Iraq's antiquities garner international attention
In wake of widespread illegal looting, Iraq and Western countries are attempting to better guard ancient cities from smugglers and prevent them from selling the artifacts.
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At the Baghdad offices of Iraq's Antiquities Board, Rashid looks over trays of the small seals. He says all but about a dozen were objects looted from archaeological sites since the invasion, and they are part of 701 smuggled items returned to Iraq from neighboring Syria in April.Skip to next paragraph
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"It is a sign that we are having some success" in raising awareness and developing cooperation with transit countries for the smuggled artifacts, he says, "but we have to do much more."
In the face of criticism over the 2003 museum looting, the US is taking steps to help Iraq address the looting of sites and to at least begin addressing the challenge of preserving its cultural heritage. Archaeological site guards have been sent to the US for training in patrolling and looting-detection methods, the Department of Justice is investigating smuggling cases with Iraq's Interior Ministry, and the State Department has awarded grants for Iraq to purchase some site-monitoring equipment. The US military, also trained in cultural sensitivity, now keep an eye out for illegal activities as they carry out their patrols.
Specialists say Iraq is taking a number of important steps, like developing its corps of site protection guards, but they are realistic about how much the country can do. Iraqi and US officials acknowledge that preservation of cultural heritage falls low on the priority list of a country at war and facing daunting reconstruction.
The US military has pulled out of a camp it established after the invasion at the famous Babylon archaeological site, a presence that was particularly irritating to Iraqis sensitive to a foreign occupation. A US-Iraq working group has been set up to develop and implement a restoration plan for the site.
At Kish, where the US kept a radio transmitting station until 2005, soldiers from a nearby base now keep a watchful eye on the site of the ancient kingdom. American soldiers regularly patrol in the area of Kish. "At the site now, there are no signs of looting," says Diane Siebrandt, an archeologist and cultural heritage liaison for the US Embassy in Baghdad. "It's really one of the good-news stories of Iraq."
Still, she says complex issues like site restoration, as in the case of Babylon, won't be easily resolved. One challenge is that many antiquities experts fled Iraq's violence. "There are still a lot of archeologists left in Iraq," says Ms. Siebrandt, "but you need people who are specialized in repairing mud-brick structures, it's really a very specialized skill."
Iraqi officials point to the growing assistance they are receiving from Western countries as an encouraging sign. Rashid says the first group of US-funded specialists for Babylon's restoration began training in Jordan on May 2.
And he says a loose network of watchdogs is also at work around the world to help stop Iraq's pillaging. Recently he received frantic e-mails from a source of his in New York reporting plans for a private sale of ancient artifacts – many of which showed telltale signs of originating from southern Iraq.
Back in Chicago, Emberling says evidence turned up by US and Iraqi officials that the sale of looted artifacts is funding insurgent activities is a good, hard-nosed reason for efforts to stop the plundering. But not the only one: "This historical record the looters destroy is Iraq's heritage, and it is the heritage of all of us."