The destruction of heritage in Iraq since 2003

Lecture transcript

Dr Benjamin Isakhan, 6 September 2012

Adrienne:  Good evening, everybody. Welcome to this evening's lecture co‑hosted by the University of Melbourne and Museum Victoria.

This lecture program is part of the Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia exhibition.

Tonight's lecture on The Destruction of Heritage in Iraq since 2003 will be presented by Dr. Benjamin Isakhan. Benjamin is an Australian Research Council Discovery Research Fellow (which is a long title) at The Center for Citizenship and Globalization at Deacon University.

He has published widely on the politics and history of Iraq and his current research includes the ARC‑funded project Measuring the Destruction of Heritage and Spikes of Violence in Iraq. This is his second lecture in the series so please join me in welcoming Dr. Benjamin Isakhan to the stage.

Benjamin Isakhan:  Good evening, everybody and thank you very much for being here this evening. I'd like to begin by thanking Adrienne for the very kind introduction. This is my last lecture here as part of this series and part of this exhibition, and I'd like to take the opportunity now to thank the Melbourne Museum for having hosted this fantastic exhibition.

Anybody who has been through it I'm sure would agree that this is a world‑class exhibition and a once‑in‑a‑lifetime opportunity to see ancient Mesopotamian heritage here in Melbourne. If you haven't been through it, I strongly encourage you to go through it because it really is a world‑class effort and they really deserve a lot of kudos for having worked so diligently behind the scenes to put it together.

I'd also like to thank the Melbourne Museum for inviting me to come along to give this lecture. It's a real honor to be here and a real pleasure to be here to present to you today. I think it's a great initiative to bring scholars and researchers who are looking at aspects of ancient Mesopotamia and bring us into a forum like this to talk to aspects of the exhibition and to bring us out of our ivory towers. My office looks nothing like an ivory tower, looks a little bit more like a deep, dark dungeon. But to bring us out of that environment and to bring us here and enable us to talk to aspects of the exhibition.

Most of the lectures in this series, probably all the lectures in this series, really are a celebration of ancient Mesopotamian heritage and document. I've been to all of them so I've been a real avid fan of this lecture series, including of my own. They document and celebrate various aspects of the many great achievements of ancient Mesopotamia. Unfortunately, tonight I don't have the leisure of talking about such celebrations. Tonight's topic is not really a celebration at all, in fact it's a very tragic story. It's a very sad story and it's the story of all the destruction that has gone on and all the looting that has gone on, of ancient Mesopotamian heritage in Iraq since 2003.

I'm sorry to have to take such a serious tone and such a downbeat tone, but tonight's lecture is...there is no happy ending to this story, there is no silver lining to this cloud, there isn't anything that I could say that is going to make it a happy story. It's in fact a terrible story.

My only comfort is in the hope that in some small way a lecture like this prevents it from ever happening again. Hopefully we can all reflect on the tragedy of what happens during times of conflict when heritage is subject to this kind of looting and destruction. Hopefully that reflecting on that can have some impact in future conflicts scenarios.

I also want to begin by acknowledging that tonight's lecture deals with a very controversial and sensitive topic. The decision to go to war in 2003 was a remarkably unpopular decision. It was unpopular here in Australia, it was unpopular in the US, it was unpopular in the UK, it was unpopular right across Europe, it was unpopular of course in the Middle East, and it was very unpopular even in Iraq, as you would suspect.

There are many great tragedies that have unfolded since the onset of the war in 2003 and I'm not going to recount all of them to you. They've become the stuff of household legend now, the massive civilian casualties, the bungled occupation, the abject failures of various aspects of the Iraqi government, the rampant corruption and the destitution and the crumbling infrastructure that surrounds the Iraqi people today.

So this topic is very sensitive and a very difficult one to deal with and I know there will be a lot of people here tonight who have very strong opinions on the Iraq conflict and I certainly have my own strong opinions on the Iraq conflict and I've been talking and writing about these opinions for about a decade now.

But I'm not here tonight to engage in a robust debate about the pros and cons of the Iraq war. I'm not here to inflame passions and I'm also not here to allocate blame. What I am here tonight to do is to simply document, in as factual a way as possible the devastating destruction and looting that has gone on in Iraq since 2003. With that huge caveat, and I apologize for the size of the caveat that has to start a lecture like this, I think we can move forward to a moment that I'm sure most of you remember, which is the fall of Baghdad on the ninth of April, 2003.

