Iraq’s rich history tempts relic smugglers


Iraqi police have confiscated scores of artifacts and arrested two smugglers in the southern Province of Dhiqar, al-Zaman news reported on Monday.

The stolen items include rare statues and coins from different periods in Iraq’s ancient history.

The two smugglers in question have long been dealing in stolen relics.

One police source was quoted as saying on condition of anonymity: “Interior Ministry forces in coordination with the Iraqi army seized 64 archaeological pieces as well as 114 bronze coins in a district of al-Fajir.”

The province of Dhiqar holds some of the most archaeologically precious excavation mounds in Iraq. Its historical treasures have turned it into a hub for smugglers and illegal diggers.

Many of its mounds, some dating to the Sumerian civilization that flourished in southern Iraq more than 5000 years ago, are being ruined by illegal excavators who do not have the proper training or tools.

Digging up relics from the Mesopotamian era and selling them on the open market has become a lucrative trade since the 2003-U.S. invasion of Iraq.

One of the threatened sites is ‘Tell Chokha’ -- a massive area of more than eight square kilometers -- where a series of ancient cities and settlements, many of them belonging to the Sumerian civilization, are buried.

Illegal excavation is taking place almost everywhere in Iraq due to the country’s rich buried history.

However the Dhiqar Province is said to be most attractive to smugglers due to the variety of its ancient sites and their priceless contents.

Most Sumerian artifacts are known to be small -- such as cylinder seals -- but hold great value.

Artifact collectors are said to be willing to pay up to $100,000 for a Sumerian cylinder seal of precious stone, making illegal excavation in the area a lucrative venture.

Moreover, the Sumerian sites in southern Iraq are relatively easy to unearth. Artifacts come to surface with little digging due to their shallow placement.