Nineveh was the largest city in the world. Its location on the outskirts of Mosul—part of the modern city is built over Nineveh's ruins—put it in ISIS's crosshairs when the group took over the city in 2014. Many of the site's sculptures were housed in the Mosul Museum (see entry below), and some were damaged during the rampage through the museum documented on video. Men were also shown smashing half-human, half-animal guardian statues called lamassus on Nineveh's ancient Nirgal Gate. “I’m not sure there’s much left to destroy in Mosul,” says Columbia’s Jones.

“Mosul Museum and Libraries: Reports of looting at Mosul's libraries and universities began to surface almost as soon as ISIS occupied the city in summer of 2014. Centuries-old manuscripts were stolen, and thousands of books disappeared into the shadowy international art market. Mosul University's library was burned in December. In late February, the ISIS campaign escalated: Mosul's central public library, a landmark built in 1921, was rigged with explosives and razed, together with thousands of manuscripts and instruments used by Arab scientists.

Nimrud, an Islamic State target

The book burning coincided with the release of the video showing ISIS fighters rampaging through the Mosul Museum, toppling statues and smashing others with hammers. The museum was Iraq's second largest, after the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. Statues included masterpieces from Hatra and Nineveh. Margarete van Ess, head of the German Archaeological Institute's Iraq field office, says that a trained eye can tell that about half of the artifacts destroyed in the video are copies; many of the originals are in the Iraq Museum.

Nimrud: Nimrud was the first Assyrian capital, founded 3,200 years ago. Its rich decoration reflected the empire's power and wealth. The site was excavated beginning in the 1840s by British archaeologists, who sent dozens of its massive stone sculptures to museums around the world, including New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum in London. Many originals remained in Iraq.

“Nineveh: The walls of Nineveh were built around A.D. 700 to protected the Assyrian capital, at the time probably the largest city in the world. In February, ISIS fighters released video of fighters smashing sculptures and gates at the ancient site. The site itself is massive: An earthen wall surrounds 890 acres. The Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities says ISIS bulldozed parts of the site, but the extent of the damage isn't yet clear. Some of the city was never uncovered and remains underground—protected, one hopes.”

Khorsabad is another ancient Assyrian capital, a few miles from Mosul. The palace there was built between 717 and 706 B.C. by Assyria's King Sargon II. Its reliefs and statues were remarkably well preserved, with traces of the original paint still decorating depictions of Assyrian victories and royal processions. Most of the reliefs and many of the statues were removed during French excavations in the mid-1800s and by teams from Chicago's Oriental Institute in the 1920s and '30s, and are now in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad as well as in Chicago and the Louvre in Paris. It's not clear what part of the site ISIS targeted. "We don't have photography showing how far the damage might go," van Ess says. "The only information right now is from local people and Iraqi antiquities ministry."

Islamic State Bulldozes and Loots Nimrud

In March 2015, several months after it captured nearby Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, Islamic State jihadists bulldozed and looted the world-famous Nimrud archaeological site in northern Iraq in an act described by UNESCO as a “war crime” Islamic State later released a video that showed militants smashing panels with sledgehammers, scooping up stones with bulldozers and rigging the site with explosive barrels that were detonated, with the explosions filmed from different angles.

Daniela Deane and Brian Murphy wrote in the Washington Post: “The destruction at the more than 3,000-year-old landmark — considered one of the most important archaeological sites uncovered in the past century — marked another blow against the area’s renowned pre-Islamic cultural heritage.A statement from Iraq’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said the Islamic State continues to “defy the will of the world and the feelings of humanity” with this latest attack, in which the extremists used heavy military vehicles to crush treasured relics from one of ancient Mesopotamia’s greatest cities. [Source: Daniela Deane and Brian Murphy, Washington Post, March 6 2015]

Islamic State fighters

“The Islamic State claims that the area’s pre-Islamic heritage of ancient shrines and statues represents past idol worship that it views as heretical. A tribal source from nearby Mosul confirmed to the Reuters news agency that the Islamic State had pillaged the site, on the banks of the Tigris River. “Islamic State members came to the Nimrud archaeological city and looted the valuables in it, and then they proceeded to level the site to the ground,” the source told Reuters. “There used to be statues and walls as well as a castle that Islamic State has destroyed completely,” the source said. In a message posted on Twitter, the former prime minister of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region, Barham Salih, called the Nimrud destruction “slaughtering the present and erasing humanity’s heritage.” “Daesh terrorist gangs continue to defy the will of the world and the feelings of humanity,” Iraq’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said, referring to the Islamic State by the name widely used in Arabic. “In a new crime in their series of reckless offenses, they assaulted the ancient city of Nimrud and bulldozed it with heavy machinery, appropriating the archaeological attractions dating back 13 centuries B.C.,” it said.