Of course, one of the first thing that happens is the tearing down of the giant bronze statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in central Baghdad. I'm sure many of you remember this moment. I recently gave a lecture to university students and when I said I'm sure many of you remember it, they sort of looked at me dumbfounded and it made me feel very old to realize that many of these people were nine or eight years old when this happened.

But I think that looking out, from what I can see most of you are old enough to remember the fall of Baghdad in 2003. What happens immediately after this moment, this fall of Baghdad in April of 2003 is about five days from the 10th to the 15th of April of rampant looting and historical destruction that engulfs the country and is a tragic, tragic story and a terrible indictment, I think, of the beginning of this war and of the fall of the former regime and everything that has happened since.

I want to talk to you about a couple of examples because I think they really set the tone for what I'm going to talk to you about after that, about some of the archaeological sites. One of the most internationally well‑known and the biggest amount of international outcry came following what you may also remember which is the looting and destruction that went on here at the Iraq National Museum. In these attacks, about 300 or 400 people rampaged through the museum armed with things like hammers, crowbars, sticks, Kalashnikovs, daggers, and bayonets. Once it began, the looting occurred in waves over three or four days.

In fact, we can separate here, there were two types of looters going through the museum. On the one hand we have the people who knew exactly what they were doing. They knew where the most precious antiquities were and the most valuable antiquities and artifacts were. They went straight to them with professional machinery to rip them out of their cabinets or to take them off their stands and were able to drag them out as efficiently as possible from the museum and take them away.

The other type of looting was what we might call opportunistic bandits who rampaged through the museum, taking whatever they thought might be of some value and smashing basically everything else. You can see here the kind of destruction that went on. It's an amazing photo. All these files on the ground for no reason. People have torn through all kinds of paperwork there. They've torn things over. They've thrown things down. They've done everything they can to loot and smash their way through the museum and to get anything out that they thought might be of value.

This is another shot. You can see the devastation here in this man's pose, here. You can see that once the looting had subsided and the museum staff were able to reenter the building, they found this kind of thing everywhere, that they had smashed and stolen and destroyed as much as they could.

I want to read to you a quote from the former director of the museum, a gentleman by the name of Donny George, who I had the pleasure to meet in 2009. He says, "15,000 objects were stolen from the galleries and stores of the museum, including a Abbasid wooden doors, Sumerian, Acadian, and Hadrian statues, around 5,000 cylinder seals from different periods, gold and silver material, along with necklaces, pendants and other pottery material, what they could not take, they smashed and destroyed." It was an amazing period of looting and destruction going on here.

I wanted to show you one example. This is the famous Bull Lyre of Ur. It's from around 2550 BCE. That means, I'm not very good at maths, but bear with me, it means it's about four and a half thousand years old. This is an old harp dug out of an archeological site called Ur. The great death pits of Ur are a part of the exhibition here. This was in the museum. This is the object how it's intended to look, and this is what has happened to the Bull Lyre of Ur at the time of the destruction.

This is just one example of many that I could go through for you in detail. You can see that the bull's head is gone. You can see that the harp has been destroyed. You can see that gold strips have been stripped off the handles and other parts of the object, presumably stolen and taken away and melted down for whatever value they could get. I also find that these photos are as interesting in what surrounds them. You can see bits of broken pottery and bits and pieces of stuff everywhere. This is absolute chaos that goes on in this museum at this point.

I also wanted to talk to you about another example. This is the Iraq National Library and Archive. In the foreground, there, you can see that a statue has been torn down. In the background you can see the black stains on the building. Those stains are from fire that was set inside the Iraq National Library and Archive.

In fact, the looters, people who did this were so organized that they brought with them what's called white phosphorous, which is a type of chemical. Again, I don't know much about maths and I don't know much about chemistry, but it's a type of chemical that I think burns at an incredibly high temperature, and therefore capable of doing mass destruction.

If I take you inside the Iraq National Library and Archive, you can see the kind of damage that has been done. This is a filing cabinet, presumably holding all kinds of records, birth certificates, deaths, marriages, so on and so on and so on. I'm not actually sure what this filing cabinet held, but all kinds of records from the past. What you can also see, under the feet of the gentleman standing there on top of the filing cabinets is piles of ash. All of these things that have been set alight and destroyed, within the Iraq National Library and Archive.

