History lost in dust of war-torn Iraq

History lost in dust of war-torn Iraq
By Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly - BBC
Independent archaeologist and journalist

It is two years since looters ravaged one of the world's most important museums, in central Baghdad.

Carved cylinders
Carved cylinders were rolled across soft clay to form an identifiable seal
Saddam Hussein's power had collapsed and the newly arrived US-led coalition forces were unable to prevent a crime against history.

Professional smugglers connected to the international antiquities mafia managed to break some of the sealed doors of the Baghdad Museum storage rooms.

They looted priceless artefacts such as the museum's entire collection of cylindrical seals and large numbers of Assyrian ivory carvings.

More than 15,000 objects were taken. Many were smuggled out of Iraq and offered for sale.

To date, 3,000 have been recovered in Baghdad, some returned by ordinary citizens, others by the police. In addition, more than 1,600 objects have been seized in neighbouring countries, some 300 in Italy and more than 600 in the United States.

Most of the stolen items are unaccounted for, but some private collectors in the Middle East and Europe have admitted possessing objects bearing the initials IM (Iraq Museum inventory number).

Ancient sites levelled

An ever-growing number of websites also offer Mesopotamian artefacts - anywhere up to 7,000 years old - for sale.

Doubtless, there are more fake objects advertised on the web than authentic ones, but the mere existence of this market has fuelled the looting of archaeological sites in southern Iraq.

Click here to see pictures of ancient Iraqi treasures that were looted

The picture there is appalling. More than 150 Sumerian cities dating back to the fourth millennium BC - such as Umma, Umm al-Akkareb, Larsa and Tello - lie destroyed, turned into crater-filled landscapes of shredded pottery and broken bricks.

If properly excavated, these cities - covering an estimated 20 sq km - could help us learn about the development of the human race.

But the looters have destroyed the monuments of their own ancestors, erasing their own history in a tireless search for a cylinder seal, a sculpture or a cuneiform tablet that they can sell to a dealer for a few dollars.

It is tough, poorly-paid work carried out by jobless Iraqis with no way of earning a better income.

It's a disaster that we are all witnessing and observing, but which we can do little to prevent
Abdul Amir Hamadani
Nasiriya archaeologist
"A cylinder seal or a cuneiform tablet brings in under $50 on the site for the looter," explains the archaeologist responsible for the district of Nasiriya, Abdul Amir Hamadani.

"It's a disaster that we are all witnessing and observing, but which we can do little to prevent. With the help of 200 newly recruited police officers we are trying to stop the looting by patrolling the sites as often as possible.

"But we are now all alone. Italian carabinieri troops were the only coalition forces that actively worked on this issue for a few months. They used to patrol the region by land and from the sky. They have stopped all their operations and are now simply helping train policemen and guards."

Heavy boots

Coalition forces have themselves damaged archaeological sites by using them as military bases.

The withdrawal of coalition troops from Babylon has revealed irreversible damage to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

An alarming report by the keeper of the British Museum's Near East department, Dr John Curtis, describes how areas in the middle of the archaeological site were levelled to create a landing area for helicopters and parking lots for heavy vehicles.

Umma, a capital of ancient Sumeria
Looted Sumerian sites now resemble the surface of the moon
"They caused substantial damage to the Ishtar Gate, one of the most famous monuments from antiquity," he wrote.

"US military vehicles crushed 2,600 year old brick pavements, archaeological fragments were scattered across the site, more then 12 trenches were driven into ancient deposits and military earth-moving projects contaminated the site for future generations of scientists.

"Add to all that the damage caused to nine of the moulded brick figures of dragons in the Ishtar Gate by people trying to remove the bricks from the wall."

There will be no end to the destruction of Iraq's heritage, unless the country's leaders take a political decision to consider archaeology a priority.

For this, the ring of dealers in Baghdad has to be seized, looting in the south has to be effectively confronted and coalition forces have to be prevented from setting up base on archaeological sites.

The longer Iraq finds itself in a state of war, the more the cradle of civilization is threatened.

It may not even last long enough for our grandchildren to learn from.

Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly is an independent archaeologist and journalist covering the Middle East, who has been studying Iraqi heritage for the last seven years.