Attack on Antiquity

Archaeological treasures are little known casualties of our Iraq policy

| May/June 2001

Lost amid years of saber rattling toward Saddam Hussein and the calculated starvation of the Iraqi people is one casualty of the Gulf War few have noticed: the wholesale destruction of some of antiquity's most treasured archaeological sites.

As John Malcolm Russell reports in Natural History (Feb. 2001), bombing raids were responsible for only a small part of the damage (most notably the temple at Ur of the Chaldees, reputed birthplace of Abraham); the real trouble began immediately after the war, when civil unrest and economic sanctions led to widespread looting of ancient treasures. "Even now, a decade later, the nation's Department of Antiquities and Heritage is short of needed resources. As a result, thousands of artifacts have been smuggled out of Iraq and offered on the international market," Russell writes. "What is being lost is not only Iraq's heritage but the world's."

During the bombing of Baghdad, the country's major museum was closed and its holdings transferred to regional museums and to the vault of the Iraqi Central Bank. But after the bank was bombed and seven of the regional museums were looted in riots that followed the cease-fire, some 4,000 artifacts were reported missing. Also plundered were excavation sites at Telloh, where archaeologists discovered cuneiform records from about 2500 B.C. (ironically representing the earliest known documentation of state-sponsored warfare), and at Dur Sharrukin, home to an Assyrian palace from about 700 B.C. Later, food shortages led to emergency agricultural development programs in which "countless" sites were plowed and irrigated.

"The Department of Antiquities and Heritage has managed to protect and document a few major sites and to reopen the Iraq Museum," Russell writes, "but for the most part we are witnessing the destruction of a very promising past."