In Paris, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said the ravage of Nimrud amounts to a “war crime,” and she notified the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. Nimrud is considered a world heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).Many of Nimrud’s most famous surviving monuments were removed years ago by archaeologists, including colossal Winged Bulls, now housed in London’s British Museum. Hundreds of precious stones and pieces of gold were moved to Baghdad.

On the devastation found two years later, Kareem Fahim and Mustafa Salim wrote in Washington Post: “ The palace of Ashurnasirpal II, an Assyrian king, had survived for three millennia before the Islamic State militants arrived and sacked the place with glee.They smashed the statutes of winged creatures that had stood sentry at a gate, leaving them in a terrible, broken heap — a wing here, a foot there. They pulled down stone relief panels that once lined the palace walls, ripping them so crudely in places that the panels splintered, leaving a tantalizing but painful reminder of what was. And the militants bulldozed Nimrud’s ziggurat, the mud-brick base of a once-soaring ancient temple, reducing it to a nondescript pile of dirt. [Source: Kareem Fahim and Mustafa Salim, Washington Post, November 16, 2016]

Islamic States Attack Nineveh

The same Islamic State that showed the destruction at the Mosul Museum showed militants with a jackhammer destroying a famous 3000-year-old monumental statue of a winged bull with a man’s head that stood guard at the Nergal Gate, the entrance to Nineveh, near Mosul. Amy Davidson wrote in The New Yorker: “An ISIS man in the video talks about how Muhammad destroyed idols of people he fought when he took Mecca. The camera zeroes in on a label near a portal leading to the Nergal gate, and a green light highlights a line explaining that Nergal was “the God of the Plague and the nether world and he is among the Sumerian Gods who was worshipped in Mesopotamia for a long time”—as if that were a telling indictment. ISIS is both indifferent to the value of the past and rhetorically obsessed with it. It has looted and sold plenty of “idols” to pay for its guns; these ones were probably just too big to carry.[Source: Amy Davidson, The New Yorker , February 27, 2015]

“At one point, the wall that surrounded Nineveh was more than seven miles in circumference, with fifteen gates. In the video, an ISIS spokesman talks about how many of the statues had still been buried in Muhammad’s time—Nineveh had been largely destroyed a thousand years earlier, in a battle that marked the rise of the Babylonians—but had since been excavated by “devil worshippers.” That is what the group calls Yazidis, members of an Iraqi religious minority whom it has treated murderously, though it may have been a more general accusation.”

Islamic State’s Destruction of Nimrud Worse Than Originally Thought

In November 2016, Nimrud was retaken by Iraqi forces from Islamic State during an Iraqi offensive to reclaim Mosul and some of the first on the scene were surprised the amount of destruction they saw. Richard Spencer wrote in The Times: “The statues lie shattered in the sand. Where the great palace of Ashurnasirpal II once looked out over the desert, now stand tumbling walls filled with holes. The world last saw the palace as the fighters of Islamic State, proudly recording the moment on video for the world to see, placed dynamite all around it and pressed the detonator. It disappeared in a plume of dust. [Source: Richard Spencer, The Times, November 16, 2016 +]

“At the foot of what now look like any other ruins of the Iraqi war zone lie fragments of the magnificent friezes that once gave such a vivid impression of imperial Assyrian life 2,900 years ago, with its hunting, chariots and processions — a lion’s leg, a human foot shorn from the body above, the tip of a bearded angel’s wing. The giant ziggurat, the pyramid that served as a temple to Ninurta, the God of War, has been levelled by forces who worship at his altar while determined to desecrate any memorial to a deity other than their own. +\

“Archaeologists had a good idea what to expect. There was no reason to suppose that the footage released by Isis in April last year was anything other than genuine. Its jihadists took their electric drills and sledgehammers to the giant winged bulls with human heads which guarded the gateways both to Nimrud and Nineveh. Satellite imagery showed more evidence of the damage, including the destruction of the 140ft ziggurat, which was bulldozed in September and October as Iraqi forces advanced...News agency photographers allowed into the site by Iraqi officers, who are still checking it for mines and booby traps. “One hundred per cent has been destroyed,” Ali al-Bayati, a resident of a nearby village told Reuters as he surveyed the scene from a hill overlooking the site. “Losing Nimrud is more

