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Looters in the Temple

by Roger Atwood

The stealing of history in Iraq.

The first sign we were approaching the ruins of Isin in southern Iraq was the motorcycles that came buzzing down the dirt road in the opposite direction. Each one carried a driver, a passenger, and a bulging saddlebag draped over the back fender. A few bicycles came along, each with a rider, his head wrapped in a scarf, and more saddlebags. Then a big cattle truck trundled by, carrying a pack of men in the flatbed in soiled white robes and holding more bulging sacks that swayed as the truck bumped along.

It was one month after the fall of Saddam Hussein. In Baghdad, American tanks rumbled down the crowded streets, bombed-out government buildings lined the Tigris like charred skeletons, and merchants sat languorously by their shop doors with assault rifles to guard against thieves. At night a curfew kept the streets empty, and at dawn they filled again with Iraqis starting their day in the sour, chemical odor of smoldering pools of oil torched by Saddam's forces outside the city to send up curtains of smoke and foil American aerial bombers. The National Museum of Antiquities, facing an intersection that had been one of the city's worst battlefields between Saddam loyalists and the Americans, was in shambles. Thieves had swept in during the last days of fighting and stolen about 13,000 objects, nothing like the 170,000 reported in the first, overheated stories but still a huge loss that included icons of ancient Mesopotamian art ­— the Warka vase, the hauntingly placid image of a woman in marble known as the Lady of Warka; the lower torso of a man in cast copper known as the Basetki statue that thieves dragged down a marble staircase, breaking each stair along the way. The most famous pieces, including those three, were of course impossible to sell and were abandoned or quietly returned to the museum within months, but thousands of smaller and less famous objects were gone. Thieves had ransacked the administrative offices, rifled through storerooms, crowbarred open steel safes.

An odd, only-in-wartime mix of people had since been gathering at the ruined museum:  buzz-cut American soldiers, shy Iraqi curators, reporters and television crews of a dozen nationalities, and a stream of international cultural eminences, including the director of the British Museum and sunburned archaeologists, all coming to assess the damage, prevent more looting, and start piecing back together one of the Middle East's great museums.1

In those dazed, nervous weeks after Saddam's fall, the first, quite unbelievable reports about the looting of archaeological sites began reaching us at the museum. Rumors held that all over Iraq, and especially at Sumerian sites in the south, the guards appointed by Saddam's government had fled in the first days of the U.S. and British bombardment and hundreds of looters had rampaged in, digging up the sites for artifacts, destroying the work done by archaeologists over decades, ripping out sackfuls of treasures. This was not at one or two sites, but at dozens of them. Few people had actually seen it. The looters were armed with assault rifles and prepared to kill intruders, the American military told me and others. They advised us not to go.

"They'll have no compunctions about throwing you into one of their holes and burying you alive," an American army officer, Captain William Sumner, told me.

It all sounded too automatic, a bit too on-cue to be real:  the guards leave, looters enter en masse, they start digging up everything. The theft at the National Museum had proved to be an embarrassing exaggeration, one that would wreck the credibility of more than a few self-appointed culture saviors, so I could not help being skeptical about the next breathless chapter in the supposed rape of Iraqi's priceless heritage.

More motor scooters buzzed past, with more sacks.

"Looters, every one of them. Look at all they're carrying out," said Susanne Osthoff, an archaeologist. There was alarm in her voice.

Four millennia ago, Isin was a Babylonian Lourdes, a place for the sick to come to be healed. It attracted the lame, the arthritic, and the chronically ill who came to pray to the city's patron goddess, Gula, to deliver them from pain. Archaeologists found bones all over the site with signs of deformity, trauma, and disease. Now Isin was little more than a set of eroded, sandy mounds, a city betrayed by the Euphrates that used to flow nearby but shifted course over the centuries and left it high and dry in the desert.

In 1990 Osthoff was a graduate student in archaeology at the Ludwig-Maximilians Universität in Munich and worked with a team of German researchers to answer the mysteries of Isin. Iraq was then a lively locus of research, with the Americans at Nippur, the British at Abu Salabikh, the Germans at Isin, and distinguished Iraqi archaeologists at all sites working to broaden the knowledge we have today about how Mesopotamians invented writing and agriculture, tamed wild animals and put them to the service of man as livestock, and created the first classical images of women. It was some of the most important work in the history of archaeology. The end of that era came in 1990, the last year of major excavations in Iraq under the old rules, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and the United Nations imposed on the Iraq the international sanctions that threw the country into total isolation, cutting it off from virtually all foreign financing and cultural exchange. The research ceased, the archaeologists stopped coming, and all through the 1990s, looters started creeping down the carefully excavated shafts, shoveling out the soil to find treasures, digging new holes, ransacking ancient graves, temples, and dwellings by night. They sold what they found to middlemen who took the pieces to the world's great clearinghouses for looted antiquities in Switzerland and Britain, and eventually to the United States. Iraqi antiquities, once a rarity on the market, began finding their way to European and American galleries, collections, and online auction sites. In May 2003, Susanne Osthoff, a tall, elegant woman whom I had first noticed in the Baghdad museum chatting in beautiful Arabic with the employees, had returned to Iraq to deliver medical supplies on behalf of a German humanitarian agency and to check out reports that her old study site was being systematically destroyed by looters.

