Thursday, July 31, 2008

What Should an OPEC-style Antiquities Cartel Demand From Market Nations?

Derek Fincham has an interesting recent post here reflecting on the prospect that countries of origin for antiquities are likely to band together OPEC-style to negotiate as a bloc, rather than continuing the individual dealmaking that has so far been the case. Fincham assumes, perhaps rightly, however, that even as a bloc antiquities-rich nations are unlikely to play hardball in demanding restitution and/or more stringent import rules because of the need to maintain good relations and thereby encourage increased tourism that can provide revenues needed to bolster site protection.

Reliance on tourism, he points out,
carries with it the distasteful tradeoffs, such as the commodification of heritage, and the wear-and-tear which millions of visitors will always cause. Hopefully nations of origin will be able to move beyond the dramatic repatriations, which are a necessary step, and continue to work to preserve the sites themselves.
But it is difficult to see how countries of origin will be able to do more to preserve the sites themselves absent some concerted effort to demand that any deal involving repatriation and loan agreements also involve some mechanism for generating revenues for site protection from within the market states, not from tourism dollars. The most appropriate source for such revenues is the antiquities market. Imposing a tax on all sales of antiquities would require lawmaking, of course, and countries of origin may feel it would be easier to make a deal with individual museums and collectors than to pressure them to call on Congress to tax the antiquities market. Dealers are almost certain to oppose any such measure, as well. But a cartel is far more powerful than any individual country, and with the stick and carrot of repatriation and loans in hand countries of origin have at least a chance to succeed. Surely it is worth a try.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Fox News seeking to spread the "no looting" story

I can't guarantee it will happen tomorrow or at all, but Fox News wants to push the "news" that archaeological experts have been wrong about claims that looting of archaeological sites in Iraq since 2003 has been widespread. Someone should ask them why none of their reporters has been out to the sites to get the real story.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Contact for archaeologists wishing to provide site coordinates for Iran

Many will choose not to, a perfectly respectable position, but archaeologists who wish to assist the military in developing a database of no-strike facilities by providing information about Iran (and I presume other countries as well, but Iran would seem the country about which to be most anxious) should know that they can do so by contacting

Peter S. Fuhrer
Operational Environment Analysis Division
Defense Intelligence Agency

Please do not misconstrue this as indicating that the military is seeking this information. I had contacted the DIA last year to learn more about their role in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war, and I contacted them again recently because of my own concern about the possibility of some sort of military action being contemplated against Iran. I asked who could be contacted.

Assessment Report on 8 Southern Sites Released at Last

Weeks after the Art Newspaper ran its highly tilted account, which the Wall Street Journal picked up, the British Museum has finally released its report, which is highly instructive. Questions had arisen about how these sites could have escaped looting when experts were claiming that looting was widespread in Iraq. On this blogsite, Donny George responded by noting various reasons why these sites were unlikely to have been looted. The report supplements George's observations with some of its own. A few of these:

1. Ur: George had noted that "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." The new report notes: "Until recently there was unrestricted access to the archaeological site of Ur for coalition troops based at Tallil, and it is suspected that large numbers of troops wandering around the site at will did some damage. Now, however, the site is out of bounds and special permission is needed to visit it." Had all Iraqi sites were being visited by large numbers of coalition troops, one might be able to conclude there would have been no looting on them either!

No explanation is given as to why the site is now out of bounds, though we are told that "a crater north-east of the Old Babylonian houses was noted – this was caused by a rocket in February 2008. It was reported by the site guard that three rockets landed at Ur in April 2008; of these, one fell near the guard’s house and another some 23 m south-east of the ziggurat." Not exactly the ambience for looters either.

2. Eridu: "The visit began at a watchtower presumed to have been erected by the Italians in late 2003." The site is fenced in and has two site guards assigned to it.

3. Uruk: "There is no evidence of looting at the site which is protected by 15 SPF (Special Protection Force) personnel (one of whom arrived to check the presence of the inspection team) and an on-site guard (the German institutional system is able to maintain constant payments for the on-site guard)." The assessment team surely knew beforehand that this site was protected at this very high level, yet they chose to visit it anyway -- just as they chose to visit Ur (which a British Museum team had visited a year earlier).

