According to an article in the Wall Street Journal on July 15 -- reports of such looting have -- wait for it -- been wildly exaggerated.
A recent mission to Iraq headed by top archaeologists from the U.S. and U.K. who specialize in Mesopotamia found that, contrary to received wisdom, southern Iraq's most important historic sites -- eight of them -- had neither been seriously damaged nor looted after the American invasion. This, according to a report by staff writer Martin Bailey in the July issue of the Art Newspaper. The article has caused confusion, not to say consternation, among archaeologists and has been largely ignored by the mainstream press. Not surprising perhaps, since reports by experts blaming the U.S. for the postinvasion destruction of Iraq's heritage have been regular fixtures of the news.
Of course these mistakes were made in good faith by objective scientists in government and academia because they care about getting it right and not grinding axes. Right? Right?!? Wrong.
Considering the political impact of such data, one would expect the experts to approach the subject with scientific circumspection, using numbers sparingly and conservatively. Too often they seem to have done the reverse. So now, as a matter of course, their method, their probity in sifting the evidence -- do they have a political agenda? -- has come into question.
It's a question that equally hangs over the deliberations of a meeting that took place recently in Dublin of the World Archeological Congress. The members reportedly considered a lengthy statement urging colleagues to refuse any military requests for a list of Iran's sites that should be exempt from possible air strikes. Finally they settled for a shorter July 11 press release. Among other things, the final press release says that WAC "expresses strong opposition to aggressive military action . . . by the U.S. government, or by any other government." The release quotes WAC's president as saying that WAC "strongly opposed the war in Iraq and . . . we strongly oppose any war in Iran" and that "any differences with Iran should be resolved through peaceful and diplomatic means."
If as scholars, archeologists take a priori public positions on political matters, what are we to make of the field-data they produce? How impartial can it be? And with their own credibility marred, who is there left as an impartial body of experts for the public to turn to?
The archaeologists' mission to southern Iraq took place in early June. Besides Prof. Stone, the experts included John Curtis, head of the British Museum's Middle East Department; Paul Collins, a Mesopotamia specialist at that museum; a top German expert; and Iraqi experts. It was conducted through the British military, which is in charge of the area, using a helicopter and armed escorts to visit the locations. They included such celebrated "cradle of civilization" sites as Ur, Eridu (the earliest Sumerian city), Warka (Sumerian Uruk), Larsa (a Babylonian city), Tell el-Ouelli (ancient Ubaid) and Tell el-Lahm (an Assyrian site).
According to the Art Newspaper article, "The international team . . . had been expecting to find considerable evidence of looting after 2003 but to their astonishment and relief there was none. Not a single recent dig hole was found at the eight sites, and the only evidence of illegal digging came from holes which were partially covered with silt and vegetation, which means they [were] several years old." Furthermore, the most recent damage "probably dated back to 2003," to just before and after the invasion when the Iraqi army maneuvered for the allied attack. (According to other experts, looting probably took place when the Iraqi army first moved out of areas near sites to counter the invasion.)