When the men who had worked as security guards for the Germans saw Susanne in the Shiite town of Afak that morning for the first time in 14 years, they could barely believe their eyes and embraced her with speechless affection, as if her presence meant that Saddam was really gone. With that ceremoniousness of rural Iraqis, they invited us to a traditional meal with their families:  tabouleh, eggplant, and freshly slaughtered chicken on platters spread out on a mat. Yes, they told us, looters had taken over the site. There were hundreds of them, working without fear. Now and then people with big cars and satellite phones came from Baghdad to buy what the looters had found. American troops had taken over the district mayor's palace in Afak and made it their headquarters for the area, ringed the building with tanks and armored personnel carriers, and sent armed patrols through the town. But they had made no effort to stop the destruction of Isin.

The Iraqi guards took their Kalashnikov submachine guns and escorted us to the site. Within a few hours, we were all approaching the ruined Sumerian city in a white Hilux pickup. Pits dug and abandoned by looters started appearing by the roadside. Then more pits until finally, when we reached the mound that marked where the Temple of Gula used to stand, the land was pockmarked with holes. We parked and saw the heads of young men popping out of some of the nearest holes.

Susanne charged up the mound, her veil trailing in the wind behind her, and let out a short scream.

"They are destroying the site, destroying it!  Twenty-five years of work is being ruined," she said. My interpreter, Azher Taher, and I looked at each other incredulously and ran up behind her, and then came the bodyguards with their rifles.

Looters were swarming all over the temple. They crawled up out of their holes, emerged from behind mounds of backfill, came running toward us from every direction in robes and turbans, shouting with excitement and carrying knives and shovels. Atop other mounds off in the distance, more bands of looters stood stark against the horizon, waving their arms at us. There were no guards or police of any kind, and the nearest American troops were 20 miles away in Afak.

We followed Susanne and found ourselves walking along parapets between giant pits. We counted about 200 holes, some of them 20 or 30 feet deep, but gave up counting after a while and contemplated the riddled landscape stretching for a mile or so in every direction. Some pits seemed to branch off into tunnels, some curved, and some were too deep to see the bottom. A few pits looked so meticulously cut on their sides that they could only be the remnants of archaeological work.

We looked down into one hole that trailed off into a rough, stone bottom.

"This was where I worked. This was the temple floor," said Susanne, pointing down.

On the far side of the mound, maybe 200 feet away, a white pickup was parked. A man got out and stood there with an assault rifle, as if to let us know who was in charge. We tried to ignore him and walked along the narrow ridges running between the pits. The looters seemed to think we were buyers, for they approached us to offer us things they had found that day:  a clay tablet bearing an inscription in cuneiform, the world's oldest form of writing ($100), an exquisite little cylinder seal made of black hemarite stone ($200), a clay votive plaque with an image of the goddess Istar ($500). Each would bring thousands of dollars in New York or London. Cylinder seals like the black hemarite one, about the size of a wine cork, could sell for $30,000.

"When did all this looting start?" I asked one looter, a young man with a tired look and several days' beard growth. He had not stopped digging long enough to sleep.

"When Saddam Hussein fell," he said, with Azher interpreting.

"Did this ever happen when Saddam was in power?"

"Only at night, and only a few people. Now we can dig all day. Many people are coming to do it."

"Were friends of yours ever caught looting in Saddam's day?"


"What happened to them?"

"They were executed."

Another looter who looked to be no more than 15 years old told me he had been digging every day for a week.

"I heard everyone was coming here, so I came," he said. He had found a small tablet, he said, making a square on his palm about the size of a matchbox, and sold it for $50 to a rich man who came in his car, but the other looters said he should have demanded more.

