Cultural Assessment of Iraq: The State of Sites and Museums in Southern Iraq

May 2003
Photo gallery and map>>
News Report: Ancient Iraqi Sites Show Theft, Destruction>>
The National
Geographic Society's Cultural Assessment of Iraq: Introduction>>

Part One: The State of Sites and
Museums in Northern Iraq>>

The southern team comprised Henry Wright, McGuire Gibson (for Babylon and Nippur), Elizabeth Stone, Iraqi archaeologist Dr. Riad Abdul Rahman, videographer Peter Getzels (National Geographic TV), photojournalist Steve McCurry (National Geographic Magazine), and writer Andrew Lawler, as well as two drivers. We first drove south from Baghdad to visit Babylon, then went to Nippur, both in the northwest part of the lower alluvium not far from Baghdad. After, we went directly to Nasiriyyah in the far southwestern lower alluvium, and assessed possible damage at Ur, Eridu, Tell Ubaid, Dahaileh, Girsu, and Larsa. When we returned to Baghdad, we visited Ctesiphon, Harmal, and Tell Mohammed -- all in the suburbs of Baghdad-- and Samarra 90 kilometers up the Tigris to the northwest.

Babylon: The dominant metropolis of the lower alluvium for almost two millennia, from just after 2000 B.C. until just before our era, Babylon has been partly reconstructed using plans made by German excavators a century ago. Recently, it has become a popular destination for Iraqi tourists. We were given a thorough tour by Marine Capt. David Romley. The Babylon Museum, the Director's house, gift shop, library, etc. were looted and partially burned after the recent conflict. Damage beyond these facilities seems minimal, the guard having fended off the would-be looters with a sickle ! The site is now being guarded by U.S. Marines resident in the palace that Saddam built overlooking the site.

Nippur: This site, a holy city dedicated to Enlil, head of the Sumerian pantheon, and occupied from at least 5000 BC until the Islamic period, seemed in pretty good shape. Earlier excavations by the University of Pennsylvania and excavations since the 1948 by University of Chicago have suffered only from natural erosion. There were , however, a few recent looter's pits, which are the first to appear in the site. However, the guards are present, the roof of the excavation house is ready for occupation, and the situation seems to be under control.

Ur: This modest prehistoric town grew to be the capital of a regional empire from 2100 to 2000 BC, and was an important urban center for two millennia thereafter. It was partially excavated by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania during the 1920s and 1930s. This site, south of Nasiriyyah, is being well guarded by the US forces who have a huge presence at nearby Talil air base. The site guard has remained in place, well-supported by Major Jon Anderson and the Civil Affairs staff at Talil. We heard accounts of graffiti and the taking of bricks as souvenirs by US military personnel, but did not see any evidence of this. There are some fox holes dug into various part of the site. There has been some new reconstruction in the AH house area, the so-called "House of Abraham", by the Department. I do find it disappointing that they did not follow the plan of these houses precisely so what were at least four separate houses now have doors linking them, convenient for modern visitors, but not a true representation of early Mesopotamian attention to family privacy. While on the site, we gave several talks to attentive audiences of visiting U.S. troops about what we do and do not know about Ur.

Eridu (Modern Abu Shahrain): This important prehistoric town south of Ur was viewed by the ancient Sumerians as the oldest city in the world, and was the site of the first independent project of Iraq's Department of Antiquities during the late 1940s. There were minor signs of looting at Eridu. The place that seems to have attracted the attention of recent looters was the old excavation house of the Iraq Museum's team, built in 1947. The looters may have found a few old sardine cans but not much else.

Ubaid: The prehistoric village site near Ur, which gives its name to the early village culture of the alluvium was partly excavated by the British Museum in the 1920s. The Department had surrounded it with a sturdy barbed-wire fence, and it has suffered no recent damage. A nearby early historic village site, which like most archaeological mounds has no such protection, was pitted by looters a few days before our visit.

Dahaileh (Eridu Project 34): This is a town site west of Ur dating to the Old Babylonian period, ca 1700 B.C. I have always wanted to visit since it is similar in plan to Mashkan-shapir near Nippur, where I initiated research just before the first Gulf War. It is quite remote and has been heavily pitted in the cemetery, in a temple or administrative area, and in a housing area. We have to include this area in their regular program of patrols.

Girsu (Modern Telloh): In Nasiriyyah, we were able to link up with the 225th Marine battalion under Major Glenn Sadowski who already had been ordered to monitor archaeological sites. We went with them to Girsu, north of Nasiriyyah, a prehistoric town which grew to be an important city in of the Kingdom of Lagash and seat of its queen around 2400 BC. The French excavated here more than a century ago, and again during the 1930s. There some evidence of minor recent looting. Indeed, our arrival with the Marines may have spurred the looters to run away in the opposite direction. The guard is in place and he and his assistants had driven the looters off earlier by shooting at them.

