06/11/2003 – WASHINGTON — A National Geographic Society archaeological expedition to significant ancient sites and key museums in Iraq reports that although American bombs spared most sites and treasures, some ancient locations have been seriously damaged by recent looting or long-term neglect. Several key sites out of two dozen visited were found to be unguarded.
The trip, organized by National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration, was led by committee member Henry Wright, curator of near eastern archaeology at the University of Michigan’s Museum of Anthropology. Iraqi archaeologists and others joined the U.S.-based team for what was the first survey of the country’s antiquities beyond Baghdad since the April war with the United States.
Wright reports that the team’s findings are mixed. “Somebody in the U.S. government deserves positive credit for sparing the archaeological sites from bombing, and we found nothing but concern and politeness from the military people we encountered,” he said. “However, several important sites have been badly looted and remained unguarded when we were there.
“Very little archaeological work has been done in key parts of Iraq, so much of its history — the world’s heritage — still lies in the ground. Protecting these places for future research at this very vulnerable time is crucial if we are to have any hope of understanding the fundamental processes that gave rise to the earliest civilizations,” Wright said.
Iraq, once ancient Mesopotamia, is of critical interest to archaeologists and historians because it is considered the “crucible of civilization,” the birthplace of the written word as well as of complex agriculture, written laws, organized religion, science and war. Archaeology also has revealed that around 3500 B.C., the world’s first cluster of cities arose in lower Mesopotamia.
Wright led a team that included McGuire Gibson, Tony Wilkinson and Mark Altaweel, all of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute; Elizabeth Stone of Stony Brook University; and representatives of National Geographic. Wright, Gibson, Wilkinson and Stone have led major archaeological projects in Iraq. Altaweel is a graduate student.
The group entered the country in mid-May in a convoy of vehicles, benefiting briefly from the protection of American Huey helicopters, which happened to be flying at the same time. To carry out the survey, the archaeologists split up, one group heading to sites north of Baghdad, the other going south; they returned to Baghdad later in May.
The archaeologists found some of Iraq’s most significant sites, such as the ancient Assyrian capital of Nimrud, its gold-filled royal tombs uncovered only in 1988, showing serious signs of stress. They discovered bullet shell casings on the ground and learned of a recent exchange of gunfire between thieves and a guard. The team noted that slabs from the walls of one of the palaces had been stolen. American soldiers now guard Nimrud, which is in northern Iraq, the team reported.
The guard was only part time at the nearby site of Nineveh, the most important city in ancient Assyria; a bas-relief in a palace looked as if it had been attacked by sledge-hammers, and at least two holes had been dug in the floor of the chambers by thieves apparently seeking gold or ivory artifacts.
At the Assyrian sites of Khorsabad and Tell Billa, numerous pits were visible, resulting from phases of occupation by the Iraqi army; stray, unexploded bombs and ordnance were seen, posing a major hazard for future archaeological work. The Mosul Museum, although not directly hit by cruise missiles in the war, had sustained damage to its large plate-glass windows. More seriously, thieves had stolen parts of the bronze reliefs from the Balawat Gates in the Assyrian gallery as well as some Assyrian cuneiform-inscribed bricks. Damage to the museum’s galleries and storerooms was considerable.
In the south, looters had inflicted major damage at the remote desert site of Dahaileh, once part of lower Mesopotamia, Wright said. Several huge holes had been dug in the ground, probably by thieves seeking such valuables as bronze tools and jewelry from graves. Ancient pots discarded by the looters still lay in disarray on the ground.
Iraqi guards apparently had fled the ancient site of Larsa, now known as Senkareh, and the team found large holes recently dug in the foundations of ancient buildings, probably by thieves in search of clay tablets with cuneiform writing. Shell casings lay on the ground.
“I dread to think what has been stolen there,” Wright said. He reported that a Marine at the site had found a copper or bronze harpoon, probably dating to 1900 B.C. “We reburied it to preserve it and took GPS readings of its location so there is a record for future archaeologists,” said Wright.
Babylon, capital of Babylonia for more than 1,000 years, and which rose again later to become the world’s greatest city, weathered the war fairly well. U.S. troops had taken up residence in a huge palace built by Saddam Hussein overlooking a restoration project at the site, which is about 50 miles south of Baghdad. The museum at Babylon, however, had been heavily looted, its library reduced to a pile of ashes.
The southern site of Nippur, known as the holy city of ancient Mesopotamia, where scribes went to school to learn writing and literature as early as 2200 B.C., remained intact and protected by Iraqi tribal guards. Team member McGuire Gibson had led archaeological research at Nippur for decades.
On a separate trip by helicopter, Gibson found the nearby site of Umm al Hafriyat heavily perforated by looters’ pits. The significant sites of Umma (modern Jokka) and Umm al Aqarib apparently had been dug into by large gangs of looters, estimated to be some 200 strong at Umma alone.
The archaeologists also visited the Tigris River town of Ctesiphon, capital of the ancient Sasanian empire near Baghdad. Its world-famous palace had a gold-leaf roof, and jewels twinkled like stars in its ceiling. The team found the main brick arch of the palace intact, Wright reports, but a museum had been completely looted. The site’s fabulous gardens, built by Iraq’s Department of Antiquities, had been cut away, and children were playing soccer where the gardens had once flourished.
NOTE: National Geographic magazine will feature the archaeological expedition in an article in its October 2003 issue. The trip also will be covered on National Geographic Ultimate Explorer TV, airing July 6 on MSNBC.
ON THE WEB: Images of Iraqi antiquities from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, some never published before, can be viewed at: www.nationalgeographic.com/iraq.