There was a giddy, ecstatic feeling in the air, the feeling of young men digging for their fortune and expecting to find it any minute. "Saddam is gone! Saddam is gone!" a few shouted spontaneously in Arabic, as if the news were still sinking in. The house nearby where archaeologists and their staff once lived was itself a looted, abandoned shell, its roof, plumbing, and fixtures all ripped out.2

While he ruled, Saddam Hussein took pains in his own homicidal way to protect his country's ancient sites from antiquities hunters, according to many archaeologists. He had his own reasons, of course. Saddam cast himself as a modern-day Nebuchadnezzar, heir to the glories of Mesopotamia, a man so blinded by his own megalomaniacal folly that, at the reconstructed ruins of Babylon, he inscribed bricks with his name, just as successive rulers did at the real Babylon in antiquity. In billboards all over Baghdad, he stood smiling in front of the Dome of the Rock in a doctored photograph meant to evoke Nebuchadnezzar's own biblical siege of Jerusalem and the expulsion of its Jews in 587 B.C. Along the roof of his main palace, at the center of a complex of parks and buildings entered through a sandstone arch known as Assassin's Gate, and which later became the U.S. occupation force headquarters, Saddam erected four gargantuan metal busts of himself dressed in fantasy garb of a headdress and shirt meant to make him look like the scourge of the Crusaders, Saladin.3

It was historical memory put to the service of a fascist political agenda, and anything that archaeologists could dig up to lend legitimacy to that agenda was welcome. In 1998 vandals decapitated the stone statue of a winged bull with the head of a king, complete with crown, at the ruins of Khorsabad in northern Iraq. They intended to sell the head, but soon Interpol learned of the theft and published photographs of the head on its Web site. The piece became unmarketable. Saddam's police tracked down the head, now in 13 pieces, in a house in Mosul and arrested ten of the supposed looters. All were executed.

"He who chops off the head of a king shall lose his own head," Saddam was reported to have said in official Iraqi media. The only Iraqis I met who seemed sad to see him go were archaeologists. "He supported the museum adequately, this is true. It has to be said," Donny George, research director of the Baghdad museum, told me. "We got almost everything we wanted. When people would present [archaeological] things to him as gifts, he would return them to the museum."4

All over Iraq, looters took Saddam's disappearance as a signal to descend on ancient sites and turn them inside out to find artifacts. The speed of the destruction was stunning. At the ruins of the Sumerian city of Umma, looters overran the site as soon as American and British air raids began, and 300 were still there a few weeks later when University of Chicago archaeologist McGuire Gibson arrived on a U.S. military helicopter to inspect the site.5 Hundreds of men were sinking holes into the remains of the ancient city of Adab.6 At the ruins of Nippur, Susanne Osthoff and I climbed the eroded, mud-brick platform known as a ziggurat, the once-mighty Babylonian tower that Hebrew exiles thought an impious attempt to reach heaven and which inspired the story of the Tower of Babel. Looters had dug at least three deep pits nearby, not bad compared to the hundreds elsewhere but ominously the first ever to appear at Nippur in more than 40 years of scientific excavation at the remote site7, which, when we visited, was guarded by one frightened old man in akaffiyeh with an assault rifle dating from the war with Iran 20 years before. At the ruins of the Roman-era city of Hatra, north of Baghdad, looters with good stonecutting equipment hoisted a ladder to the apex of an arch and carved out a sculpture of a man's face. It has disappeared, presumably sold.

Everywhere I went in Iraq that month, the trickle of plunder that began after the Gulf War in 1991 had become a flood. I visited six sites, and all were under some kind of attack by looters, some dismantled in a spasmodic wave of destruction as at Isin, others under piecemeal assault.

A week after seeing the pillage in the south, Azher and I drove straight north from Baghdad, past Saddam's hometown of Tikrit and the gracefully spiraling minaret of Samarra, to the city of Mosul. Chinooks and Black Hawks rattled overhead all day, and grimly businesslike American soldiers in beige fatigues stopped lines of cars to search for weapons and fleeing Baathist diehards. The occupation felt raw here, more in-your-face than in Baghdad.

A short drive south of Mosul, the ruins of the legendary, 3,500-year-old city of Nimrud stood amid gently rolling hills overlooking the Tigris valley. Enormous winged sphinxes carved in stone mark the entrance to the palace of Assurnasirpal II, its walls formed by massive slabs of polished stone bearing images in low relief of kings and deities and cuneiform inscriptions recounting centuries of conquests and heroic exploits. The Old Testament calls it "the principal city" of the Assyrian empire that ravaged neighboring kingdoms from Persia to Egypt.8 For a few centuries, Nimrud was the center of power and wealth for much of southwest Asia.

And then, as empires have a way of doing, it collapsed. Nimrud was sacked by the Babylonians in 612 B.C., and the Assyrian realm disappeared forever. Some of the city's loveliest artifacts, including an enigmatic carving of a smiling woman known as the Mona Lisa of Nimrud, date from this year and were found at the bottom of a well inside the palace. Archaeologists speculated that residents threw their prize possessions down the pit rather than see them grabbed by the invaders.

No one was going to sack Nimrud now. Half a platoon of U.S. soldiers guarded the roofless and overgrown site with M-4 rifles firing 50-caliber armor-piercing incendiary rounds, two Humvees equipped with antitank gunner positions, seven shoulder-fired antipersonnel missiles, 40mm grenade launchers, and thermal imaging devices that could spot a person, night or day, within ten kilometers.

