The Art Newspaper makes too much hay out of a new report by highly reputable archaeologists who visited 8 major sites in southern Iraq. (The article is at
http://www.theartnewspaper.com/article.asp?id=8066.) The lede is in-your-face (or at least in mine):
“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.”
Who has been making these now-contradicted claims? Well, among others, me, supposedly:
“We reported last month, in a review of a new scholarly book on Iraq’s cultural heritage, that Professor Lawrence Rothfield of the University of Chicago claims that sites are being “destroyed at the rate of roughly 10% a year”.
One problem: there is no contradiction here. Archaeologists have been claiming that sustained digging has taken place at sites both major and minor, but that is not the same thing as claiming that every site in the country has been looted, or even that every major site has been looted. Indeed, it has been known for several years now, from analyses of satellite imagery by Elizabeth Stone, that in general the sites in the south had not seen as much looting as of those she studied from the middle of the country, where the devastation has been enormous. Stone’s analysis showed that the major sites in the south — the only area this assessment team visited –had for the most part remained unlooted, at least through 2005, the latest date for which satellite photos were available to her.
The archaeological assessment team, which included Stone, visited just eight major sites, of the 10,000 registered sites in the country. Is it possible that sustained looting is occurring or has already occurred at many of the 9,992 other sites? The answer is certainly yes for the years 2003-2006; Stone’s data shows that indisputably. For what has been happening since, the US military could easily clear up the question of how much looting has taken place where and when, if it would provide time-series photos of known sites. Don’t hold your breath on that happening, though.
It was already clear from Stone’s analysis that the 8 sites visited were unusual in not having experienced the kind of severe looting that Stone found elsewhere in the country. The real question is: why were these sites spared?
Donny George was kind enough to help me with this question. His response: The team “visited some specific and less troubled sites from the security point of view, and these sites happen to be protected for one reason or another:
1. Ur: this site was protected before 2003 being surrounded by the Iraqi air base, then after 2003 protected by the American air base, together with the good protection of the Iraqi guards and FPS patrols.
2. Larsa: this site is in a remote area, almost covered by sand dunes, which made it very difficult for the looters to approach, most of the times.
3. Uruk: This site had always been very good protected by its guards and their tribes, there have been some attempts of looting, but they were strongly stopped by the guards and the local authorities.
4. Lagash, There had been some attempts of looting to this site, but not that much all the time, yes it is very well known in the world of archaeology, but it never had extensive looting like the others.
5. Eridu, This site had been surrounded by water for some time before 2003, and later dried, so it was not so vulnerable by the looters, although it is very well known in the world of archaeology, but also known of having extensive archaeological excavations by the Iraqi antiquities service, which maybe left nothing for the looters, in their opinion, and the excavations there are completely covered, except for some bricks on the surface of one mound only.
5. Tell Lahm: This site has been looted to some extent, and has been disturbed by the diggings of the Iraqi army in 1991, first Gulf war, but since this site is in the closest point between the high way between Basra and Baghdad, and the local road between Basra and Nasiriyah, and there’s always been been a check point there, because of that situation, and the American forces use both ways extensively, I think the looters abandoned the site from early times.
6. Ubaid: This site had had some looting just after the 1991 war, and maybe some more just after 2003, but since being very close to the city of Ur, made it on the way of the Iraqi FPS patrols and the American forces from the beginning, so I believe it was very hard for the looters to continue in these circumstances.
7. Oueili: very well known in the world of archaeology by the French excavations and publications, but it is a prehistoric site, it produces nothing of the materials that the looters want, maybe they have checked it and abandon it, because of that.
George concludes: “Again with all my respect to the courageous action these leading archaeologists had done, but this is my personal point of view, but I want to believe that there will be some more trips for other sites in the near future.”
Why does it matter whether the story is badly slanted or not?
Two reasons: First, because its slantedness has political implications. The story has been pounced upon by the rightwing blogosphere — newrepublic.com posted it instantaneously — since it leaves readers with the impression that, as one rightwing commenter on the story has already put it, the claim of massive looting of sites “was just another story fabricated by the Boston Globe and New York Times.”
Second, and far more important, because in addition to enabling deniers to claim that nothing has happened or is happening that needs our attention, the reporter misses the real story, which is about what we can learn from the happy fate of these 8 sites. Nearby bases, checkpoints on major roads, increased FPS patrols, help from locals, as well as training equipment and guard towers bequeathed by the carabinieri: all these make a real difference.
That’s the real surprise, one the story misses, but one that policymakers — especially those working on the new Status of Forces agreement with the Iraq government — could learn from if they wanted to protect more of what remains on sites in other less fortunate areas of the country.