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Post Plundered Artifacts in Iraq: Is There Anything Left?
Created by John Eipper on 09/30/14 4:19 AM

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Plundered Artifacts in Iraq: Is There Anything Left? (A. J. Cave, USA, 09/30/14 4:19 am)

When commenting Enrique Torner's post of 28 September, John E posed the question: "At this point, is there even anything left [of ancient artifacts] in Iraq to preserve?"

In one word: Yes.

In two words: Yes, plenty.

In three words: it is complicated.

I recommend that those who have no interest in the topic, to skip the rest (mostly bits and pieces from my old book an idol-worshiper's guide to god-stan, 2012). It is long and boring, followed by supplemental notes about the international legal framework governing antiquities.

Very few people are aware of the scale of the modern destruction which technically goes back to the 18th century. There is nothing new about the looting and plundering, and in many cases, destroying what we now call "antiquities." It is as old as mankind. To some, these antiquities are cultural patrimony, to others, they are spoils of war and wealth. As I have written before, as long as there have been graves, there have been grave-robbers, and as long as there is gold, there will be gold-diggers. Realistically, there is not much we can do to stop them.

On the Persian side, the best known act of destruction was the burning of Persepolis (Parsa) by the Macedonian King Alexander III in the 4th century BCE.

The very roots of the modern science of archaeology goes back to polite plundering of ancient sites by European antiquarians in the 16th century, at times competing with local grave-robbers and tomb-raiders.

However, we have also done and continue to do more to preserve and understand the global past as the roots of our own existence than did generations before us (since the 20th century). At least we no longer grind Egyptian mummies and sell the powder as medicine, as was practiced in Europe in the 18th century.

Not just Iraq and Syria, but most of the Middle East overlapping the ancient Near East has not been fully excavated. The period between WWI and WWII is considered the golden age of "Oriental Archaeology."  After WWII, political unrest in the region has stopped legal excavations on and off, but the illegal excavations have thrived in the chaos created by wars. A few hours of pillaging are enough to strip an ancient site of its historical importance. Aerial bombing? Are you kidding? It pulverizes thousands of years of history in a matter of seconds.

Among the famous sites still buried is the Babylon of King Hammurabi--now roughly 38 centuries old--resting below the water table. Partial excavation of the palace of Mari (Now Tell-e Hariri in Syria, about 50 miles from Iraq-Syria border), destroyed by Hammurabi, has yielded the Mari archives (over 15,000 cuneiform tablets and fragments), dating roughly from 1820 to 1760 BCE. Over 8,000 were letters (known as Mari Letters), some written by royal women, from love letters to suicide notes. The last king of Mari, Zimri-Lim, belonged to the Sim'al tribal federation--contemporary of the Maru or Binu-Yamina tribal confederacy, who might have been ancestors of the biblical tribe of Benjamin.

In "The Day We Watched Babylon Die," I wrote about the looting of the National Museum of Iraq and massive plundering of archaeological sites after our invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Operation Iraqi Liberation (OIL), later changed to Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), was supposed to be a quick military mission of "shock and awe" to liberate the Iraqis, declare victory, and get out. The invasion started on 20 March and by 8 April, the Iraqi army had folded. Then things started to fall apart and the mission quickly turned into the protection of the ground troops.  The majority of historical sites were not marked on military maps, and the ones that luckily escaped the bombings, were mercilessly looted later.

The American military also leveled the land in the heart of Babylon (of Nebuchadnezzar II, 7-6 century BCE) and built a helipad for military helicopters. UNESCO released a report in 2009, listing the damage done to ancient Babylon.

Later Iraqis themselves extended an oil pipeline crossing through Babylon (50 miles south of Baghdad) that became operational in 2012, sparking a feud between the Ministry of Petroleum and the Supreme Board of Antiquities and Heritage. The Oil Ministry won.

British news agency BBC broke the story of the looting of the Iraq Museum on 11 April 2003. The first wave were mostly ordinary Iraqi men, women and children, driven to desperate measures by their own brutal dictatorship and the UN sanctions, who ransacked administrative offices and took whatever they could get their hands on. The museum staff had frantically moved some of the collections to safety in the last minute.

