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The Impact of the Iraq War on Archaeology

Iraqi archaeological sites have seen a tremendous increase in looting ever since the Iraq War in 2003.

The ruins of ancient Babylon seen from Saddam Hussein’s former summer palace. Hillah

Mesopotamia, the “land between the rivers” (the Tigris and Euphrates), gave birth to agriculture, writing, cities, laws, the division of an hour into 60 minutes, and many more innovations that we take for granted. It was also home to Abraham, so the biblical book of Genesis tells us, before he immigrated to Canaan/Israel. Mesopotamia became the place of Jewish exile generations later. A building, probably a ziggurat (temple tower), in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon informs the biblical story of the tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9) and the Bible (Gen 2:14) suggests that the garden of Eden was located at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Mesopotamian sites and artifacts are tremendously important for our understanding of human history and of the Bible. Yet preserving and managing them for public benefit has proved difficult.

Today, Mesopotamia is Iraq. In April 2003, war reached its capital, Baghdad. Looters and vandals ravaged the National Museum for several days before the US military finally secured it. As the largest collection of Mesopotamian artifacts in the world, it contains many excavated and documented pieces indispensable to scientific research. Through the efforts of Iraqi and international law enforcement, about 5,000 stolen artifacts have been recovered. More than 10,000 pieces are still missing. 

Although authorities have since secured the museum, tens of thousands of archaeological sites throughout Iraq continue to be virtually unprotected. Whole tells (ruined city-mounds) have been reduced to pockmarked, moonlike landscapes due to the frenzied digging activities of looters. The Sumerian “cradle of civilization” in southern Iraq has been hit the hardest.

Other sites have suffered from military presence, both foreign and domestic. The ancient city of Ur, mentioned in the Bible, is famous for its well-preserved ziggurat. Although the presence of a nearby air base prevented severe looting, the expansion of military installations has encroached on the archaeological remains. Another large military base (since closed) was set up in the midst of ancient Babylon; soil moved to create defensive groundworks, disturbed the archaeological remains. This is problematic because artifacts tell us much more when found in their original locations, in context with other objects. Isolated artifacts of unknown origin are less valuable.

Some damage to archaeological sites happened even before the recent war. Saddam Hussein drained the marshlands along the coast at the mouth of the great rivers during his military campaigns against the local tribes. Some people think this once-lush area inspired the biblical garden of Eden story. Other damage has occurred as agriculture and expanding cities encroach on ancient sites.

When the 2003 looting became big news, scholars successfully lobbied for improved heritage-protection and antiquities-trade laws in the United States, Switzerland, and other countries. As the political situation in Iraq gradually improved, the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage resumed controlled excavations, particularly at threatened sites. In another positive development, teams from other countries returned to excavate responsibly, especially in the more stable Kurdish region. Information has become more widely accessible, too. Archaeologists set up the Lost Treasures from Iraq reference database, the Iraq War and Archaeology information project, the new Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage, and other programs. The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative has made Sumerian and Akkadian clay tablets, scattered in collections all over the world, freely accessible online. These texts represent humankind’s oldest writing.

Protecting the heritage of Mesopotamia starts with a government capable of enforcing heritage laws and providing Iraqis with a higher standard of living.  The people living near ruins must be actively involved in site management, preservation, and perhaps tourism. Last but not least, the illegal antiquities trade needs to be curtailed at the other end: as long as big money is being paid for looted antiquities without serious repercussions for the buyers and middlemen, this international criminal enterprise will continue.

  • Francis Deblauwe

    Francis Deblauwe is a scholar of ancient Mesopotamia and an editor with the Alexandria Archive Institute, San Francisco. He has excavated in Belgium, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey and has taught at universities in Germany and the United States. He has written about spatial analysis of buildings, digital archaeology, and Yemeni and Iraqi heritage in international academic as well as popular publications.