Larsa (Modern Senkereh): We also visited this large city west of Nasiriyyah with Major Sadowski and some of his Marines. A French team excavated here during the 1970s and 1980s. We saw evidence of extensive recent looting. This recent pitting was most severe on one or more large baked brick buildings. This looked like other large houses known already from Larsa, which often had extensive archives of clay tablets with cuneiform texts within them. The French excavation house had been destroyed after the Gulf War of 1991, and the site guard was murdered. Now, only a few bricks remain. There was no sign of the present site guard. His house had been destroyed, and he had presumably gone back to his village some time back. This site needs to be guarded, but it is in the border between several jurisdictions, and it is unclear who should be responsible.

Ctesiphon: The famous arch , the audience hall of the palace of the Sasanian emperors in the 3rd to 6th centuries AD is still standing, but there are now graffiti on it (in Arabic), and kids are climbing on the roof and throwing bricks around (some modern some old). The building with the vaunted panorama of the seventh century AD Battle of Kaddisiyeh, a victory of Arab armies over the Persians important in the propaganda of Saddam Hussein, is completely looted. No guard was in sight.

Tell Harmal: This small walled town of about 1800 BC, excavated by the Iraqis in the 1950s and partly reconstructed, has suffered a little wear and tear but no real damage. The guard is in place. I was warned by some locals not to wander too far away from the reconstructed areas but don't know whether they were worried about unexploded ordinance or wild dogs (there was evidence of the presence of dens in the area).

Tell Mohammed: This site close to and contemporary with Tell Harmal was recently excavated by the Iraqis, but the diminution of resources caused by the sanctions forced cessation of research before the project was finished. A pillbox was recently built on this site by Iraqi troops. Otherwise it seemed to have only the usual problems of poor preservation of mud-brick. On our way out however we saw a sign indicating the presence of unexploded ordnance in the area.

Nasiriyyah Museum This is intact but is now where the Marines are bivouacked. I was not allowed in but other team members report that there are camp beds between the copies of Hatra statues and Assyrian reliefs. In general the regional museums had copies that could be used for teaching children rather than originals, but these pieces seem to have been treated with respect. The director of research here, though, is annoyed since her house was part of the Museum and she has had to move out. Generally, however, the museum staff seemed pleased with the actions of the US forces. The current Museum Director, Abdul Amir Hamdani, is working with the Marines to see that sites being actively looted are better protected.

Protection of Sites in the South: Unlike the north, looting has been and continues to be a very serious problem in the south. Even many smaller sites have been probed by looters searching for items which can be sold to dealers with connections to the world market in antiquities. Each such looter's hole rips out layers and artifacts without the recording of archaeological context that would enable us to learn about past environments, economies, conflicts , and daily life. We were informed by the Nasiriyyah Museum officials that there is an antiquities bazaar at Rifa'i, north of Nasiriyyah. We passed this information on to Dr. George in Baghdad so he could inform U.S. customs investigators concerned with smuggling.

In Nasiriyyah we were able to link up with the Marines stationed in the Museum who already had on their agenda the initiation of a process of monitoring the sites. We went with them to Girsu and Larsa, and they intended to continue to examine Lagash, Umma, Adab and Isin, although there were some issues as to which sites were under whose control. The main problem that we faced was that they do not use the same coordinate system as geographers and archaeologists use, but work off military map sheets. These are based on the Universal Tranverse Mercator grid used by most Geographical Positioning Systems, but there are different transformations that need to be effected for each map sheet. I have made the conversions from the standard system to theirs and emailed them the grid coordinates of the other sites we need them to check out, primarily Umma, Isin and Adab, all of which are reported (along with Larsa) to have been badly damaged. I stress here, though, that the good news is that the U.S. Marines seem to be taking this issue seriously.

The problem, however, will not be completely resolved until Iraqi authorities themselves have the means to re-establish guardianships over these sites.

The Iraq Museum: Other teams were concerned with the Museum, but we did have a useful tour and discussions with both Dr. George and Col. Matthew Bogdanos, then in charge of the effort by U.S. authorities to investigate the looting of the Museum. The following observations complement those of others. The material situation is as follows.

1. The Department prepared for the war by removing the portable objects on exhibit to a bunker away from the museum. That bunker and its contents are intact.