The priceless Nimrud Gold collection had been stored in the underground vault of the Iraq Central Bank during the First Gulf War. The bank vaults were deliberately flooded during the Second Gulf War. Some half-a-million gallons of water were drained from the bank vault over a three-week period by a team from American National Geographic. Three boxes of the Nimrud Gold that had been placed there since 1991 were found undisturbed.

With the second wave of looters came the anonymous armed professionals mixed in with the crowds who had no interest in office furniture. They had a long shopping list. 451 display cases were emptied, along with some larger pieces that had not been secured by the museum staff--among them, the famous Sumerian Warka Vase, the (head) of the Lady of Uruk, and the Nimrud Ivories.

The Iraq Museum's entire inventory was written on index cards with no back-up. The cards were burned during the looting, so without lists, photographs, etc., no one knows what exactly the museum had and what exactly was looted. It is said that the museum had no money to invest in computer software to track their holdings. That is hard to believe, since free versions of whatever they needed were readily available from a number of vendors. If they didn't know how to use a database, they could have used a simple spreadsheet.

Early estimates of loss due to looting were exaggerated. Roughly anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 pieces were stolen. Over 5,000 cylinder seals and roughly an equal number of small items, like amulets, beads, and jewelry were taken from the museum's basement. An ancient seal fetches about $50 in Iraqi markets and depending on quality, it is worth anywhere from $50,000 to $200,000 in New or Tokyo. So the market value of the looted seals alone is roughly in the neighborhood of half a billion dollars.

Some of the looted pieces, like the Warka Vase and the Lady of Uruk, too famous to get out of Iraq and unload, were returned during the amnesty period, but most have not yet surfaced for sale. They have probably already disappeared into private collections, with biggest buyers rumored to be Chinese and Qatari millionaires and billionaires. No way to verify.

On the biblical side, the lore of the Bible remains as strong as ever, and the appeal of the tablets and texts and tombs that might prove (or disprove) the biblical version is obvious.

For people with no connection to the Near East, the remains are feathers in the cap of their fledgling museums.

Ironically when it comes to cuneiform tablets and seals, the study of legally and scientifically excavated tablets makes it possible to fit illegal finds back into their archival context.

So once the spotlight shifts, the illegally excavated tablets will eventually be quietly translated and fitted into historical if not archaeological context.

Since 2003, the Assyriologists at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago have been compiling a comprehensive database of antiquities from the National Museum of Iraq--from memory and combing through various journals where the pieces were first published.

So, have we learned anything?

It seems that this time around we have a keener understanding of the history and heritage of the region (or have more cultured speech writers).

"Threat to Cultural Heritage (or cultural property) of Iraq and Syria" was the theme of an event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) on 22 September where John Kerry, the Secretary of State, gave a speech. The text of the speech is posted on the website of the White House (http://m.state.gov/md231992.htm ) and a number of Heritage websites, so I won't repeat it.

But the shoe is still on the same foot when it comes to (most of) the Muslim Arabs--among them, ISIS.

The roots of archaeology in the Middle East was the search for the biblical peoples and places, so until we turn over every grain of sand and every speck of dust, there would be no rest for the weary. In the process, we didn't just stuff our museum shelves with goodies. The European scholars have managed to decipher ancient cuneiform script and have taken us beyond the Bible. We now know about ancient cultures and civilizations we hadn't even heard of a hundred years ago.

The early fights for antiquities among the Europeans were over who owned the Near Eastern past: the westerners who wanted them at any cost, or the locals who could not care less--unless there was gold or silver to be had.

It was a common practice in the region since ancient times to level an old site and build anew on top. The Bedouin Arabs who lived around the ancient mounds and grazed their flocks on them did not share the love of antiquity and antiquities that characterized the people before them. They viewed the ancient people of the cradle of civilization as contemptible pagans and their remains as idols. They had shown little or no interest in the past that fell behind the pre-Islamic line in the sand--what is called: jahiliyya in Arabic, meaning age of ignorance (of Islam).

When the French excavators failed to bribe the local Arab warlords in 1855, the warlords promptly sunk 300 crates filled with antiquities from the Assyrian capitals of Ashur, Nimrud, and Nineveh to the bottom of the Tigris River, instead of capturing them for ransom. There was no "waste not want not" mentality.