4. Tell al- 'Ubaid: "There are no designated guards for Ubaid but guards from Ur protect the site along with SPF personnel." Interesting finding here that "the tell was extensively damaged by military installations when it was established as an Iraqi command post in early 2003: a four-metre square hollow (now about 1.5 m deep) on the summit of the mound was probably the position of a radar station." Firing positions are noted. What is worth noting here is that the US military did not obliterate the command post during the invasion. Under the law of war it would have been permissible to destroy the position even though it was established on a cultural site. It would be interesting to learn more about how the tell came to be spared.

5. Tallil airbase: one of the largest military airbases in the middle east, it contains two sites within its perimeter. Unsurprisingly, neither was looted.

6. Tell el- 'Oueilli:
"The site was looted in 2003 and there are extensive remains of looter pits, now filled with sand, visible across much of the mound. There is no evidence of recent looting." Donny George believes that because this is a prehistoric site that produces none of the most collectable material, it may have been abandoned by looters once they figured that out.

Tell Senkereh (Larsa): "The site was extensively looted in 2003; at the end of that year a guard tower was erected and the presence of a guard deterred further looting. There are at least five designated guards for the site, based at Nasiriya, but none was present during the inspection visit." Again, an important site, looted extensively for many months, but now highly protected unlike most of the other sites in Iraq.

8. Tell al-Hiba (Lagash): "The site, which is unfenced, is under the strong protection of the Beni Said tribe and has seven guards from two villages: Ali Khan and Rebaih. The team was met by the local guard and villagers who reported that there had been some small-scale looting in 2003 by people from the town of Fajr but none since that date."

9. Tell Lahm (Kisiga): "The south-western side and summit of the mound are covered by looter holes – pithos and bath-tub burials were the main attraction for the looters." "The appearance of the puddled mud in the bottom of the looters’ holes was similar to that in the bottom of the military installations, suggesting that the looters’ holes were not recent and probably dated from 2003. The presence of US forces at Tell Lahm is demonstrated by numerous military food packages scattered on the surface. The site is unfenced. A large number of SPF personnel arrived in three vehicles after the team had been at the site for an hour." Again, a site frequented by US forces and patrolled by SPF is by no means the norm. The SPF has been having trouble even getting gasoline for its vehicles.

Take-home lesson: If you want to protect a site from looting, build a base nearby. Or, more realistically, hire site guards, deploy site police, or pay the local tribe to guard it. Has the US done any of these things, or helped the Iraqis do them? On a countrywide basis, the answer is certainly no; there have been some local or regional programs over the years, but information on those is hard to come by. It would be good public relations for the US to lay out what it has done, and what it plans to do.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

World Archaeological Congress resolution update and clarification

Leif Isaksen blogs expressing concern that "the World Archaeological Congress’s voice with regard to archaeological ethics in conflict situations has been undermined by those whose task it is to support it." Isaksen adds more detail to the kerfuffle over what exactly was passed by whom at the WAC congress and whether this represents official WAC policy. WAC's website clarifies as well:

A resolution suggesting that no archaeologists or cultural heritage specialists assist the military in planning to protect the cultural heritage was passed by the Plenary session of the WAC-6 Congress for consideration by the World Archaeological Congress Assembly, Council and Executive but was not approved as a formal statement of the position of the organisation as a whole.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Will the Status of Forces agreement address antiquities protection?

A few blogs back I raised the question of whether the Status of Forces agreement under negotiation now would include any provisions for protecting Iraq's cultural heritage. Micah Garen has some new details about that. He reports having spoken to a Department of Defense spokesperson who "refused to say whether protecting cultural history was part of the negotiations." Garen adds however that the State Department has said on background that cultural history has been brought up in the discussions -- good news indeed, if true, though the devil is in the details.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The meme metastasizes

The Wall Street Journal picks up the line set by the Art Newspaper, and pushes it still further. No looting on 8 sites? Then there must have been no looting everywhere! No need to pay attention to all those dire reports. "So Much for the 'Looted Sites'", as the WSJ headline puts it.

Not only has the claim of massive looting been refuted, supposedly, but -- new theme -- those making it have lost all semblance of credibility. They pretend to be experts but are really driven by a political agenda, an agenda that the WAC resolution reflects clearly.

I've already detailed, below, the evidence for looting, much of which comes from those political radicals the Polish civil-military brigade and the Italian carabinieri. (I shared all this information with the writer of the WSJ article, by the way, but he chose not to use any of it, for reasons that should be clear.) I note here only that I opposed the WAC resolution, with objections laid out below as well.

