Tuesday, July 15, 2008

"So Much for the 'Looted Sites.'"

The Wall Street Journal published this article today.

Despite the way some associated with the archaeological community might try to belittle such stories, the issue of the extent and dates of any looting is quite relevant. It has now become apparent that Congress based legislation granting the State Department the authority to impose "emergency import restrictions" without the normal CPAC review based on exaggerated information. Ad hominem attacks meant to divert attention from this central issue will hopefully fail in the long run.

In any event, this article should be of particular interest:


So Much for the 'Looted Sites'

July 15, 2008; Page D9

A recent mission to Iraq headed by top archaeologists from the U.S. and U.K. who specialize in Mesopotamia found that, contrary to received wisdom, southern Iraq's most important historic sites -- eight of them -- had neither been seriously damaged nor looted after the American invasion. This, according to a report by staff writer Martin Bailey in the July issue of the Art Newspaper. The article has caused confusion, not to say consternation, among archaeologists and has been largely ignored by the mainstream press. Not surprising perhaps, since reports by experts blaming the U.S. for the post invasion destruction of Iraq's heritage have been regular fixtures of the news.

Up to now, it had seemed a clear-cut case. It stood to reason that a chaotic land rich with artifacts would be easy to loot and plunder. Ergo, the accusations against the U.S., the de facto governing authority, had been taken on faith. No one had bothered to challenge the reports, the evidence or the logic, not least because many ancient sites were in hostile terrain and couldn't be double-checked. By implication, the U.S. had been blamed for that too: After all, the presiding authority is effectively responsible for allowing no-go areas to exist where such things can occur.

Yet, paradoxically, there always was thought to be enough evidence to adduce blame. "We believe that every major site in Southern Iraq is in serious danger," Donny George, the former head of the Baghdad Museum, was quoted as saying in the New York Times in 2003. A recent book by Lawrence Rothfield of the University of Chicago's Cultural Policy Institute carried the estimate that, every year, roughly 10% of Iraq's heritage was being destroyed.

One of the foremost specialists who went on the trip, Elizabeth Stone from Stony Brook University, actually quantified the damage with the help of satellite images -- just before going. Alarmingly, and prematurely it seems, she concluded that nearly 10 miles of land had been looted and hundreds of thousands of objects had been taken. Confident statistics of this kind have been regularly tossed around, yet one wonders how such calculations can be made, not least by viewing the remains of illicit digs from satellite pictures. When looters attacked the Baghdad Museum in 2003, the news media put the number of destroyed and looted objects at 170,000 -- a figure equal to the entire collection. It emerged later that most of the important pieces had been successfully hidden away. Others were soon found. The number of missing objects that is cited has since fluctuated between 3,000 and 15,000, with the figure never taking into account the systematic semiofficial looting and frequent substituting with fakes that occurred in Saddam's time.

Considering the political impact of such data, one would expect the experts to approach the subject with scientific circumspection, using numbers sparingly and conservatively. Too often they seem to have done the reverse. So now, as a matter of course, their method, their probity in sifting the evidence -- do they have a political agenda? -- has come into question.
It's a question that equally hangs over the deliberations of a meeting that took place recently in Dublin of the World Archeological Congress. The members reportedly considered a lengthy statement urging colleagues to refuse any military requests for a list of Iran's sites that should be exempt from possible air strikes. Finally they settled for a shorter July 11 press release. Among other things, the final press release says that WAC "expresses strong opposition to aggressive military action . . . by the U.S. government, or by any other government." The release quotes WAC's president as saying that WAC "strongly opposed the war in Iraq and . . . we strongly oppose any war in Iran" and that "any differences with Iran should be resolved through peaceful and diplomatic means."

If as scholars, archeologists take a priori public positions on political matters, what are we to make of the field-data they produce? How impartial can it be? And with their own credibility marred, who is there left as an impartial body of experts for the public to turn to?
The archaeologists' mission to southern Iraq took place in early June. Besides Prof. Stone, the experts included John Curtis, head of the British Museum's Middle East Department; Paul Collins, a Mesopotamia specialist at that museum; a top German expert; and Iraqi experts. It was conducted through the British military, which is in charge of the area, using a helicopter and armed escorts to visit the locations. They included such celebrated "cradle of civilization" sites as Ur, Eridu (the earliest Sumerian city), Warka (Sumerian Uruk), Larsa (a Babylonian city), Tell el-Ouelli (ancient Ubaid) and Tell el-Lahm (an Assyrian site).

According to the Art Newspaper article, "The international team . . . had been expecting to find considerable evidence of looting after 2003 but to their astonishment and relief there was none. Not a single recent dig hole was found at the eight sites, and the only evidence of illegal digging came from holes which were partially covered with silt and vegetation, which means they [were] several years old." Furthermore, the most recent damage "probably dated back to 2003," to just before and after the invasion when the Iraqi army maneuvered for the allied attack. (According to other experts, looting probably took place when the Iraqi army first moved out of areas near sites to counter the invasion.)

Neither the British Museum pair nor Prof. Stone responded to my calls seeking comment. The British Museum press official for the Middle Eastern department cautioned that the official report had not yet been compiled, but it seemed that the article was generally accurate. Certainly none of the experts have denied any of it. In the article, Dr. Curtis "admits that he was 'very surprised' at the lack of recent looting, but stresses that . . . 'it may not be typical of the country as a whole, and the situation could be worse further north.'"

No doubt. But how could previous assessments have been so wrong, and why would one expect anything to be worse elsewhere? In phone conversations with me, both Donny George and Lawrence Rothfield argued that the eight sites were all known to be well-protected. Dr. George was able to itemize each one: "Ur was an Iraqi airbase and then a U.S. airbase. Uruk Warka was protected by guards from nearby tribes -- we always knew that. Ouelli is largely prehistoric and of no use to looters. . . ." And so on. But Dr. George, perhaps the world's leading authority on the subject, also conceded that the greatest damage done by looters had generally occurred in the 1990s, in Saddam's time. Prof. Rothfield said that the no-fly zones back then had allowed illicit digging to occur.

The mission also refuted the welter of news items we've all become familiar with accusing allied forces of damaging ancient sites with emplacements, tank tracks and the like. According to the Art Newspaper report, "little damage was . . . caused by coalition forces." Much of it was done by Saddam's forces.

One is left with these questions: If the visited sites were known to be well-protected, why did the team choose only those sites, and why were team members surprised at the lack of damage? It has been hard to get convincing answers. Some have speculated that, to get further cooperation, the visitors made a tacit deal with the British authorities not to raise a scandal. Dr. George felt that perhaps the eight were the only sites with adequate security, while he couldn't explain the surprise expressed by the experts. He warned against putting too much faith in newspaper reporting. Quite right.

But it is all a far cry from the hitherto prevailing impression abroad in the world that the invasion has directly led to the mass destruction of Iraq's archaeological heritage.
Mr. Kaylan writes about the arts and culture for the Journal.

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1 comment:

Cultural Property Observer said...

The British Museum has posted a report of the survey described in this article. It can be found here:


At page 12, the report concludes,
"To sum up, no certain evidence for recent looting was found at any of the sites."