Monday, March 3, 2008

Iraq: the Scale of Looting

What is the scale of looting? We can look at the value of the sales of antiquities (though these figures are hotly disputed).

Professor Elizabeth Stone at Stony Brook University in New York has been using high resolution satellite imagery to look at the damage to archaeological sites in southern Iraq. The New Scientist ("Iraq's legacy of looted treasures is revealed", March 2, 2008) has presented a summary of her findings:
Stone examined almost 10,000 square kilometres of imagery, containing some 1900 archaeological sites. By scrutinising the darkness and sharpness of shadows, she was able to identify holes made by looters and whether they were pre-existing or new. In this way she was able to assess the severity of looting before and after the war.

She says 15.75 square kilometres of land have been intensively looted, including 213 archaeological sites. This is an area many times greater than all the archeological excavations undertaken in southern Iraq (Antiquity, vol 82, p 125). Stone estimates that hundreds of thousands of tablets, coins, cylinder seals, statues, terracottas, bronzes and other objects have been stolen.
It is sadly all too easy to understand the material implications of such looting. But what about the intellectual consequences with so many contexts destroyed?


Peter Tompa said...


Dr. Stone seems to generate another story on this issue around the anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum each year.

I'm not sure what qualifies her to interpret satellite imagery. Also, given her point of view as reported in the press, I'm not sure one can really take any conclusions she makes at face value.

There is also the issue of coins. It would be interesting to learn on what basis she claims that large numbers of ancient coins are being taken from archaeological sites in Iraq. Certainly, the sites in her area of expertise (where most of the purported looting has taken place) relate to cultures that existed long before coinage was invented. Moreover, to find coins in any number, one really needs a metal detector. I'm afraid rooting around in the dirt with picks and shovels just won't work. Yet, every picture I have seen that purports to show looting taking place in Iraq shows local people using just such low tech methods.

Is it possible she threw "coins" into the mix to support her fellow archaeologists who have made import restrictions on coins part of their own agenda? Perhaps.

What is clear from other sources is that there has been no large influx of allegedly looted material from Iraq into the U.S. If it's not coming here and current looting is as extensive as is claimed, where it it all going?


Peter Tompa

David Gill said...


I suggest you read the full piece by Professor Elizabeth C. Stone, "Patterns of looting in southern Iraq", Antiquity, Vol. 82, No. 315, 2008, 125–38.

Here is the abstract:

"The archaeological sites of Iraq, precious for their bearing on human history, became especially vulnerable to looters during two wars. Much of the looting evidence has been anecdotal up to now, but here satellite imagery has been employed to show which sites were looted and when. Sites of all sizes from late Uruk to early Islamic were targeted for their high value artefacts, particularly just before and after the 2003 invasion. The author comments that the ‘total area looted … was many times greater than all the archaeological investigations ever conducted in southern Iraq and must have yielded tablets, coins, cylinder seals, statues, terracottas, bronzes and other objects in the hundreds of thousands’."

The article is available on-line to subscribers.

Best wishes


Peter Tompa said...


Thanks for the quote: "..the toal area looted... must have yielded tablets, coins, cylinder seals, statues, terracottas, bronzes and other objects in the hundreds of thousands’."

Speculation with numbers like that is particularly troubling to me, particularly in the absence of any hard evidence large numbers of Iraqi materials have entered the international markets since the Iraq War.

Best wishes,



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