A group of amateur ‘artefact detectives’ in Iraq are on a mission to return countless historical items taken from their country over the years.
Leading the charge is Wafaa Hassan, a recovery specialist at the National Museum of Iraq, with her team of archaeologists and lawyers.
Together, they scour online websites like eBay & auction houses for ancient, national pieces, with the intention of repatriating them. To strengthen their efforts, Hassan’s squad works in partnership with agencies like Interpol, international museums and embassies.
“Each item is our history. Each item inside the museum, and also inside the archaeological site, belongs to Iraq,” says Hassan.
Despite the group’s finds, recovering Iraq’s lost artefacts remains an uphill battle. There are an estimated 15,000 archaeological sites across the country and only 10 per cent that have been excavated. Many sites are unprotected and, therefore, left vulnerable to thieves.
“You cannot stop the looting of these sites. It’s a continuous process, that each day they take tens or hundreds [of items] and they loot it out from Iraq,” says Hassan.
Why are the artefacts being lost?
Iraq’s rich cultural and historic past has produced a vast number of ancient artefacts.
Beneath its sands, lies the ancient region of Mesopotamia, situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It’s where many analysts believe urban human civilisation was formed.
Inhabited for nearly 12,000 years since 3100BC, the region not only became a hotbed for literature, politics, and art, it also left a considerable scientific legacy in the fields of mathematics and astronomy, according to UNESCO.
“It is one of the richest archaeological components in the world,” says Abdulameer Al Dafar, Iraq’s Culture Minister. “When you dig anywhere in Iraq, you will find antiquities.”
Years of war and instability, however, left Iraq prone to looting. And in the middle of the 19th century, European explorers furnished their country’s museums with their finds from Iraq.
After the 1991 Gulf War, heavy U.N sanctions led many to illegally dig to earn income on the black market. Moreover, during the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion, the illegal trade of stolen antiquities ramped up.
That year, the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad was ransacked and more than 15,000 artefacts were stolen.
When the so-called Islamic State group swept across Iraq in the summer of 2014, they took control of a third of the country - including the second-largest city, Mosul, and hundreds of archaeological sites.
As a result, many priceless antiquities were demolished or smuggled to fund their operations.
Is it possible to recreate heritage?
As part of a project to restore cultural heritage, Assyrian statues – replicating the originals from Iraq - were donated to the University of Mosul by the British Museum and the charity, Factum Foundation.
The Lamassu statues, of human-headed winged lions, which historically date back to 3000 BCE, were recreated using cutting-edge technology.
“They were recorded using a structured light scanner and then separate measurements were made to determine the colour.” explains Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell, an archaeologist at the Factum Foundation. “The data was then processed and it was carved using a robotic drill. Using a scagliola cast, coated in wax, you can get a very accurate representation of the gypsum of the originals.”
And whilst it’s recognised that these models will never replace the original lost artefacts, they can play an important role in keeping their memory alive.
SEEN ON SOCIAL MEDIA: A TRIP TO IRAQ’S PAST
Elena from Russia was delighted to see the Lamassu statues at the National Museum of Iraq.