Graft and security issues feed the trade in Iraq’s past
Do you want to buy a more than 3,000-year-old Sumerian tablet, listed as the property of a gentleman from Sussex in England and passed down as a family heirloom? On auction site liveauctioneers.com, bidding for the “Sumerian clay tablet” starts at 550 pounds ($750).
The item weighs just 70 grams but bears traces of cuneiform writing, the oldest recorded in the world, and is listed as “Property of a West Sussex, UK, gentleman.” This example comes with letters of provenance by experts.
But the ownership history of some such objects can be harder to prove.
They may not have been handed down but handed on, via smugglers and middlemen.
The boom in looted objects from antiquity is a real problem in Iraq, where corruption is prevalent and archaeological sites are poorly protected.
For some objects, it can be hard to prove that it was not in fact stolen from lands where the Sumerian empire stood in the 4th millennium B.C.
Chris Wren, from the British firm TimeLine Auctions, parent company of liveauctioneers.com, says they are aware “of the potential for looted, smuggled or other stolen materials” to come onto the market.
“We spend a great deal of effort and money in seeking to weed such possibilities out,” he said.
Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians all trod on the ancient land that is now Iraq, and that makes it a land of choice for smugglers.
It teems with archaeological sites where traffickers engage in “random exhumations”, said Laith Majid Hussein, director of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage.
“We don’t have statistics on the number of antiquities that end up as contraband,” Majid said.
Corruption and the prevalence of armed groups have encouraged the growth of this lucrative business. The lack of resources to protect Iraq’s ancient sites is dire.
In a country where an estimated 27 percent of the 40 million citizens live below the poverty line, the authorities say they have other priorities.
Iraq’s ancient sites are concentrated in the south, around Kut, Samawa and Nasiriyah.
From there, smugglers transport their booty to the southern marshes, and to Amara, a city not far from Iran, which has become a “hub for antiquities trafficking,” according to an archaeologist.
The stolen antiquities are then taken into Iran “to cross the sea in fishing boats to the Gulf countries,” he said. Alternatively, they may be smuggled overland across Iraq’s western desert.