News this Week

Science  06 Jul 2001:
Vol. 293, Issue 5527, pp. 24

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    Old Guard Urges Virologists to Go Back to Basics

    When the dot-com bubble burst, many wondered how the old way of doing business—face to face—could have been written off so prematurely. Now, some say that in science, too, infatuation with modern technology has gone too far. In an impassioned plea published last week, a group of veteran virologists argues that the genetic techniques that have revolutionized their field can't answer some of the most urgent and basic questions. The message to the younger generation, with its sleek polymerase chain reaction (PCR) robots, DNA sequencers, and high-speed computers: Without bricks-and-mortar virology, it will be much harder to understand and fight the next dangerous virus that comes along.

    “We may be old farts, but I think we have something important to say,” says Charles Calisher, 64, a virologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, who drafted the paper. Slated to be printed in the July/August issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, it was posted online* last week.

    Calisher has been worrying for years about the wholesale takeover by modern lab toys, fearing that the genetic code they spit out sheds much less light on a virus's workings than “classic” methods. Many senior scientists (some quite a bit younger) share his views: The 14 signatories include some of the most illustrious names in U.S. virology. Together, they have many decades of experience chasing exotic viruses across the globe.

    Most of these virologists trace their professional roots to the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, when money was plentiful and new viruses were discovered by the dozen. The procedure was straightforward, recalls Calisher: Once you isolated a new virus, you'd produce a stock of it, induce antibodies by injecting the virus into mice, then send your virus and reagents to one of several viral repositories around the world. Local health labs could use antibody tests to detect these new viruses, and other researchers could inject them into animals to study how they caused disease.

    Nowadays, scientists can detect a virus simply by searching for and amplifying snippets of its DNA in human or animal samples. Indeed, they have identified and described quite a few new viruses without ever isolating them. Thanks to techniques such as PCR and sequencing, diagnostic labs everywhere can perform high-sensitivity tests for a battery of viruses in a matter of hours. By comparing viral genomes, researchers can even construct complete phylogenetic trees. That, for instance, is how they found out that the West Nile virus strain that invaded the United States in 1999 probably came from Israel.

    Although all that is terrific, says Calisher, a string of DNA letters in a data bank tells little or nothing about how a virus multiplies, which animals carry it, how it makes people sick, or whether antibodies to other viruses might protect against it. Just studying sequences, Calisher says, is “like trying to say whether somebody has bad breath by looking at his fingerprint.” Yet funding agencies, eager to promote cutting-edge science, prefer molecular virology, the group writes. “People think you're a dinosaur if you still use the old techniques,” says co-author Robert Tesh, 65, of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

    Changing times.

    Some researchers worry that the genetic revolution is pushing out classic virological techniques.


    The playing field is further tilted, the researchers say, because of safety rules restricting work with live viruses. As for stalking new viruses, today's PCR generation “doesn't wanna go to Venezuela, sweat, eat bad food, and get diarrhea,” says Calisher. “But that's how you come home with tons of interesting samples.”

    Similar complaints can be heard in other fields of biology. But the trend is especially worrying in virology, Calisher asserts, because it might undermine the response to future public health threats. Other senior scientists agree. “This really needed to be said,” notes Harvey Artsob, 56, of the Canadian Science Center for Human and Animal Health in Winnipeg.

    But some (relative) youngsters are crying foul. “I don't think there's much to this argument,” says Brian Hjelle, 45, of the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. Within an hour after being asked to comment on this story, Hjelle shot back a two-page, 13-point memo defending molecular virology and criticizing classical methods. Modern techniques have delivered diagnostic tests for hantaviruses, HIV, and hepatitis C, which the old tools couldn't, and these have saved many lives. And techniques such as cloning and PCR are indispensable for studying viruses that are impossible to isolate.

    Other hard-core molecular virologists, although not completely embracing the statement, concede that the baby may have been thrown out with the bath water. “We need both new and old techniques,” says Gregory Ebel, 33, who studies West Nile virus at the New York State health lab in Guilderland. “I completely agree with most of Calisher's points,” adds Robert Lanciotti, 41, who helped tease out the West Nile pedigree at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Fort Collins, Colorado. (And “I'd love to go on field trips,” he adds.)

    Ab Osterhaus, 53, of Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, says he agrees with the authors' basic point, but he thinks they're overly pessimistic. There may be a little imbalance right now, but Osterhaus is certain that people will discover that good virology takes both fancy new tricks and time-honored methods. “I'm not worried that the field is going down the tubes,” he says.

    Calisher is not so sure. “I'll keep stirring this pot,” he promises. “There's too many people who think they don't need this old-fashioned stuff.”


    Recreated Wetlands No Match for Original

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser*
    1. *Compensating for Wetland Losses Under the Clean Water Act, NRC, June 2001,

    The assumption that an artificial wetland can replace a natural one has shaped U.S. policy for the past decade. Now, in unusually blunt language, a new report by the National Research Council* (NRC) says that the current approach, designed to ensure “no net loss” of wetlands, is a failure and that humanmade ecosystems are often a poor substitute for the real thing. What's needed, the report says, are major changes to the system for designing and regulating replacement wetlands.

