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Why there should be a ban on trading Iraqi antiquities

Discussion continues [1] on a total ban on trade in Iraqi artefacts until the situation in the country has stabilised.

The Guardian [2]

Ban proposed on Iraqi antiquities trade
Maev Kennedy
Thursday May 1, 2008

A worldwide ban on buying and selling any Iraqi antiquities was proposed yesterday in London by a senior Iraqi official, as the only way of ending an illicit trade which has left looted sites resembling lunar landscapes, pitted with hundreds of holes and trenches.

Dr Bahaa Mayah, an archaeologist and adviser to the Iraqi Minister for Tourism and Antiquities, speaking at the British Museum where Iraqi, British and American experts had gathered to discuss the plight of looted antiquities, said, “we have to stop this problem at the roots”. A ban on trading in any Iraqi artefacts would strip them of their commercial value, he said, and mean there was no longer any financial incentive to dig them out of the ground.

Dr John Curtis, head of the British Museum’s Department of the Ancient Near East, who has led the international academic campaign to support Iraq, said the trade in Britain has already been virtually wiped out, and in the last five years the museum has never been brought a single object believed to have been exported illicitly.

While some sites are still being damaged by military occupation – which turned part of the ancient city of Babylon into a tank park in 2003 – Dr Mayah said the more serious problem now is illegal digging on Iraq’s thousands of archaeology sites, many never excavated. The invasion in 2003 put the legal onus on the occupying powers to protect the country’s antiquities.

He demanded more cooperation from international governments, saying the antiquities trade was flooding through Jordan and into Israel and then on into Europe and the United States, or through the Gulf States. Governments were putting the responsibility on Iraq to prove ownership, instead of on the dealers and auction houses. The United States had returned one masterpiece, the 4,000 year old statue of King Entemena, but was failing to act against many auction houses.

Britain was implicated, he said, through London auctions, and through objects shipped into British ports and then re-exported gaining documentation used to claim ownership.

“I believe that Iraq deserves the help of the international community,” he said, “Iraq is already paying a heavy price for the fight against terrorism.”

Archaeologists inside Iraq and in the rest of the world have been trying to estimate the scale of the problem. Dr Mayah was joined by an American colleague, Professor Elizabeth Stone from Stony Brook University in Iraq, who has been studying satellite photographs of southern Iraq before and since the invasion.

She now estimates that 15.75 square kilometres, just over 15% of the archaeological landscape, has been looted – and that the material removed could represent five times the total collection of the national museum in Baghdad.