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Iraq's antiquities garner international attention

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For all these sites the government of Iraq employs only 1,200 guards, leaving many gaps. "We have easily 11,000 archaeological locations with no protection," Mr. Rashid says.

Another challenge is that many of the most prized artifacts the looters pull from the ground are no bigger than a wallet and easily fit into a smuggler's pocket, such as small clay cuneiform tablets on which a king's inventory or a family's history was kept before the advent of parchment.

When rolled in a soft material like putty, the seals embossed a picture depicting some aspect of the owner's identity: an officer's role in a major battle or the duties of a royal scribe.

"In and of themselves these are distinctive Mesopotamian artifacts, but they tell us so much less as looted pieces than if the full context of their excavation had been recorded," says Geoff Emberling, director of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute Museum. "Were they found in a ruler's palace or an ordinary house, in what room, how deep in the ground? With looted pieces, we lose all of this."

An exhibit on the pillaging of Iraq's heritage, titled "Catastrophe!" is currently running at the Chicago museum, along with seminars from Iraqi experts and delivered to US troops deploying in the region.

"The destruction of Iraq's past has the potential of being one of the longest-lasting legacies of the US presence in Iraq," Mr. Emberling says. "It really seems incumbent upon us to do what we can to stop that process."

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