Martin Bailey has a very interesting interview with John Curtis, the Keeper of the Middle East at the British Museum on the current state of protection of archaeological sites in Iraq, now that we are approaching the five-year anniversary of the invasion, and the looting of the museum which soon followed. Here’s an excerpt:
TAN: How serious is looting of archaeological sites?
JC: The situation has been very bad, particularly in the south, at sites such as Isin, Tell Jokha (ancient Umma) and Bismaya (ancient Adab). However, recently there seems to have been an improvement. Professor Elizabeth Stone of Stony Brook University in New York State is monitoring satellite images of sites for evidence of digging. There now seems to be quite a falling off in the digging.
TAN: Why the improvement?
JC: Dr Abbas al-Hussainy, until recently the head of antiquities, had good contacts with tribal groups in the south and he stressed to them the importance of preserving sites. Another reason is that the market seems to have dried up, and there is no point in digging if you cannot realise quick profits. There may have been an improvement in policing of sites, but this is very recent, only in the past few months.
TAN: Are looted Iraqi antiquities turning up in western markets?
JC: There doesn’t seem to have been much Iraqi material appearing in London or western markets, and very little on eBay. There may be collectors buying in the Gulf states and the Far East, but this is speculation. Probably a lot of the looted material has remained in Iraq.
TAN: How much damage has been caused to sites by Coalition troops?
JC: Iraq is a vast archaeological site. You cannot have military manoeuvres without causing a great deal of damage.
I expect a number of new five-year what now retrospectives on the looting of the Baghdad museum, and the ongoing looting in Iraq. It seems to me that this issue is still under-reported, particularly by American journalists. What are American and Iraqi officials doing to safeguard sites? Sadly, I think they are doing very little, because the security situation in the country remains unstable.