"We've got so much armament in here, it's unreal," said the commandeering officer at Nimrud, Lieutenant Cory Roberts, a serious, compact Texan who sounded at times like he had just emerged from a Pentagon briefing. "Our orders are to protect key resources, whether it's oil or medical shipments or the cultural treasures that belong to the Iraqi people like this one, and that's what we're doing."

I could say for sure that Nimrud was, at that moment, the best-guarded archaeological site in the world. Problem was, the posse arrived a bit late. Looters first entered the site on April 11, two days after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and hacked out a chunk of a stone frieze showing a winged man carrying a sponge and a holy plant. It's a distinctively Nimrud image, one that a buyer anywhere in the world would have to know was looted from this site, and yet the piece has disappeared.

"They knew just what they wanted. They ignored everything else, went right to that frieze, and took it," said Muzahim Mahmud, the Iraqi director of the site.

The attack had all the markings of customized looting, a band of well-equipped stonecutters venturing into the ruins to remove a specific piece on orders of a buyer who had put in his request in advance. Mahmud, an archeologist of about 60 with a thatch of white hair and a polite, courtly air, brought in two armed guards, but over the next three weeks the looters kept returning to threaten them. The Americans were too thin on the ground to help.

"The thieves would come at night and shoot at us. We heard them shouting, 'Go away, leave this place,'" said Moufak Mohammed, a guard, who stayed day and night in a dilapidated trailer at the site.

On the night of May 3, Mohammed and the other guard awoke to the sound of hammers inside the palace. Looters had broken in. The guards fired in the air to scare them away, but the looters blasted the guards' station with Kalashnikov assault rifles — Mohammed showed me the 30 bullet holes in the trailer's metal siding. Outnumbered and outgunned, the guards retreated. For three hours, the looters had the run of the place, carving out pieces of two more stone friezes and damaging others that they apparently started to cut but gave up on, maybe realizing their equipment wasn't sufficient for the job. Again, they bypassed galleries of stone reliefs and went deep inside the complex, as if they knew precisely what they wanted and where it was.

The next day, after urgent pleas from the director of the well-respected Antiquities Museum in Mosul, the Americans arrived with a full infantry battalion. Hyped or not, the looting of the National Museum had proved to be a huge international embarrassment for the Americans, and they wanted to show they could prevent more disasters like it.

When I visited Nimrud, two weeks after the American troops arrived, Mahmud gave me a lecture-tour of the site like a professor giving a master class on Assyrian history as Roberts, in fatigues and a Kevlar vest, hovered around us and corrected Mahmud on dates or details of the looting. Mahmud graciously ignored him. I sensed that Roberts and Mahmud didn't entirely trust each other but had formed an uneasy alliance to keep the looters at bay. When I asked Mahmud if he was concerned about having so much military hardware next to such a fragile and irreplaceable cultural asset, he seemed surprised at the question.

"No, I am not worried," he said. "If the Americans leave, then the robbers will come and steal everything. Then I will worry."

I was impressed by the earnestness of Roberts and his men in protecting Nimrud. One had embarked on a project to photograph the entire site and had so far filled nine compact disks. I asked Roberts, What will happen when the American troops leave? Won't the looters all come back? "Well, that's the concern," he said. His strategy was to embolden the Iraqi security guards by withdrawing his troops to about 30 yards inside the site, so that if an intruder tried to enter, the first line of defense would be the security guards, not the Americans. I wasn't sure it would work, but Roberts didn't seem to have any other ideas for battling a foe that could easily afford to wait and outlast his platoon in this isolated place.

"The guards are from villages around here," said Roberts. "They're scared to shoot at looters. The looters come here and tell the guards, 'If you shoot us, we'll kill you,' and they will. That's what we're up against."

Facing enough American artillery to stop a tank column, the agents of the antiquities trade had not given up. Early one morning, Roberts caught a young man whom he assumed was an antiquities hunter hanging around the entrance to the palace, as if testing the troops. The man left without incident. Often the guard Mohammed still heard strange voices outside the site at night.

"They'll be back, you can be sure," said Roberts.