Susannah George and Qassim Abdul-zahra of Associated Press wrote: “Nearly a month into the fight to retake Mosul, government forces pushed Islamic State militants out of nearby Nimrud... And when soldiers finally surveyed the extremists' destruction of the ancient sites, one said that those who carried it out "don't have a place in humanity." Intricate reliefs that once stood at the gates to the magnificent Assyrian palace lay in pieces: stone carvings of a face, half of a claw, part of a wing, fragments of script. [Source: Susannah George and Qassim Abdul-zahra, Associated Press, November 16, 2016 ^^]

“Iraqi officers accompanied journalists to the site, wandering through the piles of rubble and snapping photos of the damage that U.N. officials had once called "a war crime." The Assyrian Ziggurat, nearly 3,000 years old and once one of the tallest surviving buildings of the ancient world, has been leveled. On palace walls, only small fragments of stone carvings remained. Two Assyrian winged-bull statues that once marked the palace entrance have been completely destroyed. In a palace doorway, four deep cracks defaced a large carving of an Assyrian guardian spirit. "I didn't cry when Daesh destroyed my home, but I really cried when I saw the video of them destroying this site," said Sheikh Khaled al-Jabouri, a tribal fighter from the Nimrud area. "These ruins are not just important to the people of this area, but to all of Iraq." "This was done by people who don't have a place in humanity," said Maj. Gen. Dhiaa al-Saadi, the deputy commander of Iraqi ground forces, as he surveyed the ruins. ^^

“Archaeologists and government officials have yet to visit the site to conduct a proper assessment, according to Iraqi officers at the scene. Al-Jabouri, the local tribal fighter, said he doesn't believe any amount of restoration can repair what's been lost. "But we've heard that only 30 percent of this site has been (properly excavated)," he said, "so maybe there is more still beneath the ground." ^^

“I almost spent my whole life in the ancient sites of Mosul. These gangs didn’t only destroy my city, they have destroyed the dearest things to my heart,” Amer Al-Jumaily, a professor who taught archaeology at Mosul University, told the Washington Post. “Seeing the photos of Nimrud’s destruction, for me, was like seeing one of my sons dead,” he said.

Islamic States Attack on the Mosul Museum

ISIS captured Mosul in 2014 and released a video the following year showing fighters smashing artifacts in the museum with sledgehammers and power tools. The voice narrating the ISIS video justified the acts with verses from the Quran referencing the Prophet Muhammad’s destruction of idols in the Kaaba. “These statues and idols, these artifacts, if God has ordered its removal, they became worthless to us even if they are worth billions of dollars,” the narration said. The museum was Iraq's second largest, after the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. Statues included masterpieces from Hatra and Nineveh. Archaeologists said that about half of the artifacts destroyed in the video were copies, with many of the originals in the Iraq Museum.

Amy Davidson wrote in The New Yorker: “One of the peculiarities of a video showing the sacking of the Mosul Museum, released on Thursday, is that some of the newest things in the collection turned quickly to dust, while some of the oldest held out longer. In the video, a gang of men from the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham push what looks like an ancient relief off a wall, and it bursts like a broken bag of flour—a plaster reproduction. In contrast, statues that were more than two thousand years old stubbornly resist, at least for a while. Some, when they are toppled, stay mostly intact, or break into a couple of pieces that one hopes could be put back together. But the ISIS men brought sledgehammers, and pound and pound until the statues are fragments. At times, they seem to be aiming for the stone faces. The scene in the video shifts outside, to a monumental statue of a winged bull with a man’s head. It stood guard at the Nergal Gate, an entry into the ancient city of Nineveh, and is almost three thousand years old. The men climb on, and go to work on it with a jackhammer. [Source: Amy Davidson, The New Yorker , February 27, 2015]

The dramatic puffs of plaster raised hopes that many, or perhaps most, of the vandalized artifacts were reproductions. That wasn’t so. “Three [of] us have watched & rewatched: more originals than I first thought,” Eleanor Robson, a professor at University College London, tweeted. On the BBC, she explained that some of the stone figures inside the museum were from the desert city of Hatra, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and had been “damaged in antiquity and carefully put back together.” Iraqi antiquities were looted and, in many cases, destroyed or lost to smugglers in the days after the American invasion, in 2003. ...Some precautions were put in place afterward; but they do not seem to have entirely reached this museum in Mosul. The video, Robson said, represented an act of cultural terrorism, meant to make anyone in the world feel powerless. “More importantly, it is targeting the people of Mosul itself,” she said. “They feel very passionately, many of them, about their ancient history.”

