Claims of Mass Libyan Looting Rejected by Archaeologists

Museums not robbed say colleugues

Published on 1 September 2011

Author(s): Science/Andrew Lawler

Type:  News

"The antiquities in the major sites are unscathed," says Hafed Walda, an archaeologist at King's College London

Archaeologists in contact with colleagues in Libya say that their nation's antiquities appear safe despite the chaos in the country. That news is contrary to reports earlier this week, which claimed that Libya's museums were being plundered and sites destroyed in NATO bombing raids.

Libya boasts a host of ancient Phoenician and Roman sites, as well as major collections of ancient artifacts in Tripoli's Jamahiriya Museum and other smaller museums around the country. So the claims of damage prompted fears of a replay of Baghdad in 2003, when the famous Iraq Museum was looted. But Western archaeologists and Libyan sources say that there is no evidence that such destruction is taking place.

"The antiquities in the major sites are unscathed," says Hafed Walda, an archaeologist at King's College London, who has been in frequent contact with his Libyan colleagues during the recent arrival of rebels in the capital city last week. "But a few sites in the interior sustained minor damage and are in need of assessments." As for Tripoli's museum, located in the city's Red Castle, "it has been protected very well."

He adds that curators stored the building's artifacts prior to the rebels' arrival but that some ancient objects belonging to former President Muammar Gaddafi were stolen. Ramadan Geddedan, a retired director of Libya's Department of Antiquities, confirms that assessment based on his contacts in Libya. "As far as I know, nothing has happened since the fall of Tripoli," said Geddedan, who now lives in Riverside, California.

Those reassurances counter reports by Nikolai Sologubovsky, a journalist and deputy head of a Russian committee of solidarity with the people of Libya and Syria, who told Russian television earlier this week that "the al-Jamahiriya National Museum in Tripoli has been looted and antiquities are being shipped out by sea to Europe." He added that "NATO aircraft have bombed Leptis Magna and Sabratha under the pretext that Gaddafi forces were hiding weapons there."

The former is a major ancient Roman city, while the latter was built by the Phoenicians more than 1500 years ago. "Plunder of Libya's cultural heritage has been going on since February," Sologubovsky asserted, without naming his sources. "I'm afraid it faces the same tragic fate as Iraq's antiquities, which were plundered by the victorious U.S. military." He could not be reached for comment.

There have been reports that NATO bombed an area near Leptis Magna, which lies just outside Tripoli, but not within the precincts of the site. "Leptis Magna and Sabratha sustained no damage whatsoever," says Walda. He adds that there is no evidence to back up the rumors that Qaddafi's forces stored arms in Leptis Magna as a way of protecting those weapons.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova warned in a media statement last week that international art dealers and museums should watch closely for artifacts that may have been looted from Libya. "Experience shows that there is a serious danger of destruction during times of social upheaval," she added.

In February, looters entered Egypt's famous Cairo Museum and stole hundreds of objects before order was restored, while several storerooms at more remote sites were also looted. Archaeologists say that UNESCO may soon plan a delegation to Libya in order to determine the status of its ancient sites and artifacts.

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