Looting robs a country of its heritage, but, even worse, it destroys everyone's ability to know about the past. When ancient sites are excavated carefully and methodically by trained archaeologists, all of humanity can gain an understanding into how those societies lived, how they worshiped, how they raised their children, what they valued. Most of what we know about ancient life has been gained in this way. Through modern archaeology we known that Iraqis invented the wheel about 3000 B.C., that Vikings reached America five centuries before Columbus, that humans first crossed from Asia to Alaska about 14,000 years ago and filled the American continent within a few centuries, that the Incas practiced a form of brain surgery, that plagues of European diseases like smallpox swept through Indian settlements in Florida a few years before any Europeans arrived there, that early Mexicans took a weed and cultivated it over centuries to turn it into corn. None of this knowledge was handed down orally from generation to generation; nor, in most cases, was it written in ancient texts. We known it because scientists were able to spend years descending through minute layers of sediment with toothbrushes, trowels, and picks at undisturbed sites. How do we know about the origins of corn, for example?  Because archaeologists near Mexico City discovered grains of pollen from corn plants dating from thousands of years back at 150 feet below ground.9

When those sites are ransacked by looters, all that knowledge is lost. All we are left with are random objects that may be beautiful or valuable but which tell us very little about the people who made them. Looting obliterates the memory of the ancient world and turns its highest artistic creations into decorations, adornments on a shelf, divorced form historical context and ultimately from all meaning. In the course of writing the book from which this essay comes, I've met many collectors who gave me no reason to doubt their love, appreciation, and sincere connoisseurship for the antiquities they own. Yet as long as collectors buy objects on the open market, with no documentation showing they were excavated in an archaeological context or removed from the ground before international codes against the trade in looted goods were signed in 1970, then they are contributing to the destruction and depriving themselves and all of us of the full breadth of understanding that might be gained if the pieces had been properly excavated. As one archaeologist has said, looted objects are pretty but dumb.

We can never know how many pieces were looted, or how much information was lost, from Iraqi sites after Saddam's demise. Gibson, who has worked in Iraq since 1964 and knows as much as anyone about the volume of artifacts at risk, said it was more than the 13,000 stolen from the National Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad and probably much more. The only sites getting temporary reprieves were those like Nimrud and Ur that the U.S. military had decided, for whatever reasons, were worth protecting. "Anything that the U.S. military isn't sitting on is being destroyed," said Gibson, a man with a cane and an air of old-school erudition whose dry wit in both English and Arabic lifted everyone's spirits at the trashed museum. "There are going to be a lot of happy collectors." 

Thousands more objects were destroyed because looters deemed them too damaged or unlovely to be sold to middlemen. At Isin worthless pottery shards littered the ground in places. Most of the valuable plunder will be untraceable once it reaches that border-busting shell game known as the antiquities market because, barring a few pieces with enough cuneiform to identify the origin, only the looter knows where the pieces originated.

In May 2003, a few days before I saw the devastation at Isin, the United Nations passed Resolution 1483 that called on all member states to ban the trade in Iraqi cultural property without a verifiable provenance. The governments of the main buyer countries all supported the resolution, and many established antiquities dealers have insisted that they will not knowingly buy or sell recently pillaged Iraqi antiquities. Yet no matter how much central governments, police, and customs officers everywhere promise to stop and confiscate Iraqi loot, and no matter how many dealers promise not to touch it, they all know that once those pieces are past border and airport controls, it is extremely difficult to detect them. It is riskier to buy and sell pieces hacked off standing monuments because there will be records and photographs of what those pieces looked like and where they stood originally. The same is true of pieces stolen from museums:  in most cases, there will be records and accession numbers showing where they came from. The thoroughly studied and catalogued ruins of the ancient biblical city of Nineveh, just across the Tigris from Mosul, were severely damaged by looters after the first Gulf War, and chunks of the site's elaborately carved walls soon made their way to the back rooms of European and American antiquities galleries and warehouses, as archaeologist John Malcolm Russell has documented.10 So even famous ruins are not immune to the looters' saw. Antiquities pulled from the ground, however, have no such records, no catalogue numbers or schematic drawings, and so it is that much more difficult to detect them as they move through the market and, if seized, to prove that they were plundered.


As the Iraqi experience showed, the modern antiquities industry has acquired speed and flexibility. Within hours of Saddam's downfall on April 9, 2003 (or even before, as at Umma), looters were overrunning archaeological sites as well as museums in Baghdad and Mosul.11 Within weeks, artifacts pilfered from Iraqi sites or museums started turning up at border stations and airports in Europe and the United States. About 400 objects, most of them stolen from the Baghdad museum, were seized by Iraqi paramilitary forces when, by chance, they stopped a car headed for the Iranian border in May 2003. Thousands more treasures made it out. By June 2004, U.S. Customs inspectors, police, and other authorities in the United States had seized some 600 artifacts stolen from the Baghdad museum. That figure included three 4,300-year-old Akkadian cylinder seals confiscated at Kennedy airport in New York from an American writer, Joseph Braude, who bought them on a sidewalk in Baghdad and who, in August 2004, pleaded guilty to smuggling charges in federal court in Brooklyn. In Italy, 300 pieces had been seized, and authorities in Jordan, which almost alone among Iraq's neighbors made a serious bid to prevent itself from being used as a transshipment point, had confiscated an extraordinary 1,054 pieces. A further 200 had been seized in Syria and 35 in Kuwait. All of these pieces were relatively easy to identify because they were stolen from the museum. There were records and photographs of every one of them, and many, including Braude's pieces, still bore the museum's distinctive "I.M." (for Iraqi Museum) accession tag painted on them.

