Ironically, in the 20th century, the looting of archaeological sites in Iraq was a problem brought under control during Saddam Hussein’s regime. His government treated looting as a capital offense. Since the recent Iraq War, however, looting of archaeological sites has sadly become common practice once again, wiping away the evidence of ancient cultures.
One archaeologist has describe the looting as “industrial” in scale, with whole sites destroyed by tens of thousands of holes dug by looters looking for objects to sell on the antiquities market. When objects are torn from their contexts without a record of their findspots, drawings and photographs, we lose information critical to our reconstructions of the past.
Consider, as one example, a statue. If bought on the antiquities market, they retain only their aesthetic value. If they carry imagery or inscriptions, they can tell only part of their story. But, if such statues are found and recorded by archaeologists, we can learn much more. A trash deposit, like Woolley’s SIS, tells us where, when, and with what they were discarded.
Statues buried in temple sanctuaries or built into installations such as those from the Nintu temple at Khafajah or the Inanna temple at Nippur tell us they had to be kept in sacred space after they were no longer used.
And, best of all, found, like statues in the Ishtar Temple at Ashur, standing on a bench in the cella, tell us they were placed in front of a cult image to represent the donor to a god.
Only through the controlled retrieval of archaeological remains, can we reconstruct the past.
Looting at the Iraq Museum
Gertrude Bell established the Iraq Museum in Baghdad in 1924. Its first objects came from the excavations at Ur and at Kish. The Iraq Museum, which houses an impressive collection of Mesopotamian artifacts, closed at the beginning of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. During the recent Iraq War it suffered from heavy looting. In April 2003, when American forces entered central Baghdad, only a few staff members remained. On April 7, Iraqi soldiers took up positions in and around the museum to prevent American forces from crossing a nearby bridge. After the fighting subsided, the museum was severely looted between April 10 and 12. Although some museum staff returned on April 13, they were unable to get American troops to protect the museum until April 16.
Initial reports of the looting suggested total devastation. Fortunately, many of the important objects had previously been moved off site to ensure their safety during the war. Many of the big pieces permanently installed in the galleries, however, were toppled or destroyed during the looting. The looters also raided the museum’s excavation archives and storerooms, where, among other things, they stole more than 5,000 cylinder seals. In late April 2003, an investigation and recovery effort began in earnest. Nearly 3,500 looted items have now been returned to the Iraq Museum.
The objects held in the Iraq Museum record the beginnings of civilization. When they are taken or destroyed, history is lost. One estimate states that nearly 8,000 objects are still missing.