It would be swell if we could clear up once and for all precisely how much looting took place year-by-year from 2003 on. All that is needed is time-series satellite or aerial imagery of all or at least most of the areas rich in sites (along with the funding to pay people to count the holes). Will the military provide this imagery? If not, why not?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Gary Becker's got a lot of 'splainin' to do

A few days after the McCain campaign released a list of 300 economists who supposedly support his economic plan, we learn this was a bit of a bait-and-switch, since the statement they signed was extraordinarily vague.

The McCain campaign’s economic team, led by adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, began collecting signatures from economists several months ago, with the intention of showing support for McCain's broad economic priorities, rather than the specific items in his Jobs for America proposal.

The statement they signed is 403 words long — and there is no mention of the gas tax holiday or the deficit, which the Congressional Budget Office projects will approach $400 billion this year.

But the Jobs for America plan is a 15-page document that touts a gas tax holiday proposal on the second page and prominently features the promise that “John McCain will balance the budget by the end of his first term” on the fourth page. The press release accompanying the economists’ statement claimed it was “in support of John McCain's Jobs for America economic plan.”

“This really is a general statement on the overarching principles of McCain’s plan to grow jobs and spur economic growth,” said McCain spokesman Brian Rogers. “Obviously it is what it is and it’s a general statement about cutting spending and cutting taxes and making us more competitive to move forward.”

For that reason, Gary Becker, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, said he definitely supports the plan, even if he is not completely familiar with its specifics.

"I like the main thrust of the plan,” he said. “I felt that I could support it without knowing every detail."
Yes, those pesky little details do get in the way. And really, it is too much to expect an economist to familiarize himself with such minutiae. If the average person is hornswaggled into believing that Gary Becker thinks a gas tax holiday makes economic sense, well, no big deal.

Seriously though: Does Gary Becker support a gas tax holiday? Does he believe that McCain's budget plans are credible? If not, will he please issue a clarification to the effect that while he supports McCain's plan, he thinks the gas tax holiday is a gimmick and the budget plan a fantasy? Or will he permit the McCain campaign to continue to use his name to mislead the American public?

First Thoughts on the World Archaeological Congress Resolution

Before turning to the question of whether the resolution passed by the WAC is a good idea, it is important to look at how the press release issued by the Congress frames and justifies what it is arguing should be done now in relation to war plans being prepared for Iran. The release implies strongly that archaeologists who prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq "were asked to provide (or volunteered) information on sites 'to be spared'" should have refused to do so because such providing such information lent "cultural credibility and respectability to the military action."

Did that really happen? Did archaeologists who provided site coordinates to the Defense Intelligence Agency or its British counterpart lend credibility and respectability? Such information, we know, did enable the military to avoid destroying archaeological sites, buildings, and monuments, as they were compelled to do in order not to be charged with war crimes under provisions of the 1954 Hague Convention. I suppose one could believe that not being a war criminal is the same thing as being respectable, but most people would make a distinction between the two. Would members of WAC be in favor of jettisoning the 1954 Hague Convention so that the military would have no legal obligation to collect site coordinates and create "no-strike" lists?

That the military felt obligated to do this does not necessarily mean that it did not also want to do so to burnish its cultural credentials and respectability. So one should ask: Did the military gain a public-relations advantage from being seen to have been getting advice and expertise from archaeologists? The historical record, which is laid out in detail in a book I have just completed (Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum, forthcoming April 2009 from the University of Chicago Press), shows the opposite. Far from loudly calling for help from the archaeological community, the Defense Intelligence Agency and its British counterpart kept their efforts to contact them quiet. And, given what happened to the museum, it is difficult to understand how anyone could think the military cared much about being seen by the world as a protector of culture

For archaeologists, on the other hand, engagement with the war planners made it possible for those involved to do what the WAC resolution insists they should do: emphasize "the detrimental consequences of such [military] actions for the people and the heritage of the area." They did so not just publicly but also directly and repeatedly to policymakers and planners.

Archaeologists who took the clean-hands approach advocated in the WAC resolution also attempted to influence public opinion, to be sure. They did garner some publicity. But they had no discernible effect on public opinion, either before or after the war. Those who worked with the military, on the other hand, were able to explain to the public, in the wake of the looting of the Iraq Museum, that they had directly warned officials in the Pentagon and the State Department (where their meeting was with Ryan Crocker, by the way) that the museum would almost certainly be a target of looters. Their testimony in the press had a very powerful negative impact on the credibility and respectability of the military action.

