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War in Iraq Would Halt All Digs in Region


War in Iraq would halt archaeology not just in that country but across the Middle East, experts say, and could result in some of the earliest cities of Mesopotamia being bombed or looted into ruins of ruins.

Researchers with long experience in Iraq say they are worried that postwar looting could cause even more damage to the antiquities than combat. They also fear that some art dealers and collectors might try to take advantage of any postwar disarray and change in government to gain access to more of Iraq's archaeological treasures. After the Persian Gulf war of 1991, ancient treasures were plundered and sold illegally in international markets.


Fear of war has already had a widespread effect. All European research teams left Iraq months ago, indefinitely suspending excavations along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers at places like Uruk, Assur, Nimrud and Nineveh.

Others doubt that they will return this year to dig sites in Syria, Jordan and some places in southern Turkey. In many cases it is impossible to get insurance for staff and students. Researchers in Egypt are growing wary, and nascent plans for reviving long-suspended operations in Iran have been abandoned.

Archaeology in Israel, already curtailed by internal hostilities, is expected to suffer further interruptions, with almost none of 30 American excavations likely to be operating soon. At one of the largest sites, the ruins of the old Philistine city of Ashkelon, archaeologists have not dug a pit for two years and will not return this summer.

Even Israeli teams that often work through the worst of times have decided not to dig this year.

"Everybody's nervous, and virtually everybody's canceled," said Dr. Rudolph Dornemann, executive director of the American Schools of Oriental Research, which coordinates archaeological work in Israel, Jordan, Syria and elsewhere in the region.

Even those who have not yet called off this summer's dig season say they will have to make a decision in the next few weeks. They are not optimistic.

"I want to go into the field, but I don't want to walk into a war zone," said Dr. Richard Zettler of the University of Pennsylvania, who has directed excavations in Syria at Tell Sweyhat, once considered safely distant from the Iraqi border.

Archaeologists have set aside their individual concerns and have tried to alert American officials to the cultural devastation that war and its aftermath could bring to the land of the oldest civilization, where urban life and the written word originated some 5,500 years ago.

Leading archaeologists and representatives of cultural groups have conferred with officials of the State and Defense Departments, stressing the importance of compliance with the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.

The treaty obligates combatants not to target cultural sites and monuments except where military installations have been placed on or next to them. The United States signed but did not ratify the treaty.

At the invitation of the Pentagon, archaeologists have provided military planners with the locations of hundreds of Iraq's outstanding ruins from antiquity. But the entire country, experts say, is an archaeological site.

"We've gone about as far as we can go," said Dr. McGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago, one of the archaeologists who met with Pentagon officials. "We reminded them that there are no natural hills in southern Iraq, and if you see a hill, in most cases it's the mound of a buried ancient settlement."

As a legal adviser to the Archaeological Institute of America, Dr. Patty Gerstenblith, a law professor at De Paul University in Chicago, participated in some of the discussions and said the Pentagon seemed "very receptive, at least in terms of taking our information."

"They realize that our attitude toward cultural and religious treasures is very important to world opinion," Dr. Gerstenblith said. "And it may be especially important in dealings with Iraq's neighbors in the Middle East."

1 | 2 | Next>>

Earliest Known Fake Stone Is Discovered in Southern Iraq  (June 30, 1998)  $

Thieves Methodically Strip Iraq Of Treasures From a Storied Past  (March 15, 1998)  $

Another Ancient Innovation: City Planning  (May 13, 1997)  $

Ancient, Priceless And Gone With the War  (December 8, 1996)  $

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John Malcolm Russell, Massachusetts College of Art
The ziggurat of the temple of Enlil, king of the gods, in Nippur, a city at the heart of Babylonia from about 5000 B.C. to A.D. 1000. At top is a dig house from the 1890's.


Iraq's Archaeological Sites

Slide Show:  Iraq's Archaeological Sites

Archaeological Sites in Iraq

Map:  Archaeological Sites in Iraq

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Iraqi workers clean a statue of a winged bull. A war would stop digs across the region and could destroy early Mesopotamian cities.

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