2. The looting of the "crown jewels" of the museum was therefore limited to those items in the galleries which were not portable or a few which were inadvertently left in the storerooms when the bulk of the items from the galleries were put in off-site storage. Among these are the Uruk Vase, the Lady of Uruk, the decoration from the Ubaid temple (some of which have since been has been recovered), the statue of Entemena, the gold lyre from Ur (here the bull's head that was stolen was a replica, admittedly in gold, and part of the structure of the lyre was damaged). Other objects were broken, such as one of the Harmal lions. I do not have an exact number of this group of missing objects but they are between 30 and 50.

3. The gold was in a vault in the National Bank. The bank was bombed and the stair down to the vault is filled with rubble. It was also filled with of water, but this has now been pumped out and the vault has been entered. It is reported that the Museum boxes are intact.

4. Three of the five storage vaults in the museum were broken into. The vault with the Museum's large collection of cuneiform tablets was not touched. One of the plundered vaults was apparently used by a sniper, who seems to have entered the Museum with the mob. . The official count of objects missing from the vaults is continuing and will go on for weeks, but more than a thousand had been recorded by the time when the last.

5. The UNESCO team is the only delegation who have been in the vaults. McGuire Gibson estimates that the losses from the vaults to be in the thousands but probably not in the tens of thousands. It will be an enormous job, however, to go through all the material remaining there to determine what is and what is not present.

6. The vault-by-vault records are preserved, so we do not need to reconstruct the catalog of objects from records outside Iraq. However, the data bases of Iraq Museum holdings that are being constructed by foreign expeditions from their own records will be helpful in computerizing the holdings of the Iraq Museum.

7. It does seem clear that the thieves did get the keys, but since all of the safes in the offices were opened (quite professionally in some cases) and we all know that people tend to keep keys where they are convenient, this should not be surprising. Thieves stole some 250,000,000 Iraqi dinars from the safes, two months payroll for the Department.

8. The offices are completely looted and the files in a mess. They did get some new plastic picnic chairs the other day so that people can now sit down, but that is about it.

The situation with the staff of the Department of Antiquities, is as follows.

1.The current Museum-Director, Jabber Khalil, will remain in place. The most active archaeologist in the Department, Donny George, the Director of Research will also remain in place. There may be other changes in staffing as the "de-Baathification" process goes forward. We must hope that this is done sensibly and rapidly so that Iraq's archaeologists can get back to work.

2. The Department suffered a major reduction in staff in the early 1990s, but were able to recover somewhat in recent years. Many employees, however, are young and are still in the process of being trained and many of the old hands have left Iraq. There are now about 2000 employees of the Department of Antiquities, including the site guards, some of whom are in place and some of whom have been driven off their sites by looters. Those who have been reachable (not the site guards) have each received an emergency grant of $20. At the time of our visit they had not been paid a salary in two months.

3. At the moment the lack of security in Baghdad has made it difficult for many of the staff to get to work, especially the curatorial staff needed to assess the losses. These are mostly young women and have been coming in dribs and drabs to the museum when their fathers, brothers, or husbands could accompany them. Dr. Selma al-Radi set up a bus system to bring the curatorial staff to work. The National Geographic Society has made a small donation for this purpose, insuring about one month of service. This, however, is a stop-gap approach.

There are several areas where the Iraqis need help. Among these are the following:

Computing resources: All of the Department's computers were stolen. It would be helpful in making lists of precisely what was stolen from the Museum to have new computers and training. I plan to return to Iraq in a month if possible with other members of the American Academic Coordinating Committee for Iraq Cultural Heritage taking computer equipment adequate for making digitized catalogs of both what is missing and what is still in the Museum, continuing computerization project initiated in the early 1990s by the Museum. We will also provide them with remote sensing data and GIS software so that they can assess where they need to do to protect sites from future development and agriculture.

Preventing the looting of sites. This falls under the heading of security within Iraq. Until Iraqi authorities are better prepared, it will have to be done by the US military. We were pleased to see that the Marines in Nasiriyyah were on the job. We must continue to urge the military throughout the country to take this task seriously.

Conservation. Along with preparation of a catalogue, this will be a concurrent task in the process of rehabilitation of the Museum. The Iraqis will need training, materials, etc. This is really within the province of Museum personnel rather than our group and I believe that the British Museum and others are working on this issue.

Elizabeth C. Stone Professor
Department of Anthropology
Stony Brook University
Stony Brook, New York

The National Geographic Society's Cultural Assessment of Iraq: Introduction>>
Part One: The State of Sites and Museums in Northern Iraq>>
Part Two: The State of Sites and Museums in Southern Iraq (this page)
Part Three: A Helicopter Inspection of Endangered Southern Sites>>
News Report: Ancient Iraqi Sites Show Theft, Destruction>>

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.