One more thing worth noting: Word that archaeologists in the US were meeting with Pentagon and State Department officials as well as targeters to make sure that the military knew the museum would be a target reached Donny George in Baghdad. George used this fact to try to persuade his superiors in the Iraqi cultural bureaucracy that it was time to begin packing up the museum and battening down its hatches. He would not have been able to make that argument had archaeologists merely boycotted the entire warplanning process.

World Archaeological Congress Plenary session issues resolution

This just out from the World Archaeological Congress plenary session.  I did not attend, so I did not hear the arguments that were made there, and I need to digest the statement, but it seems at first glance ethically misguided in several ways. More to come, but here's the statement. It is preceded by a press release which Jon Price, member of the WAC executive committee, notes (in his comment below) is not WAC's officially authorized press release. (WAC's official release does not specify that WAC has a policy to refuse to cooperate with the military, and WAC does support the Hague Convention.)

Archaeologists urged not to become part of the war planning against Iran

More than a thousand archaeologists from all over the world gathered in Dublin
at the end of June to attend the 6th World Archaeological Congress (WAC). WAC
is the only archaeological organisation with global elected representation, and
one which places particular emphasis on archaeological ethics.

In the final plenary session on Friday 4 July 2008, the delegates passed a
resolution which not only opposes any military attack on Iran, but also urges
archaeologists not to offer any advice to the military on archaeological issues
during the planning of such attack. In the recent past, archaeologists in the
USA were approached by the military and were asked to provide expertise and
advice on Iranian archaeological sites. The Congress felt that to provide such
information at this stage is to offer “cultural credibility and respectability
to the military action”. In 2003, prior to the invasion of Iraq, some
archaeologists both in the USA and the UK were asked to provide (or
volunteered) information on sites “to be spared”. Their actions attracted
considerably criticism from many of their colleagues.

The text of the resolution is as follows:

“The 6th World Archaeological Congress expresses its strong opposition to any
unilateral and unprovoked, covert or overt military action (including air
strikes) against Iran by the US government, or by any other government. Such
action will have catastrophic consequences for millions of people and will
seriously endanger the cultural heritage of Iran and of the Middle East in
general. Any differences with Iran (as with any other country) should be
resolved through peaceful and diplomatic means.

The Congress also urges its members, all archaeologists and heritage
professionals to resist any attempts by the military and governments to be
co-opted in any planned military operation, for example by providing advice and
expertise to the military on archaeological and cultural heritage matters. Such
advice would provide cultural credibility and respectability to the military
action. Archaeologists should continue emphasising instead the detrimental
consequences of such actions for the people and the heritage of the area, for
the past and the present alike. A universal refusal by archaeologists and
others would send the message that such a plan is hugely unpopular amongst
cultural professionals as well as the wider public”.

CONTACT: Dr Yannis Hamilakis, University of Southampton, co-ordinator, WAC
“Archaeologist and War Task Force” (

Dr Umberto Albarella, University of Sheffield, (

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Yet More Evidence of Looting in southern Iraq

In the new TAARII Newsletter of the American Academic Research Institute in Iraq, Issue no. 3-1, spring 2008, Carrie Hritz provides more concrete evidence of the extent of looting in southern Iraq. Hritz looked only at a 600-square kilometer area centered on one site, Isin, capital of a dynasty that ruled Babylonia from around 1100 -1000 BC. She was able to obtain time-series data for winters of 2002, 2003, and 2006, as well as from the mid-1990s, for this area.

The good news: the imagery revealed sixty additional possible archaeological sites beyond the 56 that had been identified through ground surveys.

The bad news: "site looting was widespread, and it increased between 2002 and 2006." On the site of Isin itself, "the 1960s and 1990s imagery does not show any visible looting damage. But in 2003, distinctive round lootingholes appear covering 37 hectares of the site. By 2006, looter holes expanded to cover 69 of the 193 hectares, more than doubling the area of damage within this three year span." (That would make for an annual rate of roughly 7% between 2003 and 2006, just slightly less than the 10% that archaeologists had been estimating for the country as a whole.) Many of these holes are on the newly detected sites, which means those pristine sites have been forever despoiled and whatever contextual information they might have yielded is probably gone forever as well. "Sites never visited by archaeological survey are subject to the same rates of looting as those known from archaeological survey."

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Another Corrective to Arts Newspaper Misreporting

Andrew Lawler's new piece in Science on the visit to 8 major sites in southern Iraq by John Curtis, Elizabeth Stone, Margarete Van Ess, et. al. makes clear how overblown was the Arts Newspaper reporting on their findings. The money quote from Lawler:

"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."

