Modern-day Iraq is located in a region commonly referred to as the Cradle of Civilization because it contains archaeological evidence of some of the earliest evidence for cities, writing systems, scientific accomplishments, and complex political systems known in the world.
On March 19, 2003, the U.S. military invaded Iraq, ostensibly to find “weapons of mass destruction” supposedly hidden by Saddam Hussein.
On April 8, the staff of the Iraq Museum abandoned their beloved institution as Iraqi and U.S. forces engaged in a massive firefight in front of, and in some cases in, the Museum. Looters moved in as soon as the firefight was over, and in a chaotic three-day period looters decimated the Museum’s exhibitions, collections, and facility.
In a lecture at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS) on November 8, 2008, Donny George Youkhanna, the former director of the Iraq Museum, recounted his experiences during those harrowing days. He said there were three types (and indeed waves) of looters. First were those that went after known masterpieces, fulfilling wish lists for collectors around the world. Then there were those who went after any archaeological object they could find, like cylinder seals and cuneiform tablets; many of these objects were quickly posted for sale on the Internet. Finally, there were those who went after anything they could sell locally, including computers, office furniture, door hinges, and the like. Youkhanna also noted, however, that the on-going looting of unexcavated archaeological sites in Iraq would ultimately prove even more devastating to science. He could not have been more prescient.
In February 2015, the Wall Street Journal published a disturbing account of looting of archaeological sites in Syria, but also northern Iraq. Much of the damage is being done by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS. Their efforts are so extensive that the revenue generated from the sale of looted artifacts is, according to the article’s authors, second only to the revenue generated from stolen oil as a funding source for their gruesome and terrifying operations. (For a more detailed account, click here.)
Equally troubling is the fact that secular forces challenging Bashar al-Asad’s rule in Syria, and are supported by the United States and its allies, are apparently also engaged in looting for profit.
Just as the WSJ article appeared, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved resolution 2199 condemning trade in oil products with ISIS and in the continuing destruction of archaeological sites by ISIS and other such groups.
The world’s cultural heritage is under continuous attack, no more so than in the Middle East. Youkhanna, who died of a heart attack in 2011, weeps from his grave.
N.B.: On April 15, 2008, the DMNS Board of Trustees approved an ethics policy that unequivocally states that the Museum “shall not knowingly and willfully accept or acquire any object that was illegally imported or illegally collected or that was received under circumstances that would encourage irresponsible damage, destruction, or illegal trade of biota; historic, cultural, and natural sites; or human burial places.” DMNS anthropology curators currently serve on several national policy committees in the professional anthropological and archaeological communities that work to stem the trade in antiquities.