    Environmental groups that have long criticized the current wetlands approach are delighted at the report's assertive tone. “This report changes the landscape on wetlands,” says Julie Sibbing, wetlands policy expert for the National Wildlife Federation in Reston, Virginia. “We can't pretend [the policy] is working anymore.”

    The existing policy gives developers the option of building a subdivision or a shopping center on top of a water-logged spot—if it's unavoidable and they restore or create a marsh nearby. That compromise was struck some 2 decades ago after government officials realized that the country was losing its wetlands at an alarming rate. What's more, these swamps or marshes, once regarded as unhealthy and worthless, were actually key wildlife habitat and valuable resources for cleaning water and controlling floods. In 1980, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revised its guidance on the amended 1972 Clean Water Act to stipulate that landowners who get a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or a state agency to build on a marsh may need to make up for the damage. Agencies began to promote this so-called mitigation policy after the first Bush Administration embraced a goal of “no net loss” of the area and function of wetlands in the continental United States, now estimated at 42 million hectares. The policy was continued under President Clinton.

    The NRC expert committee, formed at the request of EPA, found that although various factors, including less destruction of wetlands for agriculture, have stemmed their overall loss, mitigation isn't working. According to the corps, 17,000 hectares of wetlands have been created for 9500 lost between 1993 and 2000. Yet despite almost double the area, “the goal of no net loss is not being met,” says panel chair Joy Zedler, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

    One problem, the panel found, is that the corps doesn't keep very close tabs on the projects, and many are abandoned or never begun. Also, many of the recreated wetlands don't function in the same way as the original ones, which often depend on intermittent water flows to support a specific mix of plant and animal species (Science, 17 April 1998, p. 371). Moreover, some developers construct easily imitated types of wetlands such as cattail-lined ponds where they're “not naturally occurring,” Zedler says.

    The report recommends that wetlands that can't easily be replicated—like fens and bogs—be left alone. Wetlands that must be harmed should first be studied so that permit holders know what they're trying to reproduce. And before issuing a permit, regulators should look at the entire watershed to see if creating a different, more distant wetland would do more good in the long run than building an identical one nearby. To help accomplish these goals, the panel recommends a new database to track permits, a research program to find out what works, stricter enforcement, and long-term monitoring.

    It's now up to the younger Bush Administration and Congress to turn the report into action by beefing up the corps' regulatory budget for wetland mitigation, now $125 million a year, says panel vice chair Leonard Shabman, an economist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg. The watershed approach will also require better coordination among various agencies. “It's not an easy thing to do,” says Jeanne Christie, executive director of the Association of State Wetland Managers in Berne, New York. “We've been talking about this for years.”


    Missing Thighbones Suddenly Reappear

    1. Constance Holden

    In the latest twist in the interminable tale of Kennewick Man, four leg bones that disappeared 4 years ago have apparently resurfaced at the Benton County sheriff's storage facility in Kennewick, Washington. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) promptly took over the bones, which were rediscovered last week at the same time a court case resumed over disposition of the 9300-year-old remains.

    Together again.

    Wads of clay show where both femurs were broken.


    The bones, found on the shore of Washington's Columbia River in 1996, have been the object of a long-running tug-of-war between scientists who want to study them and Native Americans who want to bury them. Several federal agencies have mediated the dispute, and scientists are hoping that a ruling due soon from U.S. District Judge John Jelderks in Portland, Oregon, will toss the Kennewick find back into their domain.

    Kennewick Man's bones are well traveled. Shortly after they were found, they were seized by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in response to concerns from Native Americans. Stashed in the county coroner's office, then sent to Battelle Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, the bones are now stowed at Burke Museum in Seattle.

    An inventory taken at Battelle in 1997 revealed that most of Kennewick's thighbones—two pieces from each femur—were absent. Now they have apparently reappeared as mysteriously as they vanished. Richland anthropologist James Chatters, who studied the bones before the government took them, says workers demolishing an old storage building used by the sheriff found them in the coroner's evidence locker —in a box labeled as containing some other Columbia River bones that had been returned to Indians for burial in 1998.

    “I'm utterly baffled,” says Chatters, who notes that the FBI ransacked the sheriff's locker in a search for the bones in 1998. So is Michael Trimble, chief curator for the corps, who says “I haven't a clue” how they turned up again.

    FBI spokesperson Roberta Burroughs says the bones have been tentatively identified through comparison with photos. The FBI is awaiting approval from the U.S. attorney's office before returning them to the corps.

    Chatters says that the femurs should yield information about racial origins, because the femoral head in American Indians is more highly rotated in relation to the shaft than it is in Europeans. But the U.S. legal system will ultimately decide whether scientists will have another go at them.


    Neurons Fix Memories in the Mind's Eye

    1. Laura Helmuth

    When a monkey has to remember something, it holds that thought in its mind's eye, a new study suggests. Earlier memory research showed that higher order brain regions such as the frontal lobes buzz madly when monkeys (and people) remember something briefly. But this study, which appears on page 120, is the first to show that even the lowest level, workaday region of the visual cortex also hums with anticipation while maintaining a memory. The researchers suggest that this part of the brain holds on to a simple sensation that helps guide more sophisticated parts of the memory system.