Let me read to you another quote. "Approximately 25 percent of the book collections were looted or burned. A full 60 percent of the archival collections were consumed by the fires, including much of the Ottoman era documents, most of the royal Hashemite era documents, and all of those from the Republican period. The INLA also lost about 98 percent of its maps and photographs." Another estimate says that almost a million books were destroyed, and that about 10 million documents disappeared from the INLA during this very short period, five days of destruction.

I guess I wanted to reflect just a little bit, to add some context to this. We're here in a museum, tonight. I'm going to make the assumption, I think it's a fairly safe assumption, that most of you understand the implicit, intrinsic value of museums and libraries. These institutions connect us to our past. They are our heritage, they're the living embodiment of our heritage. They tell us who we are. What's in these museums and libraries and archives tell us who we are and where we came from.

My wife and I sometimes watch this program, "Who Do You Think You Are?" Have you seen this program? Where they take famous Australian or British people back through their heritage and trace where they came from and so on and so on. Inevitably, in every episode I've seen, they go to museums, archives and libraries. Why? Because they're the important treasure trove of how we find out about where we came from and who we are.

Now what happens to a nation? What happens to a culture when their libraries, when their museums, when their archives are destroyed like this? What happens to your connection to your past? What happens to that idea of heritage? These are incredibly important questions, questions that we don't fully understand. The ramifications of this kind of destruction.

As I said it's not a happy story tonight, but bear with me.

Actually though, the topic of tonight's lecture is not about the museum or the library or the archive, it's about archeological sites. I wanted to give you some context of archeological sites and how many there are. This is a map that details only a fraction of the archeological sites in Iraq. You can see it's a map littered with archeology. In fact, there is an estimated half a million archeological sites in Iraq. We have a registered list of 25,000 archeological sites. This map doesn't even do justice to a fraction of the 25,000 archeological sites. As you can see they are scattered right throughout the country.

Every corner of Iraq has very important archeological sites right across the nation. These are very sensitive and important historical sites. It's a country awash in important archeology and we only know a fraction of it.

In fact, I can't do justice in the time that's remaining tonight to go through all of the destruction that has gone on at these various archeological sites across Iraq. What I have done is I've brought along some papers that actually have more detail, they're at the front here. I brought them the last time I gave a lecture as well. If anybody wants to read more about some of the archaeological destruction that's gone on in Mesopotamia and in Iraq since 2003, I have some papers here. I'm happy for you to take them away and we can talk more via email and so on and so on.

Tonight what I'm going to do is focus on two types of destruction that is being done to archaeological sites. The first category we're going to look at is the use of archaeological sites by the coalition, by the occupying forces, as military bases. That's the first type that we're going to look at. The second type that we're going to look at is the looting by these professional groups of thieves and looters, and the smuggling out of antiquities from archaeological sites. There's two examples each, that means we're going to look at four particular sites.

The first, and probably the most devastating of all, is the ancient city of Babylon. Anybody who knows anything about ancient Mesopotamia will know of the ancient city of Babylon. It is arguably Mesopotamia's most important city‑state, and it's certainly one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. We cannot underestimate the archaeological significance of the ancient city of Babylon.

The story starts around 3000 BCE, when Babylon was a small city‑state, but by about 1800 BCE came to serve as the capital of the Babylonian Empire. Let me give you a few key facts about ancient Babylon, in order to contextualize, if you like, its archaeological significance. Babylon is of course home to the famous King Hammurabi. Anybody who has been through the exhibition has seen here the "Hammurabi Code", which is the set of very significant legal prescriptions that Hammurabi organized for his empire and for his kingdom.

King Nebuchadnezzar was also in Babylon, and he created the famous Ishtar gates. If you've been through the exhibition you've stood in front of these two enormous blue pillars, which are part of the Ishtar gates.

Also, Babylon is ‑‑ and we're not 100 percent sure of this, but let's just say for now ‑‑ it's the home of the hanging gardens of Babylon, although there's some conjecture about where these hanging gardens were. It's also possibly the site of the biblical "Tower of Babel," and importantly, another historical footnote, is that Alexander the Great made Babylon his capital, and died there in 323 BCE.

