Skip to main content

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?

Comments

Peter Tompa said…
David-

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?

Sincerely,

Peter Tompa
David Gill said…
Peter

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

David
Peter Tompa said…
David-

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,

Peter

Popular posts from this blog

Marble bull's head from the temple of Eshmun

Excavations at the temple of Eshmun in Lebanon recovered a marble bull's head. It is now suggested that it was this head, apparently first published in 1967, that was placed on loan to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (Tom Mashberg, "Met Museum Turns Over Another Relic With Disputed Past to Prosecutors", New York Times August 1, 2017 ). The head is reported to have been handed over to the Manhattan district attorney after a request was received from the Lebanese authorities.

It is suggested that the head may have been looted from an archaeological storage area at Byblos in the 1980s during the Lebanese civil war. Mashberg has rehearsed the recent collecting history:
The owners of the bull’s head, Lynda and William Beierwaltes of Colorado, say they have clear title to the item and have sued Manhattan prosecutors for its return.  The Beierwaltes bought the head from a dealer in London in 1996 for more than $1 million and then sold it to another collector, Michael …

The Toledo skyphos and a Swiss private collection

The Attic red-figured skyphos attributed to the Kleophon painter in the Toledo Museum of Art (inv. 1982.88) is now coming under further scrutiny following the research of Dr Christos Tsirogiannis. The skyphos shows Hephaistos returning to Olympos.

Tsirogiannis has identified what appears to be this skyphos in five photographs in the Medici Dossier. The museum acknowledged that the skyphos had resided in a 'private Swiss collection'. Tsirogiannis suggests that this is probably a reference to Medici.

Enquiries to the museum by Tsirogiannis elicited the information that the skyphos had been acquired from Nicholas Koutoulakis (although that information does not appear on the museum's online catalogue).

The curatorial team at the Toledo Museum of Art will, no doubt, be contacting the Italian authorities to discuss the future residence of the skyphos.

For further discussion of the Toledo Museum of Art on LM see here.

Reference
Tsirogiannis, C. 2017. "Nekyia: Museum ethics an…

Metropolitan Museum of Art hands over Paestan krater

In May 2014 I commented on a Paestan krater acquired by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art after it had been identified by Dr Christos Tsirogiannis in photographic images seized from Giacomo Medici. Tsirogiannis published his full concerns in the Journal of Art Crime in 2014, but it has taken a further three years for the museum to respond.

The krater showing Dionysos in a hand-drawn cart was purchased in 1989 from the Bothmer Purchase Fund (details from the Museum's website, inv. 1989.11.4). The krater surfaced through Sotheby's New York in June 1989.

It is unclear who consigned the krater to Sotheby's New York.

It has now been revealed that the krater has been handed over to the US authorities after a warrant had been issued (Tom Mashberg, "Ancient Vase Seized From Met Museum on Suspicion It Was Looted", New York Times July 31, 2018).

It appears that the museum did make an attempt to resolve the case in December 2016. Mashberg notes:
The Met, for its par…