    The work comes from Hans Supèr and colleagues at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, who looked at the responses of neurons in the primary visual cortex (V1) while animals were engaged in a test of working memory. This type of memory holds information at the ready, temporarily, while an animal prepares to act. The prototypical example is reciting a telephone number while walking from the phone book to the phone to dial.

    You must remember this.

    Neurons in V1 (red) fire to a remembered stimulus even after it vanishes.


    Neurobiologists used to think that V1 simply sorts incoming visual information before passing it on to higher brain centers for interpretation. As vision scientist Jeffrey Schall of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, points out, the brain area is “just one step removed from the retina.” But the Supèr team showed that neurons in V1 actively store memories of an image, briefly holding them until the animal makes the appropriate response.

    The result follows other studies in the past several years showing that V1 neurons aren't simple receptacles of light and shadow. For example, neurons in V1 fire more enthusiastically in response to a stimulus that tells a monkey how to get food than to an irrelevant stimulus. Now this study shows that V1 neurons don't even need a stimulus—they continue to fire to an image they have to keep in working memory even after it has disappeared. As Schall says, “V1 is a lot smarter than it used to be.”

    To test V1's role in memory, Supèr and Amsterdam colleagues Henk Spekreijse and Victor Lamme taught monkeys to watch a computer screen filled with flickering black and white pixels and wait for directions. While the animals kept their eyes focused on a central red dot, a small, rectangular patch of pixels somewhere in the monkey's peripheral vision would occasionally jerk to one side and then quickly vanish into the background flicker. Then, when the central dot disappeared—which could happen up to 2 seconds after the patch came and went—the monkey had to move its eyes to where the patch had been. If successful, the animal earned a treat.

    The team monitored V1 neurons, which are location specific, that were tuned to respond to a spot where the patch sometimes appeared. When the animals had learned that the patch (and not some other object on the screen) was tied to a reward, these neurons fired more robustly, as earlier studies have shown. The heightened firing then continued while the animal was waiting to move its eyes—presumably keeping the location in mind.

    What's more, the continued firing appeared to help the animals remember correctly. The monkeys sometimes failed to move their eyes to the right spot. When the researchers compared neuronal firing patterns in the incorrect trials to patterns in the correct ones, they found that the V1 neurons' firing had dwindled to baseline levels shortly before the monkey made a mistake.

    The team suggests that V1 neurons are communicating with other, higher level areas of the brain that are responsible for understanding the task and formulating a plan to respond. The V1 neurons contribute by keeping in mind the exact location that has to be remembered. So even if V1 isn't the ringleader of the memory gang, the new work shows that it plays an important role as a lookout.


    Elusive Protein Auditions for Several New Roles

    1. Jean Marx

    Few proteins are as hot as the amyloid precursor protein (APP), at least among neurobiologists. Highly expressed in brain neurons, APP is the source of amyloid-β (Aβ), the small protein whose abnormal deposition in the brain is thought to cause Alzheimer's disease. But APP's normal role has remained elusive, despite years of study. Now, on page 115, neurobiologists Xinwei Cao and Thomas Südhof of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas provide an intriguing clue about one possible function.

    APP appears to be located in the cell membrane, with part extending outside the cell and part—the so-called cytoplasmic tail—projecting inside. Cao and Südhof now have evidence that the cytoplasmic tail, when released from APP, can activate gene expression in the nucleus, possibly acting directly as a transcription factor, a protein that binds to regulatory regions and turns genes on and off. This is the first time anyone has linked APP to control of gene expression, and Alzheimer's researcher Sam Sisodia of the University of Chicago School of Medicine predicts that the finding “will capture the attention of many folk in the cell biology and Alzheimer's worlds.” He cautions, however, that more work will be needed to confirm this “tantalizing” result.

    This is new territory for Südhof, whose research has dealt mainly with understanding the synapse, the specialized structure through which neurons communicate with one another. But he's been thinking about the protein for a long time. “It's hard not to be interested in APP, given the importance of Alzheimer's,” he notes.

    A couple of findings prompted him to focus on a possible physiological function for the cytoplasmic tail. It associates with a variety of cell proteins. In addition, one of the two enzymes that cuts Aβ from the APP molecule also releases the cytoplasmic tail. Together these findings suggested to Südhof that APP might behave like another membrane protein called Notch, which plays an important role in embryonic development. When appropriately stimulated, Notch releases its cytoplasmic segment, which migrates to the nucleus, where it interacts with other proteins to turn on various genes.

    Gene regulator?

    When released from APP, the protein's cytoplasmic tail (APPct) may activate gene expression with the help of Fe65 and the Tip60 complex.


    To find out whether APP might play a similar role in gene transcription, Cao and Südhof introduced the gene for luciferase, an easily detectable enzyme, into various mammalian cells. Then, the researchers introduced the APP gene, modified so that at least theoretically its product could bind to and activate the luciferase gene. But the APP constructs alone had little effect on luciferase production, leading the researchers to conclude that APP might need help from another protein or proteins to stimulate gene transcription. They searched for such partners by looking for proteins that bind to the cytoplasmic tail of APP in yeast. They came up with a protein of unknown function called Fe65, which was already known to bind APP.