I also want to talk briefly, I don't have time to go into this in the kind of detail that I would love to, because I actually find this topic really interesting, and I've written about it and stuff, but interestingly, the Baathist regime took a great interest in ancient Mesopotamia. Because if nothing else ‑‑ and it was other things ‑‑ it was a way of showing off, if you like, Iraq's great accomplishments. It was also a way of connecting the significance of the past, and of that heritage, to the contemporary Baathist ideology.

As I say I don't have time to go into that, but it's a whole other lecture that I could certainly give another time.

Part of this project, he rebuilt many significant archaeological sites across Iraq, and one of the ones that he rebuilt is Babylon. You can see in this image in the foreground, you can see parts of the ancient city of Babylon, and in the background you can see where part of it has been rebuilt by Saddam Hussein.

An interesting footnote that I wanted to tell you was that when Nebuchadnezzar had the city built, he stamped onto every brick, "in the name of the mighty and the great Nebuchadnezzar." When Saddam Hussein had the city rebuilt, he stamped onto every brick, "in the reign of the mighty and the great Saddam Hussein." You can see here this kind of curiosity and this fascination he had with the politics of the ancient world, and his attempt to connect his regime to it.

In April of 2003 the coalition turned the ancient city of Babylon into a military base, which they called "Camp Alpha." I think it's safe to say this would be the first time bagpipes were ever played at Babylon. I don't know about you, but I find this incredibly insensitive. The use of an ancient archaeological site to hold military ceremonies by a foreign, occupying force. To me it's inconceivable that you would do this. To me it's absolutely inconceivable, and unjustifiable.

How could you use one of the most important archaeological sites in the world as a military base? Just inconceivable, in my view. Other people may disagree, and may see a certain logic to it, but I personally can't. They also did, while they were there, a great deal of damage to the site. I just want to show you this briefly. This is April 2003. The time of the war. This is what the ancient city of Babylon looked like. This is just part of the site, the main part of the site is actually over this way, but this is just part of the site. You can see there's a couple of roads, there's an office building here, and some other things and so on.

What I want to emphasize is that the ancient city‑states of Mesopotamia were no different to great city‑states today like Melbourne, in the sense that they had sprawling, outlying suburbs, that went on for miles. That these suburbs are incredibly important, archaeologically. It's in those suburbs ‑‑ often we find very interesting things, of course, in the great palaces and temples and so on ‑‑ but our insight into the day‑to‑day life of the average Mesopotamian often comes from these outer suburbs.

Archaeologically, all of this region could be of archaeological significance. There could be relics and things, this is not excavated, there could be all kinds of relics and interesting things underneath the ground here. This is April 2003. This is October 2004, and you can see here, I don't have to go through it in detail, you can see here the amount of buildings right up close to the site. All along here, this car park, various areas, all this stuff, all of the buildings that have happened. Helipads, and so on and so on that have been built through the site.

This is turning an ancient archaeological site into a military base. This is what they did. I want to read to you, I apologize in advance for the length of this quote, but I want to read to you what I think is the best summary of the damage that has been done here at Babylon. "The troops dug a series of approximately eight trenches, and fourteen pits in and around the site, ranging up to 600^2 meters in size. The soil ‑‑ let me paint you a visual ‑‑ the soil as you dig these sites, the soil that is coming out of the earth is riddled with artifacts from the ancient world.

We're talking about cuneiform tablets, we're talking about pots, we're talking about plates, we're talking about cylinder seals, we're talking about all kinds of artifacts being inexpertly and haphazardly drawn from the ground. The earth, much of it riddled with artifacts, was then used to construct barriers, to fill sandbags, and to develop roads. They also scraped and leveled parts of the site in order to build a car park for military and other heavy equipment, to build living quarters, and to build two helipads.

They covered the site in barbed wire that was pinned down by two‑tonne concrete blocks, and of course underneath the've got to imagine what an archaeological site looks like on a profile. What you've got is a whole series of catacombs that are underneath the earth, and they're very fragile, you know?

These things have been here for 5000 years, and there's these pockets of air, and so on. On the surface, it might look like nothing. In fact you could drive a tank over it, not know that underneath the ground all of these different catacombs and pockets are collapsing. This is how a lot of destruction is done.

