Hunt for Stolen Iraqi Antiquities Moves to Cyberspace

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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.

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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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More National Geographic Iraq resources:
Hot Spot: Iraq
History and Culture Guide
Maps and Geography

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