So much for the notion that this report "contradicts" claims of widespread and sustained looting. One can only wonder why the reporter for the Art Newspaper did not ask the three archaeologists the question Lawler did. Could it be that the story's slant was designed to appeal to a readership eager to be told that it was fine to collect Iraqi antiquities since looting was non-existent?

Friday, July 04, 2008

3 Modest Suggestions for Improving Archaeological Site Protection

Derek Fincham suggests that if we want to protect antiquities currently at risk, "we need a cooperative coordinated approach which rests on a transparent market and loan procedure which works in conjunction with law enforcement and customs officials of many nations." This is exactly right, but needs a bit of flesh put on its bones. Here are three steps that need to be taken for this coordinated approach to work:

1. Transparency must be established in a way that satisfies the archaeological community that the provenance of antiquities is clear. That means creating a legally-binding mechanism for reviewing and approving antiquities for sale (presumably a board that would be run by archaeologists). It also means requiring all sales that take place to be registered so that it is known who is buying and selling, and at what price.

2. Sales of approved antiquities could then be not simply tracked, but taxed, in the model of sin taxes or user fees, with proceeds dedicated to a) paying for the provenance-review board, and b) funding programs (probably run out of the State Department's Cultural Heritage Center) that assist anti-looting and anti-smuggling efforts in those countries from which the artifacts originated. A tax of 5% on the Mesopotamian figurine recently sold for $57 million would have yielded a sum greater than the total 2003 budget of the Iraq State Board of Antiquities. Doubling their budget would dramatically improve their capacity to tamp down on site looting.

3. Both the provenance-review committee and the bureaucracy for administering anti-looting and anti-smuggling programs can be paid for from the tax proceeds. Ideally, there would be a governmental agency that would allocate tax proceeds to both these efforts, but the U.S. has no such agency. An oversight board should be created for this purpose.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Some Known Knowns and Known Unknowns about Extent of Site Looting

A bit more information about what we know and do not know about the extent of site looting:

Elizabeth Stone (Antiquity, vol 82, March 2008) quantifies the extent of looting in southern Iraq. Stone examined almost 10,000 square kilometres of imagery, containing some 1900 archaeological sites. She says 15.75 square kilometres of land have been intensively looted, including 213 archaeological sites. This is an area four times greater than all the archeological excavations undertaken in southern Iraq over the past century.

Stone has confirmed for me in an interview that the most recent imagery she has been working with is "not in the real heartland of looting. That area has not been imaged that recently."

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Sites in Iraq Not Looted? Get Real!

As expected, the Art Newspaper article is spawning claims of massive looting of sites in Iraq are somehow a myth promulgated by the left or by disgruntled archaeologists.

That would have to include those anti-war, anti-Americans, the carabinieri who deployed to Iraq in 2003 (and left after a number of them were killed in action), who report in Antiquities Under Siege that

"Widespread looting had affected the whole region [the southwestern Iraqi province of Dhi Qar] after the collapse of the regime in 2003. As of early 2007, grave robbers still combed archaeological sites, hunting for gold jewels, gems, and cuneiform tablets..." "Since the beginning of the operations in Nasiriyah... 1,636 looted archaeological objects have been seized..."

Also mythical would have to be the 17,000 artifacts looted from unregistered archaeological sites that had been returned to the museum, as reported by Donny George in 2006.

And let's not forget those mythmakers, the Polish civil-military contingent posted to Al Qadisiyah province, who reported in March 2005 that aerial reconnaissance showed "continuous and methodical illicit digging that neither the Coalition troops entering Iraq nor the local antiquity service have been able to prevent."

Now it is true that all these reports are now dated. Time does go by, and one can always say that we do not know what has happened within the last year, last six months, etc. etc. But there can be no doubt that since the invasion many, many sites have been looted. Donny George's figure of 17,000 items returned is greater than the number stolen from the museum, and of course must be only a small fraction of the total looted since the invasion. John Russell has estimated, based on the number of hectares known to have been looted compared to those that yielded the 170,000 items in the Iraq Museum, that 400-600,000 artifacts have been taken illicitly. These are of course very rough estimates, but they give a sense of the scope of the looting.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

No Recent Looting on 8 Sites in southern Iraq: What does it show us? Not what the Art Newspaper thinks it does

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 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 almost certainly yes. (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?

I asked this question of Donny George. 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 -- 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.