An Unsung Casualty of the Iraq War: The World's Cultural Heritage

10/26/2006 09:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Of the world's major English-language news outlets, only The Times of London has taken note of a letter from 14 of the world's leading archaeologists to the Iraqi government pleading to protect important sites from looters.

As individuals who have done research for years in Iraq, who have taught its great history and culture, and who have made great efforts to call attention to the potential and real damage to Iraq's cultural heritage due to war and its aftermath, we ask you to ensure the safety of the museums, archaeological sites, and standing monuments in the entire country.

The Times notes some of the damage already inflicted on a major cradle of civilization that has worried archaeologists since the start of the war:

* A Babylonian sculpture of a lion dating from about 1700BC that lost its head because the terracotta shattered as looters tried to remove it.
* The Ana Minaret on the Euphrates about 190 miles (310km) west of Baghdad, an 85ft (26m) stone structure dating from the 6th century, was blown up by Islamic extremists apparently for fear that it would be used as an American observation post.
* Larsa -- a Babylonian capital from about 1900-1800BC -- is being ransacked for objects.
* Isin -- a capital from 2000-1900BC -- has been pitted, some holes going as deep as 10 metres (33ft), and there are tunnels running out from the pits.
* "Very extensive" damage to the great cities of Sumer and Babylon.
* Other important cities that have been extensively damaged include Umma, Zabalam, Adab, Shuruppak and Umm al-Hafriyat.

The archaeologists are calling for "a strong, national, non-political State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, backed fully by the force of the state." This would include the reestablishment and reenforcement of the Antiquities Guards -- "the key to halting the illegal digging of sites and damaging of monuments that has been occurring since April 2003" -- but they haven't been paid.

Yes, I know that with the continuing bloodshed and hardships of living people, it's difficult to get excited about the loss of artifacts, mere things. But those "things" are irreplaceable in documenting not only the history of the place we now call Iraq, but also of more than 6,000 years of human civilization.