They have these two‑tonne concrete blocks, the damage also includes that done to the Ishtar gate which we mentioned before and is here in the museum, and the procession street of the ancient city. For example, nine of the animal bodies that adorned the Ishtar gate and represent the mythical god Marduke ‑‑ and if you knew anything about Marduke you would never insult him in this way, because he was a very powerful guy ‑‑ went missing. Went completely missing from the Ishtar gate. We do not know where they are to this day.

I also wanted to tell you about another base that was set up at an ancient archaeological site, the city of Ur, that was set up in April 2003. Like Babylon, it probably first emerged around 3000 BCE, and it was an incredibly important city because at the time of its building it was very close to a river, so it was a very important trading, agricultural, economic hub.

I wanted to tell you a couple of things about Ur to indicate its significance to you. It's the home of the great "death pits" of Ur, which you've probably heard about, documented in the museum here, a couple of lectures have been on them, and so on. Also, it's the home of the Bull Lyre, the harp thing that I showed you at the beginning. That's one of the things that came out of the great death pits there.

This is the Standard of Ur, which shows on the first side, on the top, you can see the King going into battle and winning, and you can even see as much detail as the enemy being crushed underneath the weight of the horses and so on. Here we have the victory celebration, the victory celebration after they win the battle.

There was a great ziggurat at Ur, which was built around 2100 BCE, which we'll look at in a minute. Also, Ur is commonly thought to be the birthplace of the biblical figure Abraham, who of course is, if you like, the father, or the great‑great‑great‑grandfather of the three monotheistic faiths of the Middle East: Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

Like Babylon, Ur also was partially rebuilt by Saddam Hussein and the former Baathist regime, and you can see here, at the very top you can see some coalition troops. The sort of rubble that sticks out of the top there is parts of the ancient archaeological site, and various parts of this ziggurat and staircase and so on are original, and much of the rest of it was rebuilt by the Baathist regime in the 1980s.

I want to point out, though, that there is a big difference between Ur and Babylon ‑‑ personally, it doesn't justify anything to me ‑‑ but Ur was in fact an established military base at the time of the war in 2003. It was called Tallil Airbase, it was used by the Baathist regime in the 1991 Gulf War, and you can see a picture of it here with its runways and with various camps and fences, and railway, and roads, and you can see how close Ur is to the military base. Right next door.

After the start of the 2003 war the coalition occupied the site and turned it into what they call "Camp Adder". I think it's really important, this is a important footnote: Australian troops were based here at Ur, at Tallil Airbase. In fact they were there up until as recently as June 2008. We often ‑‑ I don't want to go into the politics of this ‑‑ but we often allocate blame and talk about the the US and so on and so on, but Australian troops were here, were at Ur, and were part of this military base here.

As you can see, like at Babylon, the troops seem to have had no problem staging their military ceremonies, or using the site. They had free and unfettered access to the site until much later, until about 2009 I think it was, that you needed to get special permission from the chaplain, for some reason, in order to be able to visit the archaeological site. Prior to that, you could freely go up and visit the site any time you had time off and wanted to have a look around. Not policed, not restricted, who knows the damage that they did, who knows what they took away with them and so on.

They also had no problem, just like at Babylon, they had no problem building a whole heap of different buildings. They built air traffic control towers, they built living quarters, they built officer's messes, they built helipads, they built where you refuel petrol. All kinds of different parts to the military base to modernize it, if you like, into a more useful base for them.

They also went as far as installing a Pizza Hut and a Burger King at Ur. Again, I don't know how you measure this. I don't know, some people will be comfortable with it and think, "Troops have to eat, why not set up a Burger King or Pizza Hut." To me it's deeply offensive, the idea that you could use an ancient archaeological site to serve very bad fast food. Somehow I just cannot reconcile that as an idea. I cannot help but see it as completely insensitive to set up these kind of places at these sites.

Of course, just like at Babylon, they did a great deal of damage. Again, another quote, just to reiterate the kind of damage that's going on at these sites. "The most serious incidents of damage is around the new front gate," the visitor's control center of the air base, "that has been established about 1.5 kilometers to the north of the old main gate.

"Troops have dug up earth from the immediate location," this is what I was telling you before, just digging it out, "including potsherds," which are relics and bits and pieces of archaeological material. "There is at least one trench, about 15 to 20 meters long and one meter deep, dug through deposits with archaeological material. "There are many potsherds in the sections and in the spoil tips." Spoil tip is when you dig and you throw the stuff to the side.

