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."

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