CAIRO (AFP) - Archaeology in Iraq
these days, explains the new caretaker of the country's 5,000-year-old heritage, is less about making new discoveries than finding out what has already been stolen.We need a government that takes responsibility for protecting the monuments of all Iraqis," antiquities director Abbas Ali al-Hussainy told AFP in an interview during a recent visit to Cairo. "Right now we need to take measures to figure out where the sites are and know the extent of the damage and looting at each one," said the slight, bespectacled man.
The pillaging of the Iraqi National Museum in the immediate aftermath of Baghdad's fall in April 2003 shocked the world.
But while many of those antiquities have since been recovered, looting has taken off in the archaeological sites scattered around the perilous countryside.
At a November conference in London on archaeology in conflict zones, Hussainy launched an appeal to all foreigners who had worked in Iraq to send him details of their excavations since the meticulous records kept by the previous regime had all been looted.
"At the archaeological sites of ancient Sumer (in the south), we have lost entire cities from one of the most important periods of human history," he said, listing the cities that had been pillaged.
"There are sites where the looters have made excavations down five meters (16 feet)."
US archaeologists studying satellite photos of Iraqi sites have compared the excavation craters left by looters to the surface of the moon.
Now Hussainy and his badly underfunded and understaffed State Board of Antiquities and Heritage is conducting surveys and inventories of provincial museums to establish exactly what remains in the country.
"The catastrophe is that many of the artefacts that were smuggled out are not registered," said Hussainy, explaining that when they are recovered, mainly in Europe, the government can not produce documents proving their identity.
Widely recognised as the cradle of human civilisation, Iraq once had a strict policy banning antiquities from leaving the country and most sites were well looked after in the early days of Saddam Hussein
One notable exception was the former president's disastrous restoration of Babylon, where he rebuilt the ancient palace using bricks stamped with his name.
But the 1990s saw a systematic assault on sites in the south, particular on the unimaginably ancient cities of Sumer that in some cases pre-date Egypt's pyramids.
The looting further picked up with the decline of security across Iraq in 2005 with the main target being easy-to-transport cuneiform tablets and coins.
"With the occupation and the collapse of security, the heritage was exposed to even bigger disasters," said Hussainy.
One of the more egregious side effects of Iraq's worsening spiral of violence has been the targeting of academics and professionals. Many archaeologists are now dead or have fled the country.
"In places like Samawa (in southern Iraq) where there are hundreds of sites, we have a single archaeologist with a bachelors degree," said Hussainy.
Coalition forces have been faulted not only for not protecting the sites, but in some cases damaging them with parking lots built near the ancient halls of Babylon, an air base surrounding the Ziggurat of Ur -- a Sumerian temple in southern Iraq -- and sniper posts on the massive spiral minaret of Samarra.
Last week, Hussainy was in Cairo for a meeting of Arab antiquities departments over Israeli excavations near Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque, but he also took the opportunity to request help from his Egyptian counterpart Zahi Hawass.
"He asked for many things. We can ask people to come for training and help in the documentation, but inside Iraq, the situation is very difficult," said Mohammed Abdel Maqsud, number two at Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities.
"He wanted to sign a protocol between Egypt and Iraq to get help for antiquities," he added. "We will study what we can do."
Hussainy's predecessor, the high-profile Donny George who publicised the pillaging of the museum in 2003, fled the country in August citing harassment by militiamen linked to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
But Hussainy said that religious leaders have also helped convince people to start returning looted antiquities.
"Thanks to a religious fatwa and efforts to raise awareness among the people about the importance of their heritage, people are starting to come to us and return many pieces," he said.
Nearly half of the 15,000 pieces looted from the museum have been recovered.
For archaeologists, though, the loss is still incalculable.
"We will get some of the objects back, but we will never be able to reconstruct how they looked, the relationship in which they lie with other objects around them," said Assyriologist Kathryn Slanski in her blog.