What You Know That Just Ain’t So

In flat contradiction of the widely publicized conventional wisdom that widespread looting and massive damage had been done to the archaeological sites of southern Iraq in the aftermath of the recent invasion, the Art Newspaper reports that “an international team of archaeologists which made an unpublicised visit to southern Iraq last month found no evidence of recent looting—contrary to long-expressed claims about sustained illegal digging at major sites” although “some military damage was found.” The investigation exposes as false such claims as those of the University of Chicago’s Professor Lawrence Rothfield, who had claimed that the sites were “being destroyed at the rate of roughly 10% a year.”

“The international team which visited southern Iraq last month had been expecting to find considerable evidence of looting after 2003, but to their astonishment and relief there was none. Not a single recent dig hole was found at the eight sites, and the only evidence of illegal digging came from holes which were partially covered with silt and vegetation, which means that they must have been at least several years old.

“The most recent damage was found at Larsa, Tell el-Ouelli, Tell el-Lahm and Lagash. However, this probably dated back to 2003, during and in the aftermath of the coalition invasion. At Ur, Ubaid, Eridu and Warka, no evidence was found of any looting.”

In fact the worst evidence of destruction unearthed “was found at Ubaid, where in the spring of 2003 Saddam Hussein’s forces had dug a dozen trenches into the mound, to disguise and protect tanks and armoured personnel carriers. A command post had also been built on top of the site. Both had involved considerable digging into archaeologically important deposits. Similar damage was found at Tell el-Lahm.

“Much less damage was discovered to have been caused by coalition forces, although paper food wrappers at Tell el-Lahm were evidence of the later US military presence. However, significant damage had been caused at Ur by large numbers of troops walking over the site in desert boots.”

The most critical problem with these sites of inestimable value to the study of human history and culture is not looting, but neglect. “This was particularly bad at Ur, where ancient buildings reconstructed in the 1960s and 70s are beginning to collapse, from weathering. ‘They require urgent repairs to prevent further damage.’”

On balance, this is very good news.

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2 Responses to “What You Know That Just Ain’t So”

  1. bellerophonchimera Says:

    Postscript to “What You Know . . . ”

    A more politically-charged analysis of this report can be found in Melik Kaylan’s So Much for the ‘Looted Sites’ in the Wall Street Journal online for July 15.

  2. Lawrence Rothfield Says:

    A less politically-charged analysis of this report is available from Science Magazine (“Preserving Iraq’s Battered Heritage,” by Andrew Lawler, Science 4 July 2008: Vol. 321. no. 5885, pp. 28 – 30). Lawler makes it clear that the report in no way exposes as false any estimates (mine included) of looting rates in the country as a whole between 2003 and 2007: “The three archaeologists agree that their limited visit provides little new data on the host of other sites in southern Iraq that satellite data suggest may still be plagued by looting. Hamdani says that smaller and more remote sites are especially vulnerable. The international team was unable to visit any of these sites, although Stone confirmed that remote-sensing images show widespread damage to ancient settlements in the area.”

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