If authorities were seizing this many provably, identifiably stolen Iraqi antiquities, and only in those few countries that were making serious recovery efforts, it did not take much imagination to suppose that thousands more were getting through. At least 60 Iraqi cylinder seals that were not in the Baghdad museum collection had been seized at airports in the United States alone by June 2004; those pieces had probably been looted from archaeological sites. Pieces like them will be rippling through the global antiquities market for decades to come.12

The demand for antiquities is drilling the life out of the last undiscovered remains of the ancient world. Collectors, museums, auction houses, and dealers are snuffing out any chance of expanding humanity's knowledge about the ancient world by buying looted artifacts with a speed and rapacity that calls into question whether there will be anything left to excavate in a few generations, save for the best-known sites on tourist circuits. Grave robbing is an old phenomenon, some will argue. The Romans looted the tombs and temples of the Greeks, the Vandals looted Rome, and then European colonialists looted nearly everyone. Most of the tombs in Egypt's Valley of the Kings were robbed within 100 years of their sealing, and even the famously pristine tomb of Tutankhamen had been penetrated at least twice in antiquity before Howard Carter found it in 1922. Mexicans before the arrival of the Spaniards were known to appropriate items from the tombs of their forebears the Olmecs. The modern antiquities market dates from as far back as the 18th century, when European travelers started returning home from Greece and the Levant with classical carvings, sculpture, and relics.

Today's antiquities trade bears no more relation to those historical examples than modern weapons of war to muskets and pistols. Nor does it much resemble the world of eccentric dealers and moonlighting graveyard scavengers described in 1973 in Karl Meyer's landmark reportage The Plundered Past. With sharp increases in the frequency and reliability of daily air links from the most remote provinces of the world, in container-shipping volumes, and in movements of people and information in the last 20 years of the 20th century, looted artifacts can reach buyers far more quickly than they did even a generation ago. Improvements in hand-held metal detectors, which can now detect man-made objects as deep as 20 feet beneath the surface, have expanded the downward frontiers of looting. Better roads and communication technology have transformed the antiquities business, allowed it to become as nimble, efficient, and sensitive to market demands as any other export-driven industry. These advances have also put retailers in closer contact than ever before with antiquities suppliers, the looters.

The streamlining of this industry over the last few decades has allowed traders to bring looted goods to market with once-unimaginable speed. A Mayan ceramic pot looted from a tomb in Belize can be in a gallery in Atlanta the next day; those cylinder seals they offered us in Isin could be in Europe a few days later, and very possibly were. In 2002 a man with a French passport was detained at an airport in northern Peru with 21 carefully wrapped ancient ceramic pots, all of them allegedly purchased from grave robbers, in his bags. The traveler carried an onward ticket to Paris for that evening. This happened in a city that 30 years before did not even have an airport. Multiply that case by a hundred times in a few dozen countries, and it is not difficult to see why there has never in human history been such a variety of artifacts on sale at one time. Never has the marketplace for the ancient world's treasures been so large and so diverse. Take a stroll through central London, as I did in December 2002, and find galleries displaying Roman-era vases, Chimú ceramics, Nepali temple torana, West African terra-cotta funerary pieces, ancient Chinese ironwork, a head-spinning gamut of objects with no listed provenance or sign whatsoever that they came from anything other than a looters sack. Whole cultures are swallowed up by this business. A Peruvian archaeologist told me how the polychromatic pottery and artifacts of an entirely unknown culture, a nameless Andean civilization that lived centuries before the arrival of Spaniards near the modern town of Bagua Grande, turned up one year in galleries in Europe. Nothing like them had ever been excavated, and none made it to Peruvian museums.

"We know nothing about this culture, and its finest known creations are turning up in Germany and Switzerland." He shook his head with that expression of sadness and desperation common these days to archaeologists everywhere. "It's as if I went to Europe and stole their royal families' jewels and brought them back to Peru to sell."

Most countries with a vigorous looting industry have some date that kicked off the destruction, some event that catalyzed it. The business may have been simmering along for years, as in Iraq after its defeat in the Gulf War of 1990-91. But just as April 2003 brought looting to a new and catastrophic level in Iraq, most places have a date at which a kind of tipping point is reached, the modern antiquities industry makes its move, and the gradual obliteration of a nation's archaeological endowment begins.

