Hunt for Stolen Iraqi Antiquities Moves to Cyberspace

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
April 29, 2003
The hunt is on for priceless antiquities looted from the Iraq Museum in
Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq. The international effort is playing out
in Baghdad, at Iraq's borders—and now in cyberspace. Scholars at
the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute have launched a Web site
that could help trap antiquities smugglers. It also affords a virtual
glimpse of antiquities stolen from the museum collection.

Many priceless Mesopotamian artifacts are missing from the Iraq Museum following its well-publicized looting. International experts say professional thieves were behind the job. Museum records were partially destroyed during the museum rampage, leaving the world with only a scattering of digital images and information on missing artifacts.

The full extent of the theft remains sketchy. Some hold out hope that most treasured artifacts were moved for safekeeping. Some artifacts have trickled back to the museum, intercepted by authorities or returned by citizens under an amnesty agreement. But most artifacts have yet to surface.

International organizations have rallied to the cause. Antiquities experts at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute recently unveiled a fledgling Web site to document the status of the looted artifacts. The site aims to make life difficult for those who traffic in the stolen goods.

The new database posts photographs and information on antiquities from the Iraq Museum collection. Collaborating with international institutions and experts, the site's creators plan to continually add information on other artifacts as it becomes available and update the status of artifacts as they are recovered—or determined to be definitively missing.

Virtual "Wanted" Posters

"We're acting as a clearing house, and so far 36 different institutions and individuals from all over the world are contributing information, sending images, and volunteering labor," said Oriental Institute director Gil Stein. "It's really inspiring how much people want to help."

The University of Michigan, the University of Southern California, Harvard University, the University of California at Berkeley, the British Museum, and the British School of Archaeology are just a few of the organizations where scholars are pitching in to make the project a success.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum is also working to provide Internet access to a previously-documented catalogue of artifacts excavated by university and British Museum staff during decades of work at the ancient city of Ur.

The goal is to reach as wide an audience as possible. The scope of the recovery effort is enormous.

"If losses are as bad as some reports [indicate]—perhaps 170,000 artifacts—saying we could document one-third of it is probably optimistic," said Dr. Clemens Reichel, a specialist on Mesopotamian archaeology at the Oriental Institute. At the University of Chicago, researchers may be able to document some 15,000 artifacts.

"We want it to be accessible to the public, and also accessible for law enforcement so that they can check suspicious items," Stein explained. "We hope to intimidate potential buyers and dealers so that they know that these 'wanted posters' are up for this material."

The international antiquities market is massive, multi-billion-dollar business trading in historic artifacts from Turkey, Greece, Afghanistan, Peru, Cambodia and other corners of the ancient world. By some estimates, many more pieces are sold illegally than are legally dealt.

Because the looting of the Iraq Museum was not an isolated event, Reichel said he hopes the project will discourage looting at other sites in Iraq. "There's still a lot more damage that could be done elsewhere in Iraq," he said. "Maybe this kind of effort can help limit that damage—we hope for best."

The Web site's creators hope it can aid investigators from Europe's Interpol to the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation seeking definitive information on what artifacts are missing. They suggest it could possibly illustrate international smuggling patterns over time as different groups or types of artifacts surface.

Following the first Gulf War, artifacts were stolen on a much smaller scale. International bulletins were put out in the form of illustrated pamphlets and catalogues. The efforts did help recover some objects. But today's Internet-based technology allows such resources to be updated in a way that was not possible in the early 1990s.

Local Expertise

Cooperation with Iraqi antiquities officials will be key, but it remains non-existent at present as Iraq Museum staff struggle to regain basic services. "It's at the level where they need electricity for the basement so they can even see what's missing," Stein explained.

"We can't get through and don't have contact," Reichel added. "Early next week Donny George [of Iraq's Antiquities Department] will hopefully be at a meeting at the British Museum and be able to give a firsthand account of the situation."

For now, the common presumed status of most artifacts is "unknown." "Right now we're saying, 'If you see this outside Iraq, it's been stolen,'" said Reichel. "As the smoke clears, we'll be updating status of these objects."

The eventual home of the online database will be the reconstructed Iraq Museum itself. "Hopefully soon the Baghdad museum will be up and running, and we'll be turning this over to them," said Reichel. "It's their collection. We're just trying to help immediately."

The collaborative effort could provide the basis for a new records system for the museum. The old system is reported to have been severely damaged, a high cost in itself. Much of the associated research and description of the archaeological context in which artifacts were found was also destroyed when the museum was looted.

Reichel suggests that the fact that such digital records were neither widely available nor distributed may serve as a wake up call for some in the field. "If we're brutally honest we should anticipate that these things could happen. It's not only war, but even a flood in the basement of the Oriental Institute or the British Museum. You can see the value of having this kind of digital information."

One value is the creation of a permanent, flexible tool for what promises to be a long-term struggle. "Gradually some items will be recovered," said University of Michigan anthropologist Henry Wright. "But even centuries from now, specialists will still be looking."

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