When the past is plundered, everyone pays the price
In the Enuma Elish — the Babylonian creation myth found inscribed on seven clay tablets from the 7th century B.C. and excavated at Nineveh in the 19th century — Eridu, in southern Mesopotamia, is named as the world’s first city.
Despite 8,000 years of occupation, today there is precious little to see at the ancient site, isolated on the fringes of Iraq’s southern desert some 35 km southwest of Nasiriyah.
What does remain, however, is extremely precious — including the handful of stones and pottery shards taken from the site by a British tourist who was jailed for the offense this month by a Baghdad court.
Predictably enough, there was uproar in the British media when 66-year-old Jim Fitton, a retired geologist, was sentenced to 15 years in prison. To date, more than 350,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the British government to intervene in his case.
It cannot, of course, and nor should it. Iraq is a sovereign state with its own laws. Fitton claimed ignorance of the law protecting Iraq’s archaeological treasures, but ignorance has never been a legal defense the world over.
Fitton had faced a maximum penalty of death — a deterrent that owes its existence to decades of looting of Iraq’s ancient treasures — but the court clearly took the view that his offense was not as egregious as the scandalous, industrial-scale stripping of the country’s ancient treasures in the wake of the American military’s 2003 invasion.
Iraq is not the only country in the region with heritage that has fallen prey to war and social upheaval. In 2017, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City spent $4 million on a 2,000-year-old golden sarcophagus from Egypt. Two years later, it was forced to repatriate the coffin after it emerged that it had been looted during the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
In short, Fitton should have known better. A geologist by profession and an amateur archaeologist by inclination, he had been on an archaeology tour in Iraq when he decided to pocket the artifacts — an act that surely would have been unthinkable had he been touring an ancient site in Europe. His casual attitude to the sanctity of Iraq’s ancient heritage is an echo of the imperial arrogance that saw so many of the treasures of the Middle East and elsewhere looted during the 19th century by wealthy “gentlemen archaeologists” from Britain.
The vaults and display cases of the British Museum in London, for example, are stuffed with artifacts that by rights belong to the states from whose territory they were taken by entitled adventurers. In 2019, the British government made a great show of returning to Baghdad a recently looted 3,000-year-old cuneiform boundary stone, saluting Iraq’s rich culture and history, which was “at the core of its contemporary national identity.”
However, of the British Museum’s vast collection of 170,000 treasures from Mesopotamia, dug up and shipped out by British archaeologists authorized solely by imperial entitlement, there was no mention. These pieces, as the museum is always at pains to stress, were “acquired,” a term far less pejorative than “looted.”
At Eridu, only traces of a once-great civilization remain. Gone are the lifegiving tributaries of the Euphrates that flowed around the seven mounds that formed the heart of the city. On the largest of these stood the oldest temple in southern Mesopotamia.
But while the palaces and temples have disappeared, the clues are there if one knows where — and how — to find them.
A few jumbled stones, clearly worked by human hands, and a fragment of what appears to be an ancient wall, caught seemingly in the slow-motion act of sliding back under the sands, is all that remains of the mighty ziggurat, built 4,000 years ago from mud and baked bricks.
A depression in the ground is an echo of a lavish palace, built 5,000 years ago.
Frequently, it is the fragments of pottery found at such sites that offer the only clues to their origins and timeline.
Much of Eridu was discovered and mapped in the 1940s and 1950s by two of Iraq’s most distinguished archaeologists, Fuad Safar and Sayyid Mohammed Ali Mustafa. They were able to compare shards found at Eridu with those from other Mesopotamian sites, which helped to establish trading links and refined understanding of the chronology of the development of civilization.
The human story belongs to all of us, but the artifacts and remains that articulate that story belong only where they were created.
At Eridu, these fragments also served as time stamps, helping the archaeologists to identify the existence of several temples, built one on top of the other over hundreds of years. Whether legal or not, picking up and pocketing such evidence is clearly wrong.
It is, perhaps, unfair that Fitton should pay the price as a proxy for the looters of the empire who came before him and the criminal gangs who followed in more recent times. He will appeal and, in this, one wishes him well. After all, as his family has pointed out, 15 years in prison will almost certainly amount to a life sentence.
But the lesson of this case is one that should be taken on board by every museum director in every museum throughout the world that continues, without justification, to hoard treasures stolen at a time when, to most Europeans, the people of the Middle East simply did not count.
The human story belongs to all of us, but the artifacts and remains that articulate that story belong only where they were created. To spirit them away out of self-interest is not only to rob a country of its heritage, but also to deprive everyone of potentially vital chapters in the great, common story of humankind.
- Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK. Copyright: Syndication Bureau