Archaeologists, Law Enforcement on Lookout for Looted Artifacts

March 12,2015

CHICAGO— The looting and destruction of historic sites and artifacts by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria has sparked outrage around the world.

Archaeologists are concerned that important and sensitive sites may have been permanently damaged by extremists. Archaeologists and law enforcement officials are scrambling to prevent further loss of a priceless cultural heritage.

They are images that have made headlines and provoked outrage around the world - ancient and important archaeological sites hammered and bulldozed to the ground.

What has survived the test of time has not survived the rise of militant Islam in parts of Syria and Iraq, countries home to ancient Mesopotamia, the so-called “cradle of civilization.”

“It is a major installation which is telling you something about the glorious past of Iraq which is also a part of the world. It’s not just Iraqi culture," said McGuire Gibson, who specializes in Mesopotamian archaeology at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.

Gibson says the recent destruction at the Mosul Museum and the site of the ancient Assyrian capital of Nimrud is intended to provoke outrage.

“It needles us, it makes us angry about it, it makes us depressed about it. And they are trying to provoke a reaction," he said.

But Gibson says past experience demonstrates that militants could be using those images of destruction as a smokescreen for trafficking smaller, more valuable items out of the country.

"There are people in the world who know what this stuff is worth, and it is very clear that at least part of the destruction of the Iraqi museum in 2003, that part of that, was induced by people on the outside getting dealers on the inside to go in and try to get specific things," he said.

Archaeologists like Gibson have tried to locate and return those historic artifacts to Iraq's National Museum.

It is an effort that continues today despite the dangers in the region.

“There’s archaeological work going on right now in Iraq, in places where it’s relatively secure, work is going on. Whether or not it will be secure next week, we don’t know, but we try to work when and where we can," he said.

Edouard Planch, a program specialist with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, says to help those archaeologists working on the ground, UNESCO is trying to bolster education efforts and artifact recovery at border checkpoints near Iraq and Syria.

“The objective is to have these surrounding countries with us, aware of the traffics, of the kinds of objects going out, able to seize the pieces and keep them in a safe place," said Planch.

Many of the items in the Mosul Museum were digitally catalogued, which has helped these efforts.

But recovering of such treasures is sometimes difficult. The Iraqi National Museum, which opened in early March after being closed for 12 years, is still searching for some 15,000 items that went missing in 2003 during the Iraq War.