Want to buy a Sumerian tablet that is over 3,000 years old, listed as the property of a gentleman from Sussex in England and passed down as a family heirloom?
On the liveauctioneers.com auction site, auctions for the “Sumerian clay tablet” start at 550 pounds ($ 750).
The item weighs only 70 grams (2.5 ounces) but bears traces of cuneiform writing – the oldest recorded in the world – and is listed as “Owned by a West Sussex, UK, gentleman”.
This copy is accompanied by letters from experts.
But the ownership history of some of these items can be more difficult to prove.
They may not have been transmitted but transmitted, via smugglers and intermediaries.
The rise of looted objects from antiquity is a real problem in Iraq, where corruption is rife and archaeological sites are poorly protected.
For some objects, it can be difficult to prove that it was not in fact stolen from land where the Sumerian Empire was located in the fourth millennium BCE.
Chris Wren of UK firm TimeLine Auctions, parent company of liveauctioneers.com, said they were aware “of the potential for looting, smuggling or other stolen materials” in the market.
“We are spending a lot of effort and money to seek to eliminate such possibilities,” he said.
– Profitable trade –
Sumerians, Assyrians, and Babylonians all set foot on the ancient land that is now Iraq, and this makes it a prime land for smugglers.
It is full of archaeological sites where traffickers carry out “random exhumations,” said Laith Majid Hussein, director of the Iraqi State Council for Antiquities and Heritage.
âWe don’t have statistics on how many antiques end up being smuggled,â said Majid.
Corruption and the prevalence of armed groups have fostered the growth of this lucrative business.
At a site in southern Iraq, where the Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations once flourished, a security guard described the challenges he faced.
“One day I saw a truck arrive with three armed men,” said the guard, who asked not to be appointed to protect himself and the site’s location.
“They started digging, and when I stepped in they started shooting in the air and yelling at me, ‘Do you think this place belongs to you?'”
The lack of resources to protect the ancient sites of Iraq is glaring.
In a country where around 27% of the 40 million citizens live below the poverty line, authorities say they have other priorities.
The ancient sites of Iraq are concentrated in the south, around Kut, Samawa and Nasiriyah.
From there, the smugglers transport their booty to the southern swamps, and to Amara, a town not far from Iran, which has become a “hub of antiquities trafficking”, according to an archaeologist who wished to keep the anonymity.
The stolen antiques are then taken to Iran “to cross the sea in fishing boats to the Gulf countries,” he said.
Alternatively, they can be smuggled overland through the Western Desert of Iraq, which borders Jordan, Syria and Turkey.
An Iraqi government source said the money earned from trafficking is fueling criminal networks in a country where armed groups, some close to Iran, have seized power.
Corruption also plays a role in a state where civil servants are poorly paid.
The transplant watchdog, Transparency International, ranks Iraq 160th out of 180 countries listed for corruption.
– Main economic support –
When the Islamic State (IS) group occupied large swathes of Iraqi territory between 2014 and 2017, jihadists used bulldozers, pickaxes and explosives to sack dozens of pre-Islamic sites and their treasures.
Nimrud, a gem of the Assyrian Empire founded in the 13th century BC and located outside Mosul in the north of the country, was one such target.
The jihadists “are also engaged in smuggling,” said a European security expert, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It got them money, but it affected Syria more.”
The group is doing well thanks to the illegal antiques trade, according to a 2020 report released by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, a Geneva-based organization.
He said that in 2015, “of ISIS’s annual revenues, estimated at US $ 2.35 billion to US $ 2.68 billion, antiques trafficking and taxation (in the state) amounted to US $ 20 million. U.S. dollars “.
Earlier this month, the United States returned to Iraq approximately 17,000 archaeological treasures dating back 4,000 years that had been looted in recent decades.
Although he welcomed the measures, the Iraqi government source said he believed the problem “lies with neighboring states” which are complicit in the smuggling.
“The Iraqi state is weak,” he said. “Archaeological artifacts are not a priority.”
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