Saturday 1 May 2010

Iraq, Archaeological Site Looting Continuing

In central Iraq, organised crime groups are still unearthing ancient artefacts from important archaeological sites and illegally exporting them says Burhan Abdul Rutha, the Inspector of Antiquities in Wasit province (Phil Sands and Niraz Latif, 'Looters show no sign of stopping', The National, May 1 2010). While Islamic sites were also at risk, archaeological institute officials said that the looting particularly badly affects pre-Islamic sites, largely because collectors only wanted the older, and thus most valuable, pieces.

Efforts to stop the thefts were being hindered by a severe shortage of security officers, he said, and lack of funding.“A lot of the ancient sites have been dug up and looted,” he explained, in an interview at his office in Kut, Wasit’s provincial capital. “Most of the sites are not protected. I wish we had guards for all of the areas but there are only 43 guards covering 439 different sites [in Wasit]. [...] Some of the stolen pieces have been recovered, surfacing as far afield as the United States, Switzerland and Japan, or appearing for sale on eBay. According to the FBI’s Art Crime Unit, looting in Iraq continues on a “massive scale”. It ranks the thefts from the Baghdad museum at top of its art crimes list, above stolen Renoirs, Rembrandts and Van Gogh’s. As many as 10,000 pieces from the museum alone are still missing.
“The thefts from sites in Wasit are organised,” Mr Rutha said. “It’s normally the ordinary poor people who do the stealing but they are paid to do that by businessmen who trade in these artefacts. It’s organised crime. Most of the stealing happened in 2003 and 2004 but it is happening today”.

The area is being surveyed by the Inspectorate of Antiquities, but Rutha and his team of four archaeologists cannot cover the whole area and for further information on the location of sites, they are reliant on farmers and workmen accidentally finding archaeological finds as they go about their daily work. Some 700 artefacts, including Sumerian stone tablets, pottery and coins had been discovered by locals who then contacted the authorities, Mr Rutha said. This is an interesting counterfoil to the claims of portable antiquities collectors and dealers in the west who assert that in "source countries" with "restrictive" archaeological resource protection laws this never happens unless you pay finders and allow the sale of antiquities.


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