    When Cao and Südhof then added the Fe65 gene along with the APP genes to the luciferase gene-bearing cells, luciferase production shot up—more than 2000-fold in some cells. But when the APP tail is mutated so that it can't interact with Fe65, transcription remains low, confirming that the two are partners. The researchers also showed that the APP tail and Fe65 bind a protein, called Tip60, which is part of a large complex of proteins involved in gene transcription.

    Südhof proposes that when the tail is cleaved from APP, it moves to the nucleus, where it binds Fe65 and the Tip60 complex, thus activating gene transcription. If APP is involved in such a signaling pathway, he says, “the results imply there's some degree a regulation of [APP] cleavage.” That could be important for understanding Alzheimer's if, for example, that regulation goes awry and fosters A_ production or other neuronal abnormalities. But the case is not yet airtight, says Südhof, because the results were obtained in altered cells; the researchers still need to show that the cell's own proteins act the same way.

    And the APP-Fe65 partners may have other functions to boot. In the 25 June issue of the Journal of Cell Biology, a team led by Paul Greengard of Rockefeller University and Joseph Buxbaum of Mount Sinai School of Medicine, both in New York City, report that the two proteins foster the cell movements needed in wound healing. Furthermore, that paper cites unpublished work by the group suggesting that the proteins may also be involved in the movements of the growing tips of neurons and might thus contribute to axonal migration during development and synapse formation. If all this is borne out by future work, APP may turn out to have more talents than anyone suspected.


    Interest Blooms in Growing Jellyfish Boom

    1. David Malakoff*
    1. *Second Symposium on Marine Conservation Biology, 22–25 June.

    SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA—A jellyfish invasion might sound like the plot of a bad movie on late-night TV. But the pulsing, tentacled predators were a star attraction at a marine science meeting* here last week.

    Populations of some jellyfish appear to be exploding in several parts of the world, U.S. and Russian scientists reported, raising fears that they are taking over ecosystems that nurture key commercial fish stocks. The Gulf of Mexico and the Bering and Black seas have been particularly hard hit. In some cases, however, researchers don't know whether the blooms are unusual or just natural population fluctuations, says Claudia Mills, a jellyfish expert at the University of Washington's marine laboratory in Friday Harbor.

    In the Bering Sea off Alaska, the population of Chrysaora melanaster has jumped at least 10-fold over the past decade, reaching record numbers last year, reported biologist Richard Brodeur of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Newport, Oregon. Brodeur suspects that long-term climate shifts, which have affected ice cover and water temperatures, may explain the increase. But whatever the cause, the huge summer blooms could deliver a two-fisted punch to the Bering's fish stocks, which account for 5% of the world's catch.

    Gelatinous onslaught.

    Jellyfish blooms, like this one in the Gulf of Mexico, present a puzzle.


    The problem is that the 2-meter-long jellyfish not only compete for food with young pollock—one of the Bering's most valuable fish—but also feed on them. In a 1999 study conducted off the Pribilof Islands, Brodeur reported, the jellyfish consumed about 5% of the annual crop of zooplankton and about 3% of newborn pollock. Some fishing boat captains now avoid one area, dubbed “Slime Bank,” because countless jellyfish foul their nets.

    In the northern Gulf of Mexico, a foreign jellyfish produced a huge bloom last summer, reported Monty Graham of Alabama's Dauphin Island Sea Lab. Native to the tropical Pacific Ocean, Phyllorhiza punctata apparently drifted in from the Caribbean. Now, Graham and colleagues are waiting to see whether it and several native species continue to thrive, perhaps encouraged by declining coastal water quality and a growing thicket of offshore oil-drilling platforms. The platforms' steel legs, Graham speculates, may be one source of the hard substrate that jellyfish polyps—a bottom-dwelling life stage—need to thrive.

    Russian scientists, meanwhile, are keeping a close eye on booming Black Sea jellyfish, which have contributed to falling anchovy catches in the past several decades. Tamara Shiganova of the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology in Gelendzhik, Russia, noted that two species—one apparently native and the other introduced from the western Atlantic Ocean—now appear in often alternating blooms, vacuuming up the plankton that feed young fish. The Atlantic invader, Mnemiopsis leidyi, may soon get its comeuppance, however, because yet another exotic jellyfish has arrived—one that feasts on M. leidyi. Meanwhile, Mnemiopsis has invaded the nearby Caspian Sea, prompting fears that it could endanger a threatened seal species by reducing fish populations.

    On the flip side, notes Mills, some jellyfish have disappeared—along with other marine species—with little notice from polluted coastal waters, such as the Adriatic Sea and Puget Sound. Determining how such departures and arrivals influence complicated marine food webs will be difficult work, she says, involving laborious field surveys and careful counts of the contents of jellyfish's stomachs. Handling their gelatinous, watery bodies and stinging tentacles can be a chore, she adds: “Jellyfish can be really unpleasant.”


