Iraq’s Threatened Archaeology

RESCUE is concerned by the looting and destruction of some of Iraq’s artifacts and monuments as a consequence of the unrule following the current war.

The Chair of RESCUE has written to both the United States President and the British Prime Minister expressing our concern. A sample letter is reproduced below.

Customs and auction houses ar on the alert to try and spot likely looted material from Iraq, though much is likely to be sold privately.

Some of the missing item include:

80,000 cuneiform tablets with world’s earliest writing

Bronze figure of Akkadian king – 4,500 years old

Silver harp from ancient city of Ur – 4,000 years old

Three-foot carved Sumerian vase – 5,200 years old

Headless statue of Sumerian king Entemena – 4,600 years old

Carved sacred cup – 4,600 years old

BBC News stories concerning the looting:

Mr. G. W. Bush, President,

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Ave.,

N.W. Washington,

D.C. 205000


17th April 2003

Dear Mr. President,

I write with regard to the looting and in some cases destruction of Iraq’s monuments, artifacts and archives, as a consequence of the current breakdown of control in its major cities.

As an Iraqi archaeologist has written: “A country’s identity, its value and civilization resides in its history. If a country’s civilization is looted, as ours has been here, its history ends.”

It is also a wider tragedy: all concerned with the history of world civilization and the material legacy left to us by earlier inhabitants of the “Fertile Crescent” will be devastated by the fate of Iraq’s archaeological heritage.

We ask for your assurance that the United States Government will, as a matter of urgency, do its utmost to restrain looting, recover and restore antiquities and prevent their dispersal to individual and institutional collectors outside Iraq.

Respectfully Yours,

Chair of RESCUE.

IRAQ’s heritage on British television

Back in February(?) 2003 the BBC broadcast a television documentary concerning the threat to Iraq’s monuments under the shadow of the (then) coming war. It was presented by Dan Cruickshank. He travelled from north to south, visiting many of the major monuments, observing the damage done during the previous wars and assessing the threat they are under now. He also visited some of the museums, including the archaeological museum on Mosul and his report (recorded last year) accurately predicted what has now come to pass:

“The museum at Mosul – like the Iraq Museum in Baghdad – is packed with artefacts of international importance, including world-famous objects dating back 7,000 years or more.

Particularly striking are the large-eyed Sumerian gods, with their patient and benign smiles. But all the most precious and vulnerable items have now been packed away and put in store to protect them from attack. The ghastly question is, will they ever be seen again? If there is an invasion, it is likely that Iraq will be plunged into lawless chaos, and those museum items not destroyed will be looted and lost forever in the international art market – a market that has recently swallowed much of the culture of other countries, such as Afghanistan, recently torn by war. The prospects are grim indeed.”

Dan has returned to Iraq (as at 24th April) to prepare an updated report on the fate of Iraq’s (and the world’s) heritage. This will be broadcast on the 7th & 8th June 2003.

An on-line article by Dan based on the original programme can be viewed at:

Report of a Joint Meeting Convened by the Standing Conference on Portable Antiquities, ICOMOS UK, Historic Environment Forum and English Heritage, held at the British Academy 27 June 2003. READ REPORT

Other links:

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