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

May 2003

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The northern team comprised T.J. Wilkinson and Mark Altaweel also from The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, videographer Charles Poe (National Geographic TV) and photojournalist Randy Olsen (National Geographic Magazine), as well as two drivers. We traveled directly to Mosul on the Tigris River in the far northwest, examined sites in the Mosul area, then worked back towards Baghdad, visiting Ashur and Hatra. In Mosul and the surrounding area we were fortunate to be accompanied by senior members of the Dept. of Antiquities Mosul office, namely Manhal Jabr and Muzahim Mahmood, as well as several of their staff. These individuals acted as crucial consultants and without their advice and help it would have been impossible to have visited the sites and make the inspections we did.

Nineveh: This former capital of the Assyrian Empire immediately north of old Mosul, has been increasingly damaged by the expansion of new suburbs. At Sennacherib's SW palace in Nineveh there were three forms of recent damage:
a) general decay of the reliefs which appears to have taken place over the roughly the 10-year period including the two Gulf Wars and the intervening period of sanctions when conservation materials were unavailable. The corrugated iron roof which was progressively lost during the 1990s was now completely gone. b) deliberate vandalism of reliefs in the two galleries on display, and c) digging of at least two holes in the floors of chambers (specifically a small room at the SE end of the main hall) apparently to seek valuable artifacts (Gold or ivory?) from beneath the floors of the rooms. Photographic records were made of the damage to the palace reliefs.

The Nergal gate museum at Nineveh was not broken into, (the would-be looters having failed to get in through the locked doors). The area of Nebi Yunus was also undamaged. Although there is a US military guard at Nineveh (on Kuyunjuk itself) these are currently only in place from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. We requested that they be extended to round the clock. A storage facility at Nineveh as well as the Nineveh excavation house show no obvious loss of stone relief fragments and we were told that no artifacts remained in the excavation house.

Nimrud: Another former capital of the Assyrian Empire and site of major discoveries of royal burials during the late 1980s, Nimrud had recently been subjected to targeted thefts in three locations within the NW palace. Of these, one was an attempted thefts of a relief, and two were actual thefts of reliefs as follows: Damaged relief, Room S (South of court Y) South-facing slab (no 20); Stolen relief, Room B (North of court Y) (slab 13 or 14); Stolen relief, Room I, (slab 8 or 9). In the attempted theft, efforts were made to cut around and behind a bas-relief to the south of the main court (ie. in Room S). During this incident, there was the exchange of gunfire between one of the site guards and the thieves. Fortunately there is now a military guard of some 16 US soldiers for 24 hours a day at the NW palace.

Khorsabad: This well preserved Assyrian palace, first excavated by the University of Chicago during the 1920s and 30s, showed evidence of minor damage within the main palace complex at the north end of the site. This damage was from activities associated with a military camp. We recorded a number of trenches that had been dug in various parts of the site. Although these were up to 2-3 m long and 1.5 m deep, they showed no evidence of having damaged stratified cultural material or having thrown up artifacts. On the southern part of the palace complex, unexploded bombs were pointed out by local villagers.

Tepe Gawra: The prehistoric town site north of the Tigris, excavated by the University of Pennsylvania in the 1920s and 1930s showed little evidence of damage since the author's last visit in 1990. During the last five years, however, an olive orchard has been planted on the lower SW slopes, an area often proposed as the locus of an ancient suburb, but not yet excavated. The orchard, a manifestation of the Baathi government's encouragement of rapid agricultural expansion in response to the sanctions of the 1990s, could destroy evidence of such a "lower town" at the site.

Tell Billa: This Bronze Age town site north of the Tigris, also excavated by Pennsylvania, was the site of a former Iraqi army military camp. This has now been razed to the ground by the local villagers, but a number of unexploded bombs were recorded. Both instances of unexploded bombs (at Khorsabad and Billa) were reported to the bomb disposal unit at the main palace complex at Nineveh.

Tell Rimah: This important Bronze Age town site south of Mosul near Tell Afar, excavated by the British School in the 1960s, is undamaged. The nearby early prehistoric village site of Qirmiz Dere, however, was damaged by military activity, but only to a limited degree, whereas significant disturbance was caused by bulldozing. In the citadel at Tell Afar there was considerable evidence of general neglect of the archaeological materials from the region, kept there in storage, but remarkably life in Tell Afar appears to have been getting back to normal. A certain amount of non war-related damage was noted to archeological sites in the vicinity of Tell Afar. Such damage appears to have been as a result of the extension of fields and buildings which has resulted in major cuts being made into at least one site. Of greater significance is the possibility that the Tell Afar airfield may be extended or landscaped by the new military occupation. Because this airfield contains a number of archaeological sites it is imperative that steps be taken to undertake a full record of the archaeology prior to any such activity.

Ashur: The earliest Assyrian capital, located on the Tigris one third of the way from Mosul and Baghdad, was excavated by a German team almost a century ago. Recently, the Iraqis began a dam which will flood part of the site and much surrounding landscape. A German team has returned to mitigate damage to Ashur, and team member Mark Altaweel is conducting a regional archaeological survey of the surrounding area. We found that the site guards had been effective in protecting Ashur from looters.

Hatra: Like Nimrud, Hatra has a round-the-clock US military guard. Damage to the standing remains prior to their arrival consisted of the loss of the head of a figure which decorated an arch in one of the smaller northern "iwans" or porches within the temple complex. This head had been shot off, and had apparently been taken away by looters. In addition, a small camel in relief from a doorway frieze from one of the outer temples had also been broken off and removed, but this was recovered by the Department of Antiquities staff and is now in storage.

During a brief visit to the Mosul Museum, we observed extensive breakages of statues etc in the Hatra gallery (but no actual loss of items) as well as more targeted theft in the Assyrian gallery. Here we were told and shown that a number of the decorated Bronze strips were taken from the Balawat gates display (the thieves having broken the glass). A total of five to six items were taken from the Assyrian gallery. These included the strips from the Balawat gates as well as at least one cuneiform inscribed brick. There was damage to other galleries, but no theft. Also the major plate glass windows had been shattered as a result of the impact of cruise missiles on nearby buildings. Unfortunately, we did not have time to perform a more detailed inspection of the Mosul Museum. This remains a priority for future inspection teams.

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