Browsing the antiques markets of London a few years ago, McGuire Gibson, an expert on Mesopotamian art and archaeology at the University of Chicago, found some of his worst fears confirmed: Dealers offered him antiquities probably smuggled from Iraq, which sits astride the remains of several ancient civilizations.
Cylinder seals, which were once used on tablets of wet clay in something like an ancient version of notarization, were for sale by the bagful. There were clay tablets with cuneiform writing from as early as the Babylonian period and other objects of uncertain origin.
"For decades, the Iraqis kept a very tight lid on stuff, and there was very, very little getting out," said Gibson, a professor at the university's Oriental Institute and a leading archaeologist who conducted digs in Iraq from 1964 until the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
"After the war, the selling started. Now stuff is just pouring out. They are selling everything. If this continues, there won't be an archaeological site left that won't be damaged."
With stringent economic sanctions against Iraq in place since 1990 and little relief in sight, art experts and archaeologists say precious artifacts from some of the world's oldest civilizations -- Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian among them -- are pouring into the international market mainly to raise cash in hard times.
While some of the sellers of Mesopotamian antiquities are middle-class families parting with heirlooms and Iraqi traders unable to sustain themselves because of an embargo imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, looters and grave robbers working with international smugglers are doing most of the damage, some experts say.
There have been reports of hundreds of looters swarming over archaeological sites, perhaps with semiofficial complicity.
Pub Date: 6/23/96