Reportedly when one of the Assyrian lamassu guardians, the man-headed winged bulls (or lions), was dug up by the Arab villagers and shown to the Muslim religious leaders, it was labeled an idol and reduced to rubble.

The Arabist Gertrude Bell, who created the Baghdad Archaeological Museum (Now National Museum of Iraq), was well aware of the issue, as she wrote in the early twentieth century:

"Such of the carved and inscribed blocks as have not been carried away have been left exposed to the malicious attacks of Arab boys, who hold it a meritorious act to deface an idol..."

There was a mound on the ruins of Nineveh (recently destroyed by ISIS) that had become known as the place where the Hebrew Prophet Jonah had preached. A church was built there later and when the Muslim Arabs conquered the Near East in the seventh century, they converted the church into a mosque and called it Nebi Yunis [or Yunus, Arabic for Prophet Jonah]. So the natives had no use for the past, other than using the ancient mounds as foundations for obscure villages, quarry for bricks, limestone for lime, and cemeteries for the dead.

In 19th century, nearby Arab villagers took so many baked bricks from the ancient Babylonian ziggurat of E-temen-anki that nothing was left of the biblical Tower of Babel.

According to Assyriologists, countless cuneiform tablets were thrown into the trash by the locals who were ignorant of both the commercial and cultural value of them.

ISIS is different from their Arab predecessors in the sense that they are an equal opportunity destroyer of whatever they don't like or approve of. They are converting antiquities to cash or dust. It makes no difference to them. If you can't join the civilization, destroy it.


For those who are interested, there are actually some international law framework governing the antiquities. Here are some supplemental notes:

War, not peace and love of the past, was what moved the international community toward the creation of a legal framework for the preservation of antiquities in the mid-twentieth century.

Legal claims to recover looted and stolen works of art during and after the disastrous Second World War by various countries and individuals formed the legal concepts of "Cultural Property" and the legal ownership of it.

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) was founded in 1945 in the wake of the Second World War to do something. That something, among other things, became the conservation, protection and preservation of world heritage. The very high notion of a World Heritage is connected to the idea of collective responsibility for a common good.

1970 became the dividing line in the heritage sand.

High demand for rare and unique antiquities by museums and private collectors finally resulted in:

"Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property"

"Cultural Property" was legally defined for the purposes of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, as:
"property that has some special relationship with a particular culture or nation state... archaeological, ethnographical and historical objects--works of art, and architecture--that embody a culture."

The goal was to prevent the pillaging and plundering of ancient sites and prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of antiquities, particularly in countries with limited resources to protect their cultural heritage.

The entire text has been posted on the UNESCO website in 5 languages: English, French, Spanish, Russian and Arabic. It was ratified by 102 [out of 192] members of the United Nations by 2003. In 2010 the UNESCO Convention was 40 years old, with varying degrees of success.

There is no international agreement about antiquities that had been removed prior to 1970.

In addition to the UNESCO Convention, various cultural and educational organizations have tried to discourage or prohibit the study of looted artifacts. The Archaeological Institute of America, the Society for American Archaeology, and the American Anthropological Association passed supporting resolutions. The Association of Art Museum Directors marked 1970 as the mandatory documentation cutoff date for antiquities in their guidelines drawn up in 2008, now adopted by most institutions.

So new gifts to museums now have to pass the 1970 test or possess an authentic export permit from the country of origin. Some academic journals also refuse to publish articles on illegally excavated pieces, particularly looted cuneiform tablets.

Another way of thinking about the thorny issue of cultural heritage is to move beyond the politics and rhetoric and consider what we have learned because of the shift from the looting to the studying of ancient records and remains that has contributed to our own humanity right here and right now.

JE comments:  My thanks to A. J. Cave for another outstanding history lesson.  The plundering of ancient artifacts is  (nearly) as old as civilization itself, and the West doesn't have its hands clean when it criticizes the destruction going on at present.  I'm curious how long it will take before the illegally obtained tablets and such will become fair game for academic scholarship.  Will the 1970 deadline remain firm?

While we've been discussing the fires in the Levant (and Catalonia), a new one is flaring up in Hong Kong.  What do WAISers think of the current protests?  Is a new Tiananmen Square in the making?


