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U.S. military damages ancient city of Babylon

Published Mar 2, 2005 3:12 PM

Like the Hittites, Alexander the Great, and the Greeks before them, the U.S. military has chosen to occupy the ancient city of Babylon. Established almost 4,000 years ago and at 3.4 square miles the big gest ancient settlement in Meso potamia, Babylon has been the site of decades of archaeological study.

In a recent report by Dr. John Curtis of the British Museum on the impact of the military occupation of Babylon, archaeologists from Iraq, Poland and Britain documented widespread and in some cases irreparable damage caused by the U.S. military base.

The base was established in April 2003 just after the fall of Baghdad and the looting of the National Museum of Iraq. It covers 16 percent of ancient Babylon, including areas inside the city's inner walls.

Land mines have prevented an appraisal of the full impact of the U.S. military's actions, but evidence of widespread damage is visible throughout the culturally sensitive area.

Huge trenches totaling over 1,378 feet--some three to six feet deep and 13 feet wide--were dug through areas that contain artifacts. Tons of material has been scooped out of its historical context and used to fill sandbags.

Some of the artifacts including pottery, bones and bricks bearing inscriptions from Nebuchadnezzar (1125-1104 BCE) can be seen in sandbags and other mesh containers.

According to Curtis' report, huge areas of the site have been leveled and "covered with gravel, sometimes compacted and chemi cally treated, to be used as a helicopter pad and to create spaces for vehicle parks."

Gravel now covers about 359,000 square yards. "All the gravel had been brought in from elsewhere and will, of course, work its way into the archaeological deposits."

"Previously undisturbed" deposits "will now be contaminated."

Brick paving stones along the Proces sional Way constructed in Sixth century BCE have been crushed by transports of heavy equipment.

Molded brick dragon figures in the Ishtar Gate were seriously damaged by a person trying to remove pieces of the relief.

Halliburton subsidiary Kellog, Brown and Root was responsible for infrastructure at the base. It may, along with the U.S. military, be responsible for much of the damage.

Some of the information in the Curtis report is not new. Newsweek reported that Columbia University Professor Zainab Bahrani visited Babylon in the spring of 2004 and was stunned to see the U.S. military base there. Huge areas had been bulldozed. Blast walls were constructed of relic rich earth. Vibrations from helicopters were damaging ancient walls. (Aug. 30, 2004)

Other important archaeological sites around Iraq have suffered from the war and occupation as well. According to a Jan. 24 Reuters report, U.S. military forces have been using the ancient minaret in Samarra as a sniper's nest. Built over 1,100 years ago, the minaret was extremely well preserved. Now the site "may lose its protected status" if deemed necessary to oppose the Iraqi insurgency, according to U.S. military spokesperson Maj. Richard Goldenberg.

Looting has continued to be a major problem in Iraq. Millions of dollars go to unscrupulous dealers who trade in the international antiquities market. Diggers at sites throughout Iraq sell items for a tiny fraction of their true value.

Roger Atwood, the author of "Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers and the Looting of the Ancient World," reported that he was offered a cylinder seal for $200 that could fetch $30,000 outside Iraq.

Sales of looted items are hard to track. Items from Iraq appear for sale everywhere from eBay to well-known auction houses.

Surveys of antiquities sales at Sotheby's and Christie's from 1958 through 1998 show that 90 percent of the items never appeared in any journal or study, only becoming known when they appeared in the sales catalogue. Once a stolen item is bought from Sotheby's or Christie's, it gains legitimacy and can be sold at an even higher price down the line.

According to the 1954 Hague Con vention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, "preservation of the cultural heritage is of great importance for all peoples of the world and it is important that this heritage should receive international protection." This Convention, which the United States signed but never ratified, places the responsibility on the occupying power to stop any criminal activity with regard to such artifacts and buildings.