A fertile crescent for looting

A National Geographic survey finds guards at some key sites, but others, especially in the south, are being robbed.

They come by the hundreds. Gangs of thieves with shovels and penknives are now raiding Iraqi archaeological sites, gouging millenniums-old artifacts out of the dirt in what scientists consider a potentially catastrophic loss of the early record of human civilization. That's the picture that emerges in a new survey released Wednesday - the first since the recent war - about the state of sites that may hold undiscovered treasures.

Progress has been made securing some key sites, but more are now being scavenged, according to National Geographic, which did the survey.

The report comes after a sign of hope last week in the land that was once home to the civilizations of the fertile crescent: the discovery in a bank vault of key treasures originally reported stolen from Baghdad's National Museum. On Saturday, a report by the US Customs Service and State Department numbered the museum's losses, originally reported as 170,000 pieces, at about 3,000.

But even as they piece the museum's collection back together, archaeologists worry that widespread looting of unexcavated sites could result in devastating losses of other antiquities.

"I think much more is leaving the country now from these sites than from museums," says Henry Wright of the University of Michigan, who led the National Geographic survey of 41 sites. "I don't think it's 170,000 [pieces] yet, but if this continues for a few months it probably will be."

This is no small or dusty matter: Modern day Iraq sits squarely on ancient Mesopotamia, the civilization where 7,000 years ago city life, written language, and law were born. The hour, the circle, the Bible, and the zodiac originated there. As archaeologists like to say, the history of the Sumerians, Babylonians, Akkadians, and Assyrians is everyone's history.

TRAVELING with US marines, the 5-member National Geographic group made surprise inspections of 23 of Iraq's best-known archaeological sites. They found that almost none had been damaged by US bombs. More than half boasted one or more guards, often armed, though most said they hadn't been paid since the US invasion.

A few sites - Nimrud, Nineveh, and Hatra in the north, and Ur and Babylon in the south - were under US military protection. Apart from these, though, "I don't think we saw any other site outside Baghdad that didn't have at least one looting hole," says team member Elizabeth Stone, of the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

After a helicopter surveys of additional sites, the team concluded that 33 of 41 total sites showed signs of looting.

The destruction proved worst in the south, where Dr. Wright says "a culture of looting has developed" over the past decade. Though poor laborers have likely done most of the digging, Wright and other experts speculate that true responsibility for illegal antiquities exports lies with organized gangs inside the country, and with Western dealers and buyers eager to snap up such treasures.

McGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago estimates that gangs at Issen, Adab, and Umma, the worst-hit southern sites, numbered 300 looters apiece. "At this point [Adab] is a Swiss cheese," he says. "It's as if they sent bulldozers in."

The damage isn't just to artifacts. Archaeologists say pots broken and tablets discarded in scavengers' haste to uncover greater treasures are in some ways the least important things lost when ancient sites are ravaged.

Far more significant is the context in which these historical clues are found: the presence of human or animal bones nearby; their proximity to houses, spearheads, irrigation channels, burial sites, ancient family records. "Objects are mute until you can connect them to people," Stone says, "and it's that connection to the people who produced and used them that's being lost here."

What's more, few of the sites now being sacked have been studied by archaeologists to any great degree. Digs shut down when Iraq invaded Kuwait 13 years ago.

Dr. Wright estimates there are currently 20,000 little-known sites in Iraq worth registering and studying. Right now, looters have a good chance of reaching them first.

A major site will often contain 5,000 or more baked clay tablets, inscribed with everything from commercial records to ancient myths. It was on such a broken Sumerian tablet that the earliest written version of the biblical flood myth was found. "That's from a tablet - not even a whole one. And they're throwing away hundreds," she says.

Still, Wright hopes for positive repercussions from this news. "If there's an outpouring of offers of help to repair the damage, that could help bring Iraq into the modern network of scientific archaeology."

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