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  • Plundered Artifacts in Iraq (Miles Seeley, USA 09/30/14 5:20 PM)
    I submit that we should just go ahead and give A. J. Cave (30 September) the title of Explainer-in-Chief. You will not find a better account of plundered artifacts, I wager, in any recent publication. It's not just that her research seems impeccable, it's also that she writes so well and so clearly. She holds my interest every time. She is one WAISer whose postings I will read in full and with pleasure.

    I know you do not like to publish thank-you notes, John, but I hope she will see this one.

    JE comments:  I read every WAIS post, but A. J.'s are among the very best.  And I'll make an exception to the WAIS "no attaboy" rule.  This "attagirl" from Miles Seeley deserves to be heard.

    If you missed A. J.'s essay on Iraq's artifacts:  here's the link:


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  • Nineveh: Question for A. J. Cave (Robert Gibbs, USA 10/02/14 3:27 AM)
    I'd like to ask A. J. Cave for more information on the destruction (or further destruction) of

    the Assyrian city of Nineveh.

    This is the heart of the present Assyrian community.  (I was once showered with food and gifts just because it became known that I was there--actually I just flew over in a helicopter which I had put down on the edge for a quick exploration and then back to the war.) I really just want to hear more on the further destruction--I had not heard a word on this and I am quite taken aback.

    I might add that there are places in Egypt and Turkey where I can personally attest to the fact that there is so little respect of the past (or so great a need for materials) that huts are made in Egypt and Turkey from ancient walls (Diyarbakir) and monuments (Egypt).

    Anyway, the Nineveh destruction is a very important subject for me, and I would appreciate (dread is a more accurate term) more information.

    JE comments: WAISers will remember that Col. Bob Gibbs served in the First Gulf War, and spent extensive amounts of time in Iraq and Turkey. I have a new post from A. J. Cave in the queue, but I hope she'll update us on Nineveh. How many of you knew that during the half-century leading up to its destruction in 612 BCE, Nineveh was the largest city in the world?


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    • Nineveh (Iraq) (A. J. Cave, USA 10/03/14 1:38 AM)
      Robert Gibbs asked on 2 October: what is happening to Nineveh?

      I wish I knew.

      Other than what I wrote about the ongoing lootings and the recent destruction of Nebi Yunis (or Nabi Yunus), the converted church (to mosque) by ISIS, I don't know.

      Realistically, we won't know the full extent of damages until ISIS is out of the way and archaeologists and Assyriologists can get to the site and access the situation and issue a full report.

      Modern Mosul, now in northern Iraq, is separated by the Tigris River from the dirt mound that had accumulated for centuries over the ancient Assyrian royal city of (biblical) Nineveh (Akkadian: Ninua), after it was sacked and razed by the allied forces of the Babylonians and Medians in 612 BCE, and left for dead. So politically and geographically the fate of ancient Nineveh is tied to the fate of modern Mosul.

      Since Mosul started to expand (even in the absence of war), Nineveh has been in danger of being repurposed for urban renewal. It is also built on a fault line, so it has been damaged on and off by earthquakes.

      In 2010, Nineveh was flagged by Heritage watchers as one the top ten historical sites in danger of destruction and disappearance. ISIS has made an already bad situation (due to lack of local interest and proper management by the beleaguered Iraqi authorities) worse.

      Now there is a dog fight over Mosul between ISIS and the Kurds (and us). If the Kurds take over Mosul and the surrounding area, there is no reason to believe that they would take any better care of Nineveh. Historically, it means nothing to them.

      It is hard to overstate the importance of Nineveh--even if there was no biblical connection. Nineveh dates back to the Neolithic period, but its fame comes from being the last and the best known royal city (capital) of the formidable Neo-Assyrian kings.

      The lost city of Nineveh, an ancient marvel spanning over 1,700 acres of houses, gardens, and temples, was found around 1845 by the legendary Englishman Austen Henry Layard (later Sir Henry, 1817-1894)--Layard of Nineveh. It was the site of the legendary library of the last of the great Assyrian kings: Ashurbanipal (ruled 669-631 BCE), a storehouse of knowledge filled with all sorts of documents that became the greatest source of recovering the Akkadian language that gave a voice to ancient Near Eastern Civilizations long lost and dust. Nineveh might have also been the actual site of the Hanging Gardens.