On what the Mosul Museum was like after Mosul was recaptured in March 2017, Associated Press reported: The antiquities museum in the Iraqi city of Mosul is in ruins. Piles of rubble fill exhibition halls and a massive fire in the building’s basement has reduced hundreds of rare books and manuscripts to ankle-deep drifts of ash. After examining AP photographs of the destruction, two Iraqi archeologists confirmed that many of the artifacts destroyed by ISIS were the original ancient stone statues dating back thousands of years, rather than replicas as some Iraqi officials and experts previously claimed. [Source: Associated Press, March 8, 2017]

“Inside the Mosul museum’s main exhibition hall, the floor was littered with the jagged remains of an ancient Assyrian bull statue and fragments from cuneiform tablets.“These are the remains of a lamassu and the lions of Nimrud,” Layla Salih, an Iraqi archaeologist and former curator of the Mosul museum said as she examined AP photographs of the remains. Salih said when ISIS took over Mosul, the museum housed two massive lamassu statues - winged lions recovered from the ancient Assryrian city of Nimrud. “They were priceless,” she said, “they were in perfect condition.” Hiba Hazim Hamad, a former archaeology professor in Mosul, confirmed Salih’s assessment, saying she believed the building held hundreds of ancient artifacts at the time ISIS overran the city, “thousands if you count the small pieces,” she added.

“Adjoining rooms on the two main floors were largely empty save for a set of carved wooden coffins and doors left untouched. There were also smaller piles of rubble from what appeared to be additional destroyed artifacts, but the stones were crushed beyond recognition.Hamad said these could be the remains of destroyed replicas, but even if replicas were on display, the original pieces would have still been inside the museum in the basement safe when ISIS overran the building. “It’s standard procedure for all museums (in Iraq),” she said referring to the practice of keeping the most valuable pieces locked away from view.

Destruction of Mari by Islamic State

Mari was one of the first archaeological sites to be occupied by Islamic State and suffered from destruction and looting while under its control. The ancient city of Mari, located in northern Syria on the middle Euphrates, south of its junction with the Habor (Khabur), was founded around 2900 B.C. and was thriving metropolis from around 2800 B.C. to its demise in 1760 B.C.. According to UNESCO: “Mari is an archaeological site of major significance. It was the royal city-state of the 3rd millennium B.C. Its discovery in 1933, followed by the discovery of Ebla in 1963, improved our understanding of Syria in the Bronze Age. Previously, we only had little information collected from Kings of Summer and Akkad inscriptions found in the current territory of Iraq.” The site has been on UNESCO’s tentative list since 1999. [Source: UNESCO]

Mary Shepperson wrote in The Guardian: “When Islamic State emerged, the part of Deir ez-Zor province in which Mari lies was one of the first areas to fall under its control in early 2014. Under IS, the site suffered an immediate explosion of looting; satellite images revealed the change from archaeological site to lunar landscape in a matter of months. More than 1,500 new looting pits were recorded at Mari between 2013 and 2015, likely representing the removal of a huge quantity of ancient objects, sold into the illegal antiquities market to fund Isis and its war. [Source: Mary Shepperson, The Guardian, April 19, 2018]

“Sadly, this is a story common to many archaeological sites across the region, but Mari isn’t just another site. For archaeologists it’s one of the most important sites so far excavated for those interested in understanding the great urban centres of Bronze Age Mesopotamia, or in diving into the turbulent politics of the second millennium BC.

“This palace area is now very badly damaged. Its protective roof was compromised by a sand storm in 2011, and the security situation at that time left it impossible to make repairs, but the recently released photos show that large parts of the palace’s 2m thick walls have now collapsed. Prof Pascal Butterlin, who directed excavations at the site up until 2010, believes such a level of destruction suggests that explosives, either ground based or more likely from air strikes, were probably involved, adding to the damage caused by looting for financial gain. Butterlin gave a paper detailing the plight of Mari at the International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East conference in Munich two weeks ago, to general dismay. Sadly, the palace chapel and all the royal reception rooms are now a mass of huge looters pits.

“Given the wonders of the palace of Mari and the importance of this site, it’s disappointing that the destruction of the palace and the plundering of the site in search of tablets and other saleable objects hasn’t received more attention. The first explanation is that cultural destruction in the Middle East has been so widespread in recent years that it’s ceased to be news-worthy in all but the most extreme cases, which is a depressing thought. A second disadvantage Mari has over more high-profile sites, such as Palmyra, is that its buildings were made of mud, and not the classical stonework which produces photogenic ruins and screams its artistic worth to a general audience. Nevertheless, Mari deserves to be considered as a loss on the same scale as any of the more celebrated sites to have suffered during the Isis conflict. “

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia sourcebooks.fordham.edu , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

Hidden in Plain Sight Huldah Dauid

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