Say 'no' to Iraqi loot

April 11, 2003

Any attempt to relax the laws on the trade of artefacts must be resisted, says Colin Renfrew.

Iraq is one of the most archaeologically significant countries in the world. The earliest urban civilisation and the earliest known writing emerged in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates. And in the hills of Iraq we have some of the earliest farming sites, going back to 7000BC.

Successive Iraqi regimes, including Saddam Hussein's, have been proud of their antiquities and have enacted strict laws to protect them. The country's archaeologists and its antiquities service are well regarded.

In the next few weeks, it seems inevitable that some Iraqi archaeological sites and museums will stand the risk of being looted. Such acts can happen in any country where civil government breaks down. It was a concern during the previous Gulf war, when some museums in northern Iraq were looted and the remnants of Assyrian palace reliefs came on the market in London.

But there is another threat. There are some who want to see the relaxation of US laws restricting the import of archaeological artefacts, based on a free-trade ethic to make antiquities more available worldwide. There has even been talk of trying to get Iraqi laws loosened after the regime is changed. Iraqi law does sound severe, declaring that antiquities found in the soil of Iraq are the property of the government. That's not how we run things in the UK or in the US. But similar laws are enforced in Greece, Turkey and Egypt, and there is no reason why Iraq should not continue to have legislation of that kind.

We do not know the US administration's position on this issue. But the interim government must make every effort to keep Iraq's antiquities in Iraq. Any move to make it easier for their export would, in my opinion, amount to the legalisation of looting.

Today, if you want to conduct a dig in most countries, you apply to the culture minister for a permit. All your finds are given over to the state.

What you get is the chance to publish your findings and to increase knowledge, not the opportunity run off with any antiquities.

I find it astonishing that in the US you can divide museums into two groups. Some, such as the University Museum of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, do not buy unprovenanced antiquities. Others, however, simply do not ask where an artefact came from so they can say they never "knowingly" buy such looted antiquities.

If Iraqi laws were relaxed, it would make it easier for antiquities to be exported legally. One fears it would also allow looted antiquities from illicit and secret excavations to leave the country more freely.

This would almost certainly lead to a greater scale of looting and to some of the bigger museums or private collectors claiming that this material could come into their ownership legally. If you have a law that says some antiquities can leave legally, you do not have a clear distinction. In the resulting flow of finds from Iraq, it would become much easier to break the law by exporting major antiquities.

I am hopeful that when serious people really think the issue through, they will see how outrageous it is that collectors encourage the looting process by buying illicit pieces. The money they pay goes to fuel the process and keep people digging and destroying the sites.

The loss of knowledge is not simply in the fact that the pieces themselves leave the country - it is in the fact that sites are destroyed to supply those pieces.

The worst scenario is almost unthinkable. I think highly of the professionalism of US archaeologists and academics, and I do not believe that they would countenance this. And there is every hope that organisations such as Unesco would make a great fuss should there be any moves towards relaxing Iraqi law.

But there is a fear that some misguided Dr Strangelove character in the US government will take this rather deluded nonsense seriously and be unwise enough not to gain professional opinion from senior US archaeologists. If that happened, it would present a shocking example to the rest of the world.

Lord Renfrew is professor of archaeology at the University of Cambridge and director of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre.

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