      There are now 2 major mounds (accumulated dirt and debris) in Nineveh: Kuyunjik (or Quyunjiq) in the north, and Nebi Yunis, a little over half mile to the south.

      Kuyunjik is the mound over the Assyrian palace complex which has been better excavated since it was first found roughly 160 years ago. Nebi Yunis is the mound over the Assyrian armory and not as well excavated because of the mosque (which is now gone).

      The sprawling royal city of Nineveh was hemmed in by a massive 7-mile (12-kilometer) fortification wall. Outside of the wall, known as the "Old Town," was also settled by various people throughout time and has not been excavated in any meaningful way.

      The last known archaeological team on the site was an Italian group working with Iraq's Board of Antiquities and Heritage in 2002.

      There are 2 great online sources on Nineveh:

      One is DNA-Digital Nineveh Archives-out of UC Berkeley:


      The other is the Nineveh Project on CyArk (short for Cyber Ark, a non-profit organization founded by Ben Kacyra, the Mosul-born Iraqi-American engineer and inventor of portable laser scanners in 2003).


      A few years ago, I floated the idea of sheathing Nineveh under a protective dome (like a football stadium or a shopping mall) and turning it into a research institute and a museum funded by UNESCO members, but the area is so large that the cost becomes ridiculously high, not to mention the pesky problem of coldblooded head-hunters.

      JE comments:  Excellent resources at the above links.  That the Cradle of Civilization is presently the site of such bloody fighting is not a good omen for humanity.  There's a scary, apocalyptic symmetry to it.
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      • Mecca and Its Artifacts (Paul Pitlick, USA 10/03/14 1:53 AM)
        I've always enjoyed A. J. Cave's WAIS posts.

        As a continuation of this discussion thread, the New York Times published an essay about Mecca's antiquities. A. J. said it first, and better. One of the quotes from the article:

        "The 'guardians' of the Holy City, the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the clerics, have a deep hatred of history."


        JE comments:  Modernity and "progress" can be as devastating to historical treasures as warfare.  Mecca, according to author Ziauddin Sardar, is experiencing a suburban sprawl as egregious as anything in Houston, Detroit, or LA.  Even more troubling is the lack of tolerance for diversity of belief among the pilgrims.  Any strain of Islam other than the Saudi Salafism is regarded as false.

        Few non-Muslims are familiar with the Makkah Royal Clock Tower hotel, which dominates Mecca at a height of 1972 feet.  Except for the clock part, there is a Stalinist look to the building, which is presently the fourth tallest in the world.  I wonder if there are enough guests during the non-hajj period, which incidentally, begins today (October 3).

        For skyscraper aficionados like me, here's Wikipedia:


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      • Ziggurat of Ur (Henry Levin, USA 10/03/14 6:25 PM)
        When one of my relatives served in Iraq, he was stationed within 1 km of the Ziggurat of Ur. This is one of the largest ancient buildings, about 210 feet by 150 feet and up to 100 feet high, constructed in about 2,100 BCE, more than 4000 years ago. It was restored by Saddam Hussein. It is in the southern part of Iraq, so quite far from the presence of ISIS at this time. My relative was very impressed with its design and massiveness and consideration of its vintage.


        JE comments:  Fortunately, Ur is safely under the control of the Shia opposition to ISIS.  This is a delicate topic, but what was Saddam Hussein's official policy towards Iraq's antiquities?  Compared to the present, I fear it may have been a Golden Age.
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  • More on Plundered Middle East Artifacts (A. J. Cave, USA 10/08/14 1:46 AM)
    For those who are interested in the issue of looted antiquities from the Middle East, I am passing along the link to a blog by a heritage attorney I follow:


    The post on 6 October: "Conflict and the Heritage Trade: Rise in US Imports of Middle East 'Antiques' and 'Collectors' Pieces' Raises Questions" brings up the possibility of looted antiquities making their way into US through normal and legal import/export system for arts and antiques (usually commercial handicrafts not considered museum quality), by mislabeling them.

    JE comments:  The charts alone tell a disturbing story.  Note the 600% increase in "antiques" from Iraq since 2011, and for "collectibles" it's 1000%.  Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey have seen smaller but still significant increases.  And these numbers are just for imports into the US.  IS/ISIS presumably finds most of its clients elsewhere.
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