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Destruction in Mesopotamia: Ancient mysteries fall prey to looters in Iraq, Science feature reveals

American Association for the Advancement of Science



The 6 July cover of Science features a 2700-year-old stone head from King Sargon II's capital of Dur-Sharrukin, today's Khorsabad in northern Iraq. Looters sawed the head off a statue in 1997, then sliced it into smaller pieces to smuggle it out of the country. The severed head, shown here in Baghdad's Iraq Museum awaiting restoration, was recovered, and perpetrators were executed. But thousands of other objects have been irretrievably lost in the past decade. Contact the source for a high-resolution image. [Photo: John Russell]

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In the northern Iraqi town of Khorsabad four years ago, looters sawed the massive stone head from a statue, sliced it to bits, then tried to spirit the remains to cash-heavy Western collectors. Unlike most of Iraq's rapidly disappearing artifacts, the Khorsabad head was recovered, and 10 of a dozen perpetrators were executed in 1999, a feature in the 6 July issue of Science reveals.

Though archaeological looting in Iraq is slowly being brought under control, the case of the Khorsabad head underscores the dangers confronting scientists there, and the heavy toll thieves take on the world's understanding of human history.

"Iraq is an enormous storehouse of information on the earliest civilizations," said Andrew Lawler, Boston correspondent for Science. "Unfortunately, it's being picked clean by looters, and damaged by canal and dam construction. Now, scientists are beginning to speak out about what has gone on in Iraq for the past 10 years, ever since the Gulf War."

Throughout Iraq, archaeological sites spanning the past 10,000 years hold clues to the world's first great cities and empires, the origins of writing, and many religious traditions, Lawler reports. But, in the war's aftermath, "machine-gun-wielding intruders plundered ancient sites with impunity, and the country's once well-funded and proud team of scholars was scattered around the globe," the Science article notes. Today, looting continues at key dig sites, driven by the poverty that followed sanctions, plus a strong Western demand for stolen antiquities.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi tradition of "rebuilding" historical sites, rather than preserving them, has compromised a number of archaeological ruins. Scientists from around the world, and particularly Germany, are beginning to venture back into Iraq. But, laws in the United States and the United Kingdom continue to bar archeologists in those countries from entering Iraq.

Iraq's own archaeologists, meanwhile, encounter "Indiana Jones-style adventures" during the morning commute. Donny George, research director of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities, struggled before the war to safeguard valuable objects, such as the bronze head of an Akkadian king and the gold jewelry found in Nimrud. Despite such efforts, rioting mobs looted 11 of Iraq's 13 regional museums in the war's aftermath. In Amara, a museum director's son was killed on the spot when he tried to block thieves who burned the building after grabbing precious artifacts.

"Most of the stolen objects will never be recovered," Lawler noted. "When they're lost, they're gone forever, and they take with them the answer to many ancient questions about our origins."

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