    By a Whisker, Harbor Seals Catch Their Prey

    1. Carl Zimmer*
    1. Carl Zimmer is the author of Parasite Rex and At the Water's Edge.

    When mammals began to colonize the ocean some 50 million years ago, they immediately faced a huge challenge: hunting under water. The sharp vision their ancestors had evolved on land to take advantage of the transparency of air was of little use in the ocean's murky darkness.

    Some species of dolphins and whales adapted to the new environment by evolving echolocation, which allows them to “see” with their ears. How other marine mammals manage to hunt without echolocation has long been a mystery, though. On page 102, German researchers report that part of the answer has been hiding in plain view: They use their whiskers.

    Earlier studies by several researchers had shown that seal whiskers are remarkably sensitive to even the slightest bending. “They can use whiskers like we can use our hands for object identification,” explains Guido Dehnhardt of Ruhr University Bochum in Germany. “They can measure the height of objects, they can discriminate different shapes, and they can very accurately determine an object's surface.” In 1998 Dehnhardt, then at the University of Bonn, and his colleagues showed that whiskers are not just sensitive to objects but even to tiny movements of water generated by passing fish.

    Given this exquisite sensitivity, seals might use their whiskers at close quarters to detect moving prey and then identify them by touch, some researchers speculated. But they assumed that a fish's wake would vanish too quickly to help the seal stalk its prey over longer distances.

    Skeptical, Dehnhardt's colleagues at the University of Bonn decided to test real fish in real water. As they reported last year in the Journal of Experimental Biology, a goldfish leaves behind swirling vortices that can linger for up to 30 seconds. In addition, the water in the goldfish's wake continues to flow significantly faster than the surrounding water for as long as 3 minutes. Based on these results, they calculated that the larger fish that seals favor (such as herring) might leave trails as long as 180 meters. These wakes might serve as the underwater equivalent of a bloodhound's scent trail—if a seal had the sensory equipment to detect it.

    Dehnhardt and his colleagues tested this possibility by training two harbor seals to chase a miniature, propeller-driven submarine. After the seals had learned the task, the team placed a mask over their eyes and headphones over their ears before launching the sub. After shutting off the sub's motor to eliminate acoustic clues, the researchers removed the headphones and allowed the blindfolded seals to begin their search. Even without the use of their eyes, the seals quickly began tracking the sub. Several lines of evidence suggest that the seals were relying solely on their whiskers. They closely followed the wake of a sub taking a curving path, even though sound waves and electrical fields would have guided them in a straight line instead. Moreover, once a seal found the sub's wake, it lost it in only 3% of the trials. To eliminate the possibility that the seals were actually following some chemical taste, the researchers masked the seals' whiskers and left only their mouths uncovered. Significantly, the seals always failed these trials.

    “Fascinating work,” says Paul Nachtigall of the University of Hawaii, Manoa. “Dehnhardt is picking up an old problem that was a huge controversy but that nobody ever really explained. And his idea makes good sense.”

    Markus Horning of Texas A&M University in Galveston calls the work “a huge step forward in pinniped foraging behavior and ecology.” It can, for example, explain some of the observations that Horning and his co-workers have made of Weddell seals hunting under the antarctic ice (Science, 12 February 1999, p. 993). Cameras placed on the back of the seals showed them swimming along curving paths just before catching fish. “The path that the seals take is what we'd expect if they were following a hydrodynamic trail,” says Dehnhardt.

    Seals may not be the only animals that follow hydrodynamic trails to hunt in murky waters. “Only the toothed whales such as dolphins and sperm whales have sonar systems,” Dehnhardt points out. “And it's interesting that all the other [marine mammals] have well-developed whiskers.” Far from simply being vestigial hairs, whiskers may ultimately prove to be the eyes of the ocean.


    Experts Urge Speedup to Mine 'Archives'

    1. Robert Koenig

    BERN, SWITZERLAND—The disappearance of tropical ice caps, giant coral heads, and old-growth teak forests is taking its toll on present-day ecosystems. But a group of prominent scientists say that such environmental assaults also rob them of an important source of data about past climates—and they want international action before it's too late.

    “Unfortunately, some of the most valuable paleoclimate archives are being rapidly destroyed, largely as a result of human influences. We cannot afford such an irreversible loss,” the researchers write in a letter published on page 47. In the letter, and in a session planned for an international meeting on global change next week in Amsterdam, the scientists propose a Global Paleoclimate Observing System (GPOS) for gathering indirect “proxy” data on climate change.

    Bits and pieces of such data are already being collected through various national and international research programs, but the major international climate observation systems have no significant paleo component. And because no one can stop ice caps or glaciers from melting, researchers want to tap data-rich ice cores and other proxy samples or data before they disappear. Raymond S. Bradley, one of the main organizers of the paleoclimate initiative, who heads the geosciences department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, likens it to rescuing deteriorating books or magnetic tapes. But instead of being in library basements, the proxy paleoclimate archives are scattered across the globe, from the sea floor to alpine glaciers.


