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An American soldier stands on a Bradley tank stationed at the main entrance of the National Museum in Baghdad in June 2003.
An American soldier stands on a Bradley tank stationed at the main entrance of the National Museum in Baghdad in June 2003.

Iraqi antiquities seized in Dubai

Customs officers have seized more than 100 looted Iraqi antiquities and artefacts as they were being smuggled through the emirate.

DUBAI // Customs officers have seized more than 100 looted Iraqi antiquities and artefacts as they were being smuggled through the emirate. The objects, believed to be between 5,000 and 1,000 years old, will be displayed to the press today but officials declined to indicate beforehand how they were intercepted. Hundreds of Iraqi archaeological sites have been looted since the US-led invasion in 2003, causing untold damage to the country's heritage. The illegal trade in looted artefacts, thought to be worth tens of millions of dollars a year, has been driven deep underground in recent years as a number of countries have tightened restrictions on their sale. Dr Eleanor Robson of Cambridge University in the UK, who is the vice chairman of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq, said detecting the smuggled treasures often depended on the alertness of customs officials. "Before the war there were starving people digging stuff up to sell as part of an organised trade operated by one of Saddam's sons, but it is completely invisible now," Dr Robson said. "Mesopotamian artefacts used to be on sale in antique shops around the British Museum in London, but the legislation has changed, so anyone caught in possession of these things has to prove their innocence, rather than the prosecution proving their guilt. "Interpol have been trying very hard to raise awareness of the trade, but we are really relying very much on eagle-eyed customs officials in individual countries knowing what to look for," she added. "Before the war there were prominent collectors in the US, Scandinavia, Japan and the Gulf, and I know of at least one dealer who specialised in Mesopotamian artefacts - there was a small legal trade in things that had been excavated during the 19th century. It is easy to name names of people who used to be involved, but now there is no legitimate market at all it is much harder to tell." During the early days of the 2003 invasion, thousands of artefacts were looted from the National Museum in Baghdad. More than 5,000 are still missing. Dr Robson said about 10 per cent of the more than 10,000 archaeological sites in Iraq had been looted, but the damage was deeper than the removal of objects. "When people are digging this stuff up they are using bulldozers and heavy shovels, smashing through walls and opening graves, and they are only looking for intact, pretty objects that they can easily sell. The loss of context is devastating; when archaeologists excavate an ancient kitchen, for example, they are looking for things like food detritus that could help us understand diet. Looters are getting less than one per cent of what a professional excavation could produce from each site." The main items of interest for looters are jewellery, stone tablets and cylindrical seals. "In the illicit trade before the war these kind of things could fetch between US$100 (Dh367) and US$1,000, but big pieces of sculpture that were legitimately sold at auction could make tens of millions of dollars," Dr Robson said. She said there was still an underground market for looted antiquities from Iraq because the area was so deeply connected to the histories of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. "There is the city of Ur where Abraham lived, the Tower of Babel and Noah's flood - it is massively important to all three of the big three monotheistic religions. There is that pull of owning something that Abraham might have seen or written." gmcclenaghan@thenational.ae

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