One of the lingering questions about the massive looting that occurred in Iraq in the years following the 2003 US invasion is where all the artifacts have gone and why it continued even after a worldwide ban on international trade in Iraqi materials was put in place, abating somewhat over time. Very little appeared on the open market and it is thought that much was simply stockpiled in warehouses, or bought privately by wealthy collectors around the world.
But the looters and smugglers inside Iraq were being sustained as well by the council of ministers of Iraqi Kurdistan, directors of the Sulaymaniyah Museum, which
started an initiative to make deals with smugglers after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the subsequent looting of museums in the country, according to Ancient History Etc., a U.K. nonprofit online publication.The museum bought a tablet -- one of a group of 80-90 being proffered -- containing 20 previously lost lines of "The Epic of Gilgamesh, for $800 off a smuggler in Iraq in 2011.
"They paid smugglers to ‘intercept’ archeological artifacts on their journey to other countries," according to the publication. "No questions were asked about who was selling the piece or where it came from."Stuart Gibson, director of the UNESCO Sulaymaniyah Museum Project -- an effort to assist the Kurdish government in running the museum -- praised the museum's decision as "courageous" because it ran counter to official policy against paying smugglers and looters for looted artifacts. That policy exists, of course, because paying these folks gives them an incentive to keep on looting and smuggling. Asking no questions makes this incentive even more attractive.
The Huffington Post headline suggests that the question raised by the museum's practice of buying looted antiquities is : Should museums make deals with smugglers and looters in order to protect and preserve history? But that way of putting the question, while it is undoubtedly the way that museums interested in bringing material in think of what they are doing, begs the question. The deal described was not made in order to protect and preserve history. It was made in order to keep the artifact from leaving the country. Had the tablet gotten out of Kurdistan it would surely have been sold to someone anyway, someone who would have in turn protected and preserved it. The only effect here was to shorten the supply chain, reduce the cost of doing business for smugglers and looters, and thereby promoted more digging and more smuggling.