    Dying corals could erase centuries of paleoclimate data.


    “It is a major scientific loss if we have not sampled 500-year-old trees that are being cut down to make furniture, or corals being blown up to make room for piers, or rapidly melting ice caps,” Bradley says. By analyzing such sources, he explains, scientists can obtain a long-term view of climate change that is lacking in present-day measurements.

    The researchers concede that their proposal lacks details. Some want to see new networks of paleoclimate experts—each specializing in specific climate systems—that would help coordinate research and share data through the existing World Data Center for Paleoclimatology in Boulder, Colorado. Others, such as geoscientist Lonnie G. Thompson of Ohio State University's Byrd Polar Research Center in Columbus, suggest a “virtual institute” to coordinate detailed regional studies of proxy archives. Keith Alverson, who directs Past Global Changes, a Bern-based group that promotes international paleoclimate research, says researchers in different countries should adopt standards that make it easier for them to pool their data. One way to do that would be to persuade U.N.-sponsored climate-monitoring programs—the Global Climate Observing System, Global Terrestrial Observing System, and Global Ocean Observing System—to add paleo data to their efforts, he suggests.

    Although other paleoclimate experts embrace the intent of the letter, some question the need for a new structure. David J. Verardo, director of the paleoclimate program at the U.S. National Science Foundation—perhaps the world's top funder of such research—says that the U.S. Global Change Research Program already supports efforts to recover and store the sort of information GPOS's advocates are concerned about. More money for existing research programs may be all that is needed, he says.

    But GPOS advocates want a more systematic approach. “We have to prioritize the vanishing archives and retrieve as much of the data as we can now,” says Alverson, who thinks an international effort is necessary. “An awful lot of irreplaceable information is being lost. A decade from now, it may be too late.”


    Destruction in Mesopotamia

    1. Andrew Lawler

    A decade of war, poverty, looting, and isolation has taken its toll on Iraq's once-proud archaeological heritage. But Iraqi researchers and their foreign colleagues are now moving to protect ancient sites and begin new digs

    BAGHDAD—The world reacted in horror and outrage in March as Afghanistan's Taliban rulers defaced and demolished ancient statues that they considered heretic. United Nations (UN) officials jetted to Kabul to plead for a halt to the destruction, other Islamic nations denounced the actions as barbaric, and U.S. museums made desperate offers to buy the threatened objects. Yet 2000 kilometers to the west, a far more extensive crisis has been unfolding for the past decade with barely a murmur of protest by the international community.

    Home of the world's first great cities and empires, likely birthplace of writing, and wellspring of many religious traditions, Iraq is endowed with thousands of important archaeological sites stretching across 10,000 years. Steep mounds of buried prehistoric villages, massive pyramidal structures called ziggurats, and splendid medieval desert castles rise above the plains. But 10 years of war, economic sanctions, and resulting poverty have taken a devastating toll on the rich heritage of the area that the Greeks called Mesopotamia—the land between two rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. Mobs looted most of Iraq's museums in the war's aftermath, machine gun-wielding intruders plundered ancient sites with impunity, and the country's once well-funded and proud team of scholars was scattered around the globe.

    With Iraq's continuing status as an international pariah, there remains little prospect of large-scale outside help. Organizations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) offer only limited aid, while Western governments show scant interest either in addressing the archaeological plight of Iraq or in stemming the tide of ancient objects flowing out of the country; thousands of inscribed tablets, cylinder seals, and stone statues are illegally making their way into the lucrative antiquities markets of London, Geneva, and New York to be sold to private collectors. Pitted mounds littered with spent bullets on Iraq's vast southern plain are mute testaments to the irrevocable loss.

    Crumbling glory.

    The ziggurat at Aqar Quf, built about 1400 B.C., is one of the best preserved.


    But thanks to the tenacious lobbying of the few remaining archaeologists, increased oil revenues, and a gradual thawing of ties with other nations, the worst may be over. In the past year, Iraq's archaeological community has begun reorganizing, regaining control over sites formerly the province of looters, and reopening Iraq to foreign expeditions. The researchers' efforts, however, remain hobbled by limited funds and a decade of isolation from their colleagues abroad and from current technologies, theories, and methods.

    Mute mounds

    Few places on Earth have such a long and complex history as Iraq, which for millennia has served as the stage for a vast array of technological innovations, artistic styles, religious and social experiments, and countless invasions—the area has always lacked the natural defenses and stable government that characterized ancient Egypt. Warring kings in shifting alliances competed fiercely for control of trade routes and religious centers. Nomadic invaders adopted the country's invention of wedge-shaped writing—cuneiform—already more than 2500 years old in Alexander's day. Extensive irrigation systems collapsed without constant maintenance, while the all-important rivers occasionally changed course, leaving vast cities stranded in inhospitable deserts.

    European adventurers, noting the vast and mysterious mounds dotting the area, first began to piece together this historical puzzle in the early 1800s. Drawing on Greek chronicles and the biblical mentions of exotic places such as Ur, Babylon, and Nineveh, and, once deciphered, on the treasure troves of cuneiform tablets unearthed across the area, scholars began to uncover an ancient civilization hidden in layers of clay and dirt.


