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In the North of Iraq June 4, 2003
by Roger Atwood

Mosul's Museum, Hatra, and Nimrud


A view of the city of Mosul, on the Tigris. (Roger Atwood) [LARGER IMAGE]

First professional thieves came in and went cherry-picking through the galleries, taking priceless cuneiform tablets and bronzes. Then the mob swept in and ransacked storage rooms, toppled stone statues too heavy to move, and vandalized offices. Sound familiar? In a virtual replay of the looting of Iraq's National Museum, pillagers also ransacked one of Iraq's most distinguished provincial museums, the Mosul Museum in the country's far north, in the tumultuous days after Saddam Hussein's fall on April 9.

Museum officials are still assessing the damage and resolutely declined to estimate the number of pieces lost. But at least 34 artifacts from the main galleries are missing, many more are damaged, and two storage rooms were looted and heavily vandalized at almost the same time as looters hit the National Museum in Baghdad. "It was the same international gang. That's what we think," the Mosul museum's, Bernadette Hanna-Metti, told ARCHAEOLOGY.

Damage would have been far worse if museum staffers had not spent months preparing for war. They moved the most valuable and portable items, about 5,500 in all, to storage at the Baghdad museum, with the last box heading for Baghdad only three days before U.S. and British bombing began. Most pieces left in the museum were too large to move. Staff wrapped them in foam rubber and arranged sandbags on the floor around them to cushion their fall in case they were knocked from their pedestals. Mosul museum officials have received no word yet from Baghdad on the fate of objects they sent there. "If those objects aren't stolen, we can return them, but we have no information about what is still there," said Hanna-Metti. "We moved them there for safekeeping and we are still responsible for them."

The largest single loss at Mosul was of 30 bronze panels that once hung on a gate leading into the Assyrian city of Balawat and dating from about the ninth century B.C. Looters ripped the panels off a replica of the wooden gate. Fifty-four other panels from the same gate are safe, though looters damaged some trying to remove them too. The panels are embossed with scenes from royal life at Balawat, a site near Mosul that first came to the attention of archaeologists in the late nineteenth century when similar panels from the site appeared on antiquities markets in London and Paris.

[image]Muzahim Mahmud, director of the Assyrian site Nimrud, points to damage done by looters in early May to a frieze at the site. (Roger Atwood) [LARGER IMAGE]

Also missing were three cuneiform tablets from Khorsabad, a site north of Mosul. Museum staff did not remove the tablets for safekeeping because, since the tablets were fixed to the wall with steel clamps, they were thought to be safe. Thieves removed the clamps from the walls with heavy-duty tools, said a curator at the museum, Saba al-Omari. "You can divide the looting into two stages. First came the specialists to take what they wanted, and then the public came in and took whatever they could," said al-Omari. Display cases and windows throughout the museum were shattered, and security cameras installed three years ago were no help because the looters stole them too.

A cuneiform tablet from the Assyrian city of Nineveh was taken, but a second, larger tablet from the same site fell to the ground and broke into five pieces. Its writing is intact, however, and according to al-Omari the tablet can be restored. Many other pieces were heavily damaged, including a life-sized stone lion from the Hellenic site of Hatra, south of Mosul, which the looters threw down and cracked in several places. Looters also damaged two large wooden twelfth-century Islamic doors as they attempted to carry them away unsuccessfully. "Maybe they were too heavy or maybe the looters were in a hurry, but they couldn't get them out," said al-Omari. The famous yellow stela of Nimrud, which describes a celebration feast at the Assyrian capital in 879 B.C. and is said to contain the world's oldest surviving menu, is intact.

Evidence that the looters had some knowledge of the museum's collection came from the institution's library, where thieves ignored aisles and aisles of books and stole only 20 of the most valuable volumes and atlases, some dating from over 200 years ago, said Manhal Jabr, director of antiquities for Ninawa Province which includes Mosul and about 1,500 known archaeological sites.

A brisk, good-natured man of about 60, Jabr showed me the two storage rooms that looters had opened by force. At one, looters kicked open a door, clipped a padlock and then trampled through the clay pots and tablets, breaking at least a dozen of them and stealing an unknown number of others. At a second storage room outside the main building the looters had battered open the door. That room contained only very large stone pieces and is not known to have lost anything, probably because the pieces were too heavy to move, he said.

Mahmud stands in front of the Nimrud site, now protected by two U.S. Army Humvees and half a platoon of troops. (Roger Atwood) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

Jabr blamed the general climate of lawlessness following Saddam Hussein's downfall for the wave of looting at museums and archaeological sites all over Iraq. "In Saddam Hussein's time, if they caught you looting, they did this," he said, making a slicing motion at this throat. "Or they would send you to jail for five, six years. But now there is no punishment. We have policemen guarding the sites but they are very scared."

The museum is now under U.S. military protection. On a recent visit I saw two U.S. soldiers guarding the library and Jabr's office while a third slept on the floor, using his rucksack for a pillow. Their commanding officer, Major Eric Holliday, was discussing with Jabr the U.S. army's plans to contract out purchase of barbed wire and lights to local merchants. The lights and the fencing will be used at archaeological sites near Mosul to protect them for looters after the departure of U.S. troops guarding them, a date which Holliday admits may not be far off.

Saddam Hussein's ouster also unleashed a wave of looting at major northern archaeological sites. So far, however, the pillage appears more selective and involving fewer looters than at sites in southern Iraq. U.S. forces are guarding at least two major sites, Hatra and Nimrud. The army sent about a dozen soldiers to guard Hatra, a site dating from the first century B.C. south of Mosul, after looters hacked out a face carved at the apex of a stone archway. The looters must have had a ladder and good stone-cutting equipment to do the job.

"We've got a platoon-sized element out there now but the pressure is on stateside to start downsizing," said Holliday. "So I don't know how long we can keep forces here." Guards at Hatra have automatic rifles, he said, but they are terrified of actually firing them at looters because they fear reprisals. "The guards are armed but they're afraid to kill because if they do, then it's going to put their family in jeopardy of being killed. It's this tribal justice thing," said Holliday. With no government or authority in Iraq, except for the U.S. occupiers, the guards have also not been paid "so there's also a pay issue. There's just not much motivation for them to protect the site."

Half a U.S. platoon now guards Nimrud, south of Mosul, where looters in early May chiseled out two small pieces of stone friezes after a brief gun battle with security guards at the site. No one was wounded in the firefight but looters had the run of the site for about three hours, said the director of the site, Muzahim Mahmud. He said he believed the looted pieces would be smuggled out of the country via Iran.

Roger Atwood is a journalist writing on the antiquities trade with a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation. He can be reached at

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America