Picking Up the Stolen Pieces of Iraq's Cultural Heritage

The New York Times
February 14, 2005

WASHINGTON, Feb. 13 - In 2003, a marine at an American military base in southern Iraq bought eight carved stones from a trinket vendor for several hundred dollars. When he returned to New York, he took the stones to an archaeology professor at Columbia University, who concluded they were ancient artifacts, some dating back 5,000 years.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has recovered the stones, will return them on Wednesday to Iraqi authorities at a ceremony at the University of Pennsylvania's archaeology museum, which plans to display the pieces - before they are returned to Iraq - as an example of the continuing threat to the country's cultural heritage.

The stones, called cylinder seals, constitute a fraction of the antiquities believed to have been looted from Iraq since the American invasion, according to law enforcement officials and archaeologists. The artifacts include catalogued objects taken from museums and a large but uncertain number of items, like the cylinder seals, that were pillaged from archaeological sites around the country.

Zainab Bahrani, the archaeology professor at Columbia University to whom the marine took the stones last year, said looting in Iraq had increased almost uncontrollably since the American-led occupation. "Tens of thousands of objects have just gone completely missing in the past two years," she said. "It's a cultural disaster of massive proportions."

The account of the eight cylinder seals was provided by Ms. Bahrani and federal authorities. Law enforcement officials would not identify the marine, and he declined to be interviewed.

The case is the first recovery of looted Iraqi artifacts by the F.B.I. since the war started, although last month immigration and customs officials returned to Iraq three cylinder seals found in the suitcase of a scholar arriving at Kennedy International Airport. "Part of the investigative duty of the F.B.I. is investigating the looting of archaeological objects that come into the country, and we are interested in stopping that threat," said Robert K. Whitman, senior investigator on the bureau's art crime team. The team was recently established to address art fraud, stolen art and the widening antiquities trade.

A senior counterterrorism official said the trade in illicit antiquities was increasingly run by organized rings of professional thieves, who use poor Iraqis in rural areas as diggers. Objects are funneled out of the country in concealed shipments along smuggling routes that have been plied for centuries, in a system in which artifacts are sold for cash or sometimes for weapons that wind up in the hands of insurgents in Iraq. Some archaeological experts estimate that the illegal antiquities trade may pump tens of millions of dollars into the underground economy in Iraq.

Robert S. Mueller III, director of the F.B.I., alluded to the issue in a speech last November, saying British authorities had concluded in 2003 that "there is a link between the removal and transport of cultural objects and the funding of terrorism." Mr. Mueller did not identify the countries or the terrorist organizations to which he was referring.

The bureau has long had agents who specialize in investigating art crimes, but for the first time has deployed agents trained to fight this kind of illegal activity in a regional network. "Art crimes fall into three basic categories: art theft, including antiquities; fraud; and forgery," said James P. Wynne, of the F.B.I.'s New York office. The new approach, he said, "is a good way to keep us relevant and get good cases opened around the country." The eight cylinder seals bought by the marine date to the Mesopotamian period. Images were carved into the stones and the cylinders were then rolled over clay or wax, leaving an imprint that identified the owner. The symbols were used to safeguard doors, bags, boxes or other property.

When the marine took the carefully boxed seals to Ms. Bahrani at her campus office, she immediately knew what they were. She recalled opening the box and saying "Oh, my God!" The marine bought the seals suspecting that they might be archaeologically significant, according to law enforcement officials.

After meeting with Ms. Bahrani, F.B.I. officials said, the marine turned over the seals to the bureau in Philadelphia, where agents have jurisdiction over cases in the United States that are related to the looting of the Iraqi National Museum after Baghdad fell.

Although it is a crime to bring such artifacts into the United States, law enforcement officials said the United States attorney in Philadelphia formally declined to prosecute. Officials praised the marine for turning over the seals.

It is not known how often troops remove archaeological materials from Iraq. They are warned against taking antiquities before they leave the United States and again after they arrive in Iraq, said Maj. Flora Lee, a Pentagon spokeswoman in Baghdad. Moreover, she said, equipment and personal property is searched before troops leave Iraq, and packages are examined before being shipped. It is unclear how the marine got the eight seals out of the country.

Early accounts of looting at the museum in Baghdad indicated that as many as 170,000 objects had been taken in the chaotic two days after April 9, 2003, when the city fell to American-led forces. Those accounts later turned out to be overstated, but museum officials in the United States still contend that 10,000 to 15,000 objects are missing.

Far less is known about the looters who are believed to be removing a large quantity of archaeologically significant objects at sites throughout Iraq.

John Malcolm Russell, a professor of art history at the Massachusetts College of Art who was a senior cultural adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, estimated that in the last two years, hundreds of thousands of significant cultural artifacts have been taken, possibly as many as 400,000 to 600,000. That, he said, translates to a trade worth $10 million to $20 million a year.

Mr. Russell based his estimates on seizures like one last year in which Iraqi authorities stopped a smuggler with about 3,000 cultural objects, mainly cuneiform tablets containing early examples of writing. The smuggler told authorities that he made two or three such shipments each week - a statement Mr. Russell used to develop his assessment of losses. The total, he said, was supported in part by satellite photographs taken in 2003 and 2004 that show a proliferation of new excavation holes.

Mr. Russell said that in recent months, Iraq has tried to stop the looting by deploying more than 1,750 armed guards in 20 newly bought trucks to several well-known sites in southern Iraq. "It cut the looting back dramatically," he said. "If we could get 200 trucks, we could cut it back fundamentally. With $2 million, we could stop it."