Friday, July 18, 2008

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.

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