Contrary to popular belief, the looting of Iraqi antiquities did not begin when throngs raided the country's National Museum last month after U.S.-led forces took Baghdad.
Since the 1991 Persian Gulf war, a steady stream of ancient pottery, tablets, coins and other artifacts of biblical times has poured from Iraq into a black market in the West that many experts liken to the illicit drug trade.
Experts say the imposition of economic sanctions on Iraq after the war set the stage for looting as impoverished residents looked for anything they could sell to get money for survival.
Although an international effort is under way to track and recover the treasures of the Baghdad museum, experts say there is little hope of knowing the full extent of the thefts of the past dozen years or of grasping how the losses have damaged studies of the evolution of civilization. From an archaeological standpoint, once an item has been removed from its geographic context, its historic value is nearly shattered.
It is unclear how many of the Baghdad museum's 170,000 pieces were looted last month. Some items have been returned, and Jordanian customs officials said yesterday that they had confiscated numerous artifacts at the border that could have been stolen from museums or palaces in Iraq.
At the same time, there are fears that the outcry over the thefts has created so much scrutiny that thieves might hide their booty for years before trying to sell it.
The post-1991 thefts initially were carried out by ordinary citizens, but professionals have moved in. Often heavily armed, the thieves raid excavation sites or perform crude digs in remote parts of Iraq and then smuggle the artifacts out of the country.
The pieces are thought to move through Jordan, Turkey or Saudi Arabia en route to the West, where a network of middlemen and dealers provides the loot to private collectors and public museums.
Few are prosecuted, though transporting antiquities is illegal under a UNESCO Convention of 1970, to which the United States, Iraq and many European nations are signatories.
"There has been a tremendous, uninterrupted wave of looting and smuggling of antiquities since the gulf war, thousands of items a month," said McGuire Gibson, professor of Mesopotamian archaeology at the University of Chicago and president of the American Association for Research in Baghdad.
"The [archaeological] sites have been butchered," he said. "I've seen them. Everybody in the field knows it's happening."
British antiquities sleuth Neil Brodie, coordinator of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre in Cambridge, England, said, "All kinds of stuff has been flowing out of Iraq, stone reliefs, inscribed clay tables, cylinder seals, pottery - you name it."
"Most of it goes to private collectors, some to museums, which are variable in their acquisition ethics," he said.
Brodie said that "once a piece turns up on the market, it has no provenance," the art-world term for history of ownership. "So anyone can buy this material with a seemingly clear conscience, saying to themselves, 'We have no evidence that this is looted.'"
Before the 1991 war, looting of antiquities from the Iraqi land where ancient Mesopotamian civilizations once thrived was rare, according to experts, because tough laws preventing exportation had been instituted after Saddam Hussein's Baath Party ascended to power in the late 1960s. Restrictions in other countries, such as Egypt, were considerably looser.
After the war and the imposition of sanctions, the looting took off with Iraq's largely uncharted troves of antiquities raided by a populace seeking economic relief.
"What the sanctions did brilliantly was to set up the pre-conditions for training of a whole new set of antiquities looters," said Tony Wilkinson, associate professor of Near Eastern archaeology at the University of Chicago.
"Because after the war, the administration of Iraq outside the cities became much lighter. There were fewer staff and guards out there in the countryside and at various excavation sites because Iraq no longer could afford them," he said.
Lax security and poverty were a fatal combination, Wilkinson said. "These two factors resulted in a significant amount of informal plundering, with armed gangs eventually moving in."
Boston science writer Andrew Lawler, who has chronicled the archaeological tool of the sanctions, said, "People who probably would not have been involved in illicit antiquities needed to do so in order to eat."
Organized thieves carrying assault weapons targeted digs started by American and British universities, scholar Elizabeth Stone said. The raiders sometimes dug several stories deep to find artifacts, she said.
"I have seen sites in Iraq that looked like the surface of the moon, with huge craters where looters dug to find what they could," Lawler said.
"The looters in effect destroyed the archaeological context of the pieces they stole, essentially rendering these goods worthless for study," he said.
Because the sale of antiquities has been illegal since 1970, consumer demand in the West has risen.
"The international trade of illegal antiquities really is a lot like the drug trade," said Stone, an anthropology professor at the State University of New York in Stony Brook.
"It involves an illegal product transferred through many hands with money laundering, corruption and huge profits. It's just as sleazy as the drug trade, and people get killed for it, but it's treated rather differently. Few people go to jail," she said.
In 1999, Hussein's government executed 10 Iraqis who had removed the stone head from a large sculpture in the ancient Assyrian capital of Khorsabad, but smugglers inside and outside Iraq rarely have been apprehended. The thefts are so frequent and widespread that it is estimated that tens of thousands of items have been pillaged from remote locations in Iraq since 1991.
Once the objects emerge in the West, their origins are virtually impossible to trace because their existence was not known before they were stolen from deep inside the earth. Therefore, dealers and buyers can claim that the items had been in their possession for decades with scant chance of being disproved.
Representatives from UNESCO and some of the world's great museums met this week in London to discuss the problem.
UNESCO plans to send a group of experts to Iraq to draw up a list of the missing items, which would be distributed worldwide. Still, there are fears that it is too late to save many of the missing pieces.
"They are too well-known to appear in museums," Dominique Collon of the British Museum said at the London meeting. "I fear they are in private collections and we'll never see them again."
Experts say fragments of artifacts are increasingly turning up in the international marketplace, suggesting that valuable pieces are being destroyed to make them portable enough to smuggle.
"Our only hope now is that some kind of order is restored in Iraq and a government takes control," said Paul Zimansky, a Boston University archaeology professor.
"Maybe all of the attention this is receiving will make people realize how much already has been lost," he said.
Howard Reich is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.