In Peru, that date was February 6, 1987, after which the modern antiquities trade — lean, costumer-focused, occasionally violent — settled on Peru like a vulture. That evening, a group of five grave robbers working at a burial mound known as Juaca Fajada, near the village of Sipán, discovered a mausoleum where, over two centuries, a dynasty of Moche rulers and their wives and attendants were buried, starting around the year A.D. 100. Addled on cane liquor and sucking coca leaves, the looters laughed and gasped in amazement as they pulled out gold and silver artifacts and filled up sacks with them. Within days they were selling the artifacts to middlemen, who began offering them to a select group of exporters and collectors. Word swept through the international antiquities market from London to Los Angeles that Peruvian looters had stumbled upon a major site. Buyers had to move fast because the police were sure to bust the whole looting operation soon. Three weeks after the tomb's discovery, Peruvian police got wind of the pillage, chased away the looters and villagers who had flocked to the site, and notified archaeologists. They then began a four-year excavation of the site that uncovered a dozen more tombs, two of them nearly as rich as the looted one, and brought unprecedented insights into how people lived, worshiped, and died in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans.

Meanwhile the looted artifacts had already hit the market, whetting the appetite of collectors and helping turn Peruvian artifacts, once an exotic niche product, into one of the hottest segments of the global antiquities trade. Up and down the Peruvian coast, looters began digging into burial pyramids looking for the next Sipán. They found one site that came close, but mostly what they succeeded in doing was to demolish thousands of tombs. Peru's underground universe had suffered big hits before from waves of grave robbing, most recently in the mid-1960s, but never like this.

"After Sipán, it was a gold rush. It was something no one could stop," said Walter Alva, chief archaeologist at Sipán, whose lonely campaigns against tomb raiders in his native northern Peru began drawing international attention.

The effects of Sipán, its looting and later its excavation, were felt in various fields:  archaeology, anthropology, collecting, and, perhaps most intensely, the law. It galvanized efforts in the United States to use police powers to rein in the trade in plundered artifacts and led directly to the toughest U.S. code written up to that time against antiquities smuggling. It was the catalyst for a series of U.S. Customs raids, undercover FBI probes, and court cases that exposed the contours of the illicit trade and pointed the way to how it might be stopped. After Sipán, no museum or dealer in the United States could plead ignorance about the damage done by looting or how the antiquities business relied on smuggling. In Peru, and to some extent in all of Latin America, it brought a sharper understanding of how commercial pillage exploited the poor and marginalized, who lived on top of these riches, and how the value of preserving them rested not in filling museum shelves in Lima, Baghdad, or Rome, but in restoring a long-alienated part of a people's identity.

Like few other countries, Peru brings together within its borders all the characteristics of the antiquities trade — its past, its present, and, as I hope to show, possibly a better future for stopping its destructive influence. It is for that reason that I focused on Peru to write this book, rather than gathering short vignettes from many different countries that may all be under attack from the antiquities trade just as surely and quickly. Although I refer often to other countries with great underground riches to be pillaged, I have chosen to let Peru, and the Peruvians, tell this story in the hopes that it will serve as a kind of case history for other peoples.


As we left Isin that day, a barefoot looter came running toward us. He carried a dark, oval-shaped object that at first I thought was an unexploded hand grenade but turned out to be a Sumerian cylinder seal, completely covered in cuneiform text. To write on soft clay is one thing, Susanne told me, but to carve cuneiform into stone took skill and tools that only an important person would have had, an artisan working for a king or high priest. She examined it, turned it over and over with a look of fascination and despair.

"This is top-level stuff. It's worth thousands of dollars," she whispered.

Using her black head veil as a backdrop, she asked me to photograph the stone from every side so that her colleagues in Munich might read the inscriptions. I snapped a few pictures, but then it seemed so pointless. The piece had been wrenched from its context, reduced to the status of objet d'art. Most of the tales it might tell had been lost.

The looter eyed us greedily.

"This will sell fast. I won't have it for even five days," he said. Now and then a buyer came from Baghdad who claimed to represent an American client, he said. He could sell it to the buyer for $5,000 but he would give it to us for $1,000 because one of our bodyguards was his friend. By then we had gathered that some of the bodyguards, the men the archaeologists once relied on to protect the site, were now in cahoots with the looters. They were selling parcels of the site to looters, like prospectors in the California gold rush.

The looter drew closer to me. He had a big knife.

"If you buy this one, I'll show you others."


1 On the museum looting, see for example Andrew Lawler, “A Museum Looted,” Science, August 1, 2003; Roger Atwood, “Inside Iraq’s National Museum,” ARTnews, vol. 102, no. 7 (summer 2003).