    By the turn of the century, European and U.S. universities were staking their claims to particular sites. The discovery in the mid-1920s by Britain's Leonard Woolley of delicate gold objects in the Royal Tombs of Ur renewed public attention and helped stimulate private support. Baghdad's Iraqi Museum, founded in the 1920s by British pioneer Gertrude Bell, grew into a critical resource for Mesopotamian scholars around the world. Similarly, the archaeology school created at the University of Baghdad in the 1950s laid the foundation for what University of Chicago archaeologist McGuire Gibson calls “the best trained cadre of researchers in the Middle East.” During the 1960s through the 1980s, Iraq's oil-rich government allocated substantial resources to archaeology, carefully planning salvage projects in advance of new dams and even paying some of the expenses of foreign expeditions engaged in such salvage.

    Still, excavations in Iraq have always been a challenge. Obtaining visas, permits, and other documents from the country's bureaucracy has been notoriously difficult since Ottoman times, and the fiercely hot summers and drizzly winters limit the duration of work seasons. Yet except for the two world wars and an occasional period of unrest, digging by both Iraqi and foreign expeditions continued largely unabated, even during the brutal Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

    Looting spree

    All that changed on 2 August 1990, when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ordered his troops to invade Kuwait. As the Western allies' response took the war into Iraq proper, foreign archaeologists fled the country while their Iraqi colleagues rushed to find safe places for tens of thousands of objects in the vulnerable Baghdad museum —located next to a telecommunications center that was a prime wartime target. Officials considered the dozen regional museums located in other major cities and important historical sites to be less threatened —a tragic miscalculation.

    “I would say we moved more than 150,000 pieces,” recalls Donny George, research director of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities. The most valuable objects in Baghdad, such as the bronze head of an Akkadian king and the hoard of gold jewelry found in Nimrud shortly before the Gulf War (see p. 42), were placed in a bank vault for safekeeping, where they remain today. The 70-odd pieces too heavy to move, such as the invaluable carved slabs from Assyrian palaces, were wrapped in sponge, George says. “Then we placed hundreds and hundreds of sandbags all around.”

    The 6 weeks of intensive bombing that began on 16 January 1991 ultimately did little damage to Iraq's archaeological works, but the same cannot be said for the campaign's aftermath. Civil war broke out in March. While Kurds eager for independence mobilized in the north, Shiite Muslims opposed to Saddam's Sunni-dominated rule revolted in the south. Rioting mobs in the large southern city of Basra forced their way into the museum there, destroying or carrying off hundreds of precious artifacts. In nearby Amara, when the museum director's son tried to prevent a crowd from entering, he was killed on the spot and the building was burned. All told, 11 of Iraq's 13 regional museums were looted.

    Saddam's Republican Guards quickly and brutally suppressed these largely spontaneous revolts, but the damage they had caused to Iraq's archaeological heritage was irreversible. Muayad Damerji, who was director general of antiquities at the time and now is antiquities counselor to the culture minister, says that 4800 objects—ranging from Sumerian-era statues to medieval Islamic pottery—vanished in the turmoil. Western researchers estimate that at least 3000 significant objects were lost. As order was restored, George and his colleagues quickly fanned out across the country to salvage what they could, but with modest results. “We've recovered maybe a few pieces, but no more,” says Muayad.

    Cratered landscape

    The war and riots presaged an even darker period for Iraqi archaeology. The resulting economic dislocation and the application of sanctions by the United Nations shut off the funding spigot for antiquities, which once enjoyed virtually open-ended annual budgets thanks to oil wealth. Monthly salaries of antiquities workers plummeted, and dozens of highly trained specialists moved to Europe, the United States, and other parts of the Arab world.

    “In the aftermath of the war, the situation was critical,” says Muayad. “There was a growing lack of equipment and vehicles for archaeological activities, and we lost new blood in the field. For at least 6 years, conditions were severe.” And conditions at archaeological sites deteriorated alarmingly through the mid-1990s. With most foreign excavators gone and little domestic support, all digging stopped.

    For rural people being squeezed further into deep poverty—some of whom had worked for archaeologists and were knowledgeable about where to find valuable goods—abandoned and unexplored sites proved tempting targets. The government's loss of control over many rural areas made it hard to curb looting, and the antiquities department lacked money for guards and ammunition. “Since 1994 and 1995, the real threat has been at the archaeological sites,” says Muayad. Adds George: “We knew it was very organized: People showed up in five or even 10 pickups, with a couple of them filled with people armed with medium-or heavy-sized machine guns. They would protect the diggers.”


    Muayad Damerji has had little international help.


    The result is all too apparent at sites such as Djokha in southern Iraq, where the looters methodically stripped an ancient and unexcavated Sumerian city of its clay tablets, statues, and cylinder seals. U.S. and European archaeologists say that large numbers of smuggled goods from this site are now appearing in antiquities markets abroad and even on the Internet's eBay. During a recent visit, an area of several hectares at the center of the city was pocked with dozens of deep pits, leaving behind a lunar landscape. Walls, floors, and potsherds, which have negligible economic value but would have provided important data for archaeologists, were severely damaged or destroyed.

    This pattern of thefts has been repeated throughout southern Iraq, say a number of Iraqi and foreign archaeologists familiar with the territory. And some sites in northern Iraq, such as Nimrud and Sennacherib's palace in Nineveh, have been seriously vandalized as well (see p. 37).

    The looting continues despite draconian punishments. In 1997, a group of Iraqis from near the northern town of Mosul raided the nearby ancient Assyrian capital of Khorsabad. They sawed a massive stone head off its body, cut the head into pieces, and tried to sneak them across the border for Western collectors. “It was the crime of the century,” fumes George. In 1999, the head was recovered and 10 of the 12 perpetrators were captured. Conservators in Baghdad are preparing to reassemble the broken head, but there is no chance of rehabilitating the looters: All 10 were executed.

    Another serious threat results from the desperate effort to boost the food and water supply in a country under an international economic embargo. Emergency dam and irrigation projects sped forward in the 1990s without the usual time-consuming archaeological salvaging by domestic and foreign researchers, causing untold losses. A major drainage canal running from near Baghdad to the far south, for example, was built without extensive archaeological salvage, and innumerable smaller projects have damaged many sites, according to Iraqi and Western researchers.

    Such threats aren't fading: A large area around the ancient Assyrian capital of Ashur, for example, would be flooded by a dam proposed for the Tigris. “I'm worried; this is a very important area,” says Peter Miglus of the University of Heidelberg in Germany, who plans to begin digging at the site this fall. “We may have to find a way to surround Ashur with a wall,” says Muayad. Smaller sites are even more vulnerable.

    Isolation and self-reliance

    A less dramatic but more intractable problem for Iraqi archaeologists is their continuing isolation. Economic sanctions against Saddam's totalitarian regime still curtail foreign involvement in Iraqi activities: In the case of the United States and Britain, even travel to Iraq is forbidden. Flights in and out of Baghdad are barred by the United Nations, which means that most visitors must endure a bone-rattling 10-hour trip over the Syrian desert from Jordan. Basic archaeological equipment—from film to conservation glue—is hard to obtain.

    Isolation, however, has prompted introspection. “We discovered that we could not lean on UNESCO or even private institutions,” says Muayad. “We have to support ourselves. We are doing what we can in very limited conditions and capacities, but we are doing our best.”

    Although the Iraqi economy remains in a shambles, the situation has improved somewhat since 1996, when the UN approved oil sales in exchange for food and medicines, and recent talks at the UN may lead to an easing of sanctions along with a warmer political climate. Meanwhile, there are now more government revenues in Iraq, a high-level recognition there of the looting problem, and a political push to broaden contacts with the outside world. Also, a new generation of students is emerging from schools and universities, which were moribund during much of the 1990s; and after years of being shut, the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad recently reopened.


    Looters denuded this ancient Sumerian site.


    All these factors are contributing to the revival of Iraqi archaeology. Local researchers are starting a slew of challenging excavations while attempting to lure back foreign teams as well. The old department of antiquities has been reconstituted in recent months as a higher profile state board, which archaeologists say will have more bureaucratic muscle. A new president, Jabbar Hadithi, was just named in June, and George is the new head of the board's research and publications directorate. Muayad himself was moved upstairs to the minister's office. The reorganization has won approval from the highest levels. “Now we have the complete support of [Saddam] himself,” says George.

    And indeed, the current budget for archaeological activities is at a level comparable to those from before the Gulf War, says Rabia al-Qaisi, director general of restoration and former acting board chief. “And we hope that will increase,” he adds. One of the board's key tasks is to rebuild the sadly denuded field with a new generation of University of Baghdad graduates—including a number of women; elderly archaeology workers now are forbidden from retiring so that they can pass on their expertise.

    Meanwhile, at more than a half-dozen sites in the north and south, Iraqi excavators are back at work after nearly a decade's hiatus. And a number of foreign teams are also reentering the country (see p. 36). Looters are being discouraged by the increased activity at remote sites, the addition of armed guards at others, and the cooperation of the local sheiks who control much of Iraq's rural areas. Muayad and George add that a new and harsher set of penalties for looting is due to be put in place this year, laying out specific fines and, in the case of serious theft and collaboration with foreigners, ordering jail terms and even the death penalty.

    Muayad verges on ecstatic when describing times to come. “The future of archaeology in Iraq is glorious, because we have 10,000 sites, some of them monumental,” he says. “More than 70 big towns and cities in ancient history are still waiting for excavators, and there are certainly enough places for the next generation to excavate.”

    That optimism, however, must be tempered by the irrevocable loss of data, objects, and intellectual capital during the past decade of neglect, vandalism, and poverty. “There has been a tremendous amount of damage,” says Michael Müller-Karpe, an archaeologist at the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz, Germany. This era, say researchers, will long be remembered as a sad and terrible chapter in Mesopotamian history. Laments Yale University's Harvey Weiss: “This will be known for centuries to come as a period of archaeological devastation.”


    10,000 Years of Mesopotