Ancient Iraqi Sites Show Theft, Destruction

National Geographic News
June 11, 2003

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A National Geographic Society archaeological expedition to significant ancient sites and key museums in Iraq reports that although U.S. bombs spared most sites and treasures, some ancient locations have been seriously damaged by recent looting or long-term neglect.

Several key sites out of two dozen visited were found to be unguarded. Hundreds of people could be seen making illegal excavations at many places.

"Far more material than what has been reported missing from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad is being ripped from the ground and leaving the country," expedition leader Henry Wright said in a conference call with journalists today. "Extraordinary damage is being wreaked on this irreplaceable archaeological record."

Archaeologists estimate there may be between 20,000 and 100,000 ancient sites in Iraq, ranging from mounds to storied cities like Babylon and Nineveh.

The team has called for increased patrols and 24-hour guards by U.S. forces at the most important ancient sites, bolstering Iraq's own system of site-protection, including the arming of Iraqi guards, and urgent assistance for Iraq's museums to help recover and conserve missing and damaged objects.

The trip, organized by National Geographic's Committee for Research and Exploration, was led by Wright, a CRE member and curator of near eastern archaeology at the University of Michigan's Museum of Anthropology. Iraqi archaeologists and others joined the U.S.-based team for what was the first survey of the country's antiquities beyond Baghdad since the April war with the United States.

Mixed Findings

Wright reports that the team's findings are mixed. "Somebody in the U.S. government deserves positive credit for sparing the archaeological sites from bombing, and we found nothing but concern and politeness from the military people we encountered," he said. "However, several important sites have been badly looted and remained unguarded when we were there.

"Very little archaeological work has been done in key parts of Iraq, so much of its history—the worlds heritage—still lies in the ground. Protecting these places for future research at this very vulnerable time is crucial if we are to have any hope of understanding the fundamental processes that gave rise to the earliest civilizations," Wright said.

Iraq, once ancient Mesopotamia, is of critical interest to archaeologists and historians because it is considered the "crucible of civilization," the birthplace of the written word as well as of complex agriculture, written laws, organized religion, science and war. Archaeology also has revealed that around 3500 B.C., the world's first cluster of cities arose in lower Mesopotamia.

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