2 Portions of this introduction appeared originally in Roger Atwood, “Day of the Vulture,” Mother Jones, vol. 28, no. 5 (September/October 2003). Osthoff and I estimated the number of looters at Isin that day, May 18, 2003, at 60 to 80, not including those we saw leaving the site by truck, motorcycle, and bicycle. My information on the history of Isin is drawn from conversations with Osthoff, and Joan Oates’s book, Babyon (London:  Thames & Hudson, 1986). The chief of the German excavation team was Barthel Hrouda.

3 These busts were unfortunately removed with cranes and tackle in late 2003 to be melted down for scrap. My thanks to Zainab Bahrani of Columbia University for this explanation.

4 Donny George interview, May 15, 2003

5 McGuire Gibson interview, May 14, 2003

6 Ibid.; Martin Gottlieb, “Looters Swarm over Remote Sites,” New York Times, June 12, 2003

7 Gibson interview, May 14, 2003

8 Genesis, 10: 6-9, in which Nimrud is called by its old Assyrian name, Calah, or Kalhu.

9 Fernand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life, trans. Sian Reynolds (New York:  Harper & Row, 1981), pp. 158-59; see also Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel (New York:  W.W. Norton, 1997).

10 In 1989, Russell began a comprehensive photographic record of the giant stone reliefs at the ruins of the seventh century B.C. city of Nineveh. His work was interrupted by the Gulf War and then by sanctions. The next Russell knew of the reliefs, they were showing up on the antiquities market, hacked apart and smuggled out of Iraq. In 1995, London businessman and collector Shlomo Moussaieff paid about $15,000 to buy one of the pieces, a relief showing prisoners of war towing a boat. He told reporters later that he bought the piece in a warehouse at the airport in Geneva and that he was unaware of hits origin. When he offered the piece to the Bible Lands Museum in Israel for display , the museum sent a picture of the relief to Russell, who immediately replied that the had photographic evidence that the piece had been looted since 1990. Alerted to the piece’s illegal origin, Moussaieff returned the piece to Iraq upon receipt of compensation from the Iraqi government. After that, dealers who knowingly dealt in looted Iraqi artifacts took much greater care. Pictures of two more pieces looted from Nineveh came Russell’s way. He could not determine who had them or where, so he published a note in the May 1996 issue of International Fine Arts Reports alerting dealers and museums to the presence of the pieces on the market. He never heard of them again. In 1996, a New York lawyer contacted Russell on behalf of a client to ask if ten more Assyrian sculptures up for sale were being sold legitimately. Russell replied they were not. They were all looted from Nineveh and he had the photographs to prove it. Again, he then lost all trace of the pieces. Since then, Russell has learned that in removing those ten pieces, “the looters destroyed whole slabs at Nineveh to extract the best-preserved bits.” The loss is incalculable. See Russell’s The Final Sack of Nineveh (New Haven, Conn.:  Yale University Press, 1998). On the Moussaieff case, see Dalya Alberge, “Collector to Fight Iraq over ‘Stolen’ Sculpture,” The Times (London), October 29, 1998; Martin Gottlieb, “Of 2000 Treasures Stolen in Gulf War of 1991, Only 12 Have Been Recovered,” New York Times, May 1, 2003. Also on looting in Iraq, see McGuire Gibson, “The Loss of Archaeological Context and the Illegal Trade in Mesopotamian Antiquities,” in Culture Without Context, no. 1 (fall 1997); Samuel Paley, imrud, the War, and the Antiquities Market,” in IFAR Journal, vol 6, nos 1 and 2 (2003).

11 On looting in the north, see John Simpson, “Why I Fear for the Safety of Iraq,” Daily Telegraph (London), September 28, 2003, and Roger Atwood, “In the North of Iraq:  Mosul’s Museum, Hatra, and Nimrud,” Archaeology, online edition, June 4, 2003.

12 The figures on recoveries of Iraqi artifacts outside Iraq are from Donny George of the Baghdad museum. Interview June 25, 2004. U.S. Customs declined to give figures on their seizure rates.

From Stealing History:  Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World, by Roger Atwood. Copyright © 2004 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC.

Original cover art courtesy Rob Grom.

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Articles in this Issue

Looters in the Temple, by Roger Atwood
Sacrifice, by Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski
What I Cannot Replace, by Laura Lifshitz
The Butler Garage, by Antonio Hopson
Messages Worth the Waiting, by Leslie Leyland Fields
Performing Arts, by Dan Hirshon
Journalism , by Marilyn Johnson
Regional Planning, by Helen Ruggieri
Tourism, by Matthew Roberts
March 2006


Roger Atwood is a regular contributor to ARTnews and Archaeology magazines, and his articles on culture and politics have appeared in The New Republic, Mother Jones, The Nation, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. He was a fellow at the Alicia Patterson Foundation and a journalist for Reuters for 15 years, reporting from Peru, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. He lives in Washington, D.C. and Maine.

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