I just want to add one more detail that I didn't add before. Some of these objects are 5,000 years old and haven't seen sun or rain in all of that time. If they're dug out of the ground and left in a spoil tip beside, what do you think happens the day that it rains or the day that the wind comes or the day that there's a lot of sun? These things are brittle, fragile, archaeological relics that have been buried deep for 5,000 years. The moment they see sun and rain, they fall apart. These things will be gone forever.

In order to construct the gate, many underground cables and parts have been laid. I think the most important thing is that this gate has been established in an area that has never been properly excavated. Remember I told you when we looked at Babylon, that many important stuff is found in the outer lying suburbs. Just as we have, I don't know, Broad Meadows or Keilor or wherever, which may or may not prove to be significant archaeologically, the ancient outlying suburbs of these ancient Mesopotamian cities are, in fact, incredibly important, archaeologically.

Here's one that has never been excavated, a suburb of Ur, and they're digging and smashing their way through.

I said to you we were going to look at four examples, two of them being archaeological sites that we used as military bases and two of them are being archaeological sites that have been heavily looted. This is a different story now. This is, perhaps, even more tragic. If you thought that was bad, I'm sorry to have to again be the bearer of bad news but it actually gets worse. Iraq has been home to systematic and systemic looting throughout many of its ancient archaeological sites since 2003.

There are, like with the museum, there are two types of looters. There are, if you like, what we might call "destitute farmers," desperate to make a dollar out of anything that they can. The Iran‑Iraq War, the 1991 War, the devastating sanctions of the 90s, the 2003 War, has left many people in abject poverty, and some of them have resorted to doing looting in order to make a dollar.

Of course, there's the other side, and these are the incredibly sophisticated, organized, highly‑orchestrated efforts of professional people who know exactly what they're doing. These are highly coordinated efforts of black market, international operatives.

I want to read to you another quote. I've got a lot of quotes tonight, I hope you don't mind. "Rampant daily looting continues across the country and it is difficult to police. To give an example of the scale of the problem, some sites are systematically looted by around 300 people using bulldozers and taking truckloads, literally truckloads of artifacts out of these sites whilst being guarded by about 40 men with Kalashnikovs."

In fact she goes on to say, "The thieves may have unearthed more artifacts since the 2003 invasion than archeologists have excavated in decades." I'll come back to that point at the end because I think it's very important. In fact they smuggle these things out of Iraq and on to the international black market. Let me give you a clue as to why they do it. One artifact that has cuneiform on it, that is a cylinder seal that has some sort of image or picture on it, fetches about $50 for the looter, which is incredible. Which is a great salary in Iraq.

That, then, is given to the middlemen. The middlemen put all of this stuff together. They smuggle it out of Iraq, into Jordan, into Iran, into Saudi Arabia, into a number of neighboring countries, and here they sell them for around 700 dollars an item. Then, they're flown or shipped or illegally smuggled to Moscow, to Tokyo, to New York, to Paris, to London, and they fetch up to 50,000 dollars per item. This tells you, from the 50 dollars that the guy gets, the destitute farmer or the professional thief or whatever he is gets, ripping it out of the ground, up to 50,000 dollars that the person gets who ultimately sells it on the black market for antiquities in fancy places like London or Tokyo.

Let's take a quick look at what they do. This is an archaeological site. I don't know which one it is. I just want to explain to you a little bit about what it looks like. In the background, you can see the walls, if you like, of the city, and probably a temple or a palace building and some other important buildings. As I've been saying all lecture, these are the sort of outlying suburbs of ancient Mesopotamia around here.

Every one of these, I want you to look at what... Normally, this would look like a flat field. You wouldn't really know that it was part of an ancient archaeological site, apart from where the walls are and stuff. I just want to explain to you, every one of these that you can see, this black hole here, here, here. Every one of those is where someone has inexpertly, unscientifically dug and smashed their way through the ancient catacombs, under this archaeological site, to dig out anything that they can find of value.

That turns it into a kind of lunar scene. You can see these craters and the mounds beside each of the craters. Every one of those is an example of someone looting an ancient archaeological site. Let's have a look up close. This is what it looks like. This would be one of those craters that we saw a second ago. You can see that they have shovels and stuff, they have buckets, they have, there's trays and whatever for carrying the stuff around.

You can see, in this photo, three coalition troops, more or less powerless to do anything in this situation. You can see, if you look, and I love this photo, because it's a vast photo. It shows you 10 or 20 or maybe 30 people in the background, all digging and smashing their way through the ancient city in order to dig out anything that they can find off value.

Another great example is this site again. I don't know what site this is, I apologize for that. I bet it's in the south of Iraq is in February 2003 looks just like a flat field with nothing to discern there from the aerial shot, even August 2003 doesn't look too bad, but by the time you get to December of 2003, you can see that this whole area here has been turned into a kind of a looting site.

Has been turned into pockmarked and down here as well. Then by December 2005 the looting continues. I wanted to look at a few specific examples tonight. I said we're going to look at four sites these are the two I wanted to look at in a little bit more detail there among the more devastating in my view. One is the ancient city of Umma; this site dates back to around 2500 BC and was in fact a very important city‑state of ancient Mesopotamia. Umma had many famous and great contributions to human civilization one of them in fact is the famous Umma calendar.

Maybe you've heard about this. Why is the calendar so famous and so important? Historically well in fact, it's from around 2,300 BC so almost four and half thousands years ago. Why is it important? Why is it relevant? It divides the year into 12 lunar months. Sounds familiar? Those lunar months are between 28 and 31 days long. The year is made up of 52 weeks each of them seven days and the 7th day was for rest and making sacrifices, and offerings, and worship. In fact is widely understood the calendar of our influence, the Hebrew calendar and of course there that we get our own calendar, more than 4,000 years later.

This is another example. The map of Umma, which dates, also, from around 2,300 BC, and it's pretty crude by today's cartography standards. You certainly wouldn't go at getting around Melbourne with this as your map. But what it does show is the city itself, and surrounding the city, different estates, blocks of land, and who owns each of these estates, and how much land they own is documented on this map.

This, too, is a very important and significant site and shows, if you like, early town planning and keeping track of who owns what parts of the city.

As you can see here, this is the looting that has gone on. This is a photo of Umma in 2003.

I think the image, in many ways, speaks for itself. This is it in 2003. You cannot see a single pit dug into the site. By 2010, you can see, literally, thousands of black dots scattered right across the site here. Each of which is, as I have said several times, unsystematically, unscientifically, ripping and smashing your way through the ancient world in order to dig out anything that is of value.

It almost looks like Umma contracted a really bad case of acne in seven years. This terrible, amazing devastation that's gone on.

They also did a great deal of damage to the facade of the temple of Umma. Here is a picture, unfortunate I don't have a before picture, but here's a picture of, you can see many of these bricks and elements of the wall, of the facade that have been torn down and spilled over and fallen down and so on. This is an incredibly important and incredibly devastating destruction that has gone on.

Another site that I wanted to tell you about, and this is my last one for tonight, we're running quickly out of time, is, in fact, the site of Nineveh.

Nineveh is another very important ancient archaeological site. It dates back to at least 3,000 BCE, where it was an important religious and economic hub before it became the capital of the neo‑Assyrian empire from around 934 BCE. Nineveh is, in fact, home to this, the great palace of Sennacherib and you can see here, of course it's an artist impression so it's not a real image of it, but you can see here the amazing reliefs carved into the walls, the brightly colored paintings of the palace. It was known in its time as the "Palace without Rival."

It was an incredible sight to see by all accounts. It had around 80 rooms and was an incredibly impressive place.

Nineveh is also the sight of the Library of King Ashurbanipal and anybody who's been through the exhibition will know about the Library of King Ashurbanipal which of course housed thousands of Assyrian, Babylonia, and many other texts from across the ancient Mesopotamian region.

Nineveh is also the city ‑ and I think it's just interesting to connect it to some of the stories that people are more familiar with ‑ Nineveh is also the city that was visited by the biblical figure, Jonah, who of course is most famous for having been swallowed by a whale and living in a whale for three or four days or a giant fish. He of course also visited Nineveh and told the people to repent and so on.

Nineveh has been severely looted since 2003. I just want to explain what this photo shows to you first. Firstly, you can see the brick walls. These brick walls are built some time in the last few decades. They're not part of the ancient archeological site. In fact, they were built in order to house these metal trusses that go across the top of the site on top of which were corrugated iron. The corrugated iron was there to protect and shelter the site from the elements. You can see that every last centimeter of corrugated iron has disappeared as part of the looting and the destruction that has gone on.

What you can also see here. This is part of the ancient site. These are the walls of the ancient city, all around the site. Now, not all of the destruction that has gone on at Nineveh has gone on recently. In fact, the city of Nineveh has suffered from all kinds of things from when it first fell right through of course from the elements and from thousands of years of rain and damage and this and that and people taking things and destroying things and graffiting. Thousands of years of damage has occurred but nonetheless a huge amount of significant damage has actually been done to the site since 2003.

I wanted to show you this image here. This image. There's a couple of things to notice. Firstly, we can see where the wall would have been, where the gentleman is standing and where the wall would have come. You can see, if you look closely down here, and this is why this wall would have been significant to looters. I'm not sure how clear it is, but can you see a sort of figure standing out around about here?

These reliefs had figures carved into them, all across. Of course, anything with a picture on it or writing on it was very valuable to looters, because otherwise, it just looked like another rock. Why would you want a rock? What you can see here, as well, is the white color of the stone. This is the evidence of it being recently destroyed. When it's this kind of chalky color, it's been recently destroyed and torn down. In the foreground, you can see all the bits that they tore down that didn't have pictures on it that they didn't like or couldn't carry away or whatever.

They've destroyed the wall and they have taken as much of it as they can, taken it away and it's disappeared. We don't know where it is, we don't know if we'll ever see it again. The looting at sites like Umma and Nineveh and thousands of other archaeological sites across Iraq continues unabated today. The most devastating thing about it is we know a little bit about Nineveh, we know a little bit about Umma, and many of the other ones. But we know nothing about hundreds of other sites that have been looted in a very similar fashion and thousands of objects have been destroyed.

One archaeologist by the name of John Malcolm Russell has, I know him. He has estimated that from 2003 to 2005, just two years, consider there's been seven years of this going on since then. But in just the first two years, in 2003 to 2005, around about, his estimate, 400,000 to 600,000 objects have been taken out of the ground. As I said, unsystematically, unscientifically ripped out of the earth.

Let me tell you something else. Everything we know about ancient Mesopotamia today is based on about 150,000 to 200,000 objects. What they've taken in those two years is four times more than the amount we have, that has been expertly taken out by archaeologists and studied in detail. That means everything we know times four we could've known. But this material is gone, it's lost forever.

Now, the thing that I want to emphasize, I'm sure it’s occurred to some of you and I'm sure you're thinking of this, and again I don't want to be the bearer of bad news, but I am afraid that I have to be. You might be sitting there thinking, "Why don't we mount an international effort to reclaim all of these archaeological sites. Let's get everyone of these cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals and so on back, and then we can study them and understand them and then we can regain our knowledge of ancient Mesopotamia."

I wish that that were true and that that were possible. But the problem is when an archaeological relic is taken out of the ground, inexpertly and unscientifically it loses about 90% of its scientific value. That means it loses two really important things to the science of archeology. These things are context and association.

Now let me show you a very important quote. This quote, this is my final quote. I know I'm boring you to death with quotes, but this is the last one for the evening. This is from Gil Stein, who is the director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. I know him. He's an excellent scholar and archaeologist. This is going to help you put this into context, I think, he says "Taken together, context and association are the most powerful scientific tools we can use to reconstruct how an ancient civilization developed and functioned.

Once an artifact has been ripped from the ground by looters, that fragile and priceless information on context and association is irrevocably lost and with it is one more piece of the record on how we as human beings developed the world's first cities, first literature, and the arts of civilization."

Thank you very much for your time and for your attention this evening. I hope what I had to say was of interest and of value. Again, I apologize you're all going to be very depressed for the rest of the evening. Go home and watch "Big Brother" or "Master Chef" or something and lighten your mood. I have as I said some papers here if anybody's interested to find out more. I'm happy to talk or to be in touch via email. I'm in fact going to Iraq very soon to do some assessments of some historic sites there.

I'm involved in a much bigger and broader project that I haven't had time to go into tonight. Thank you once again to the Melbourne Museum for inviting me to be part of the lecture. It's been a real privilege and have a great evening.

Adrienne:   I would like you to all put your hands together and thank Benjamin again. Thank you very much for coming along. It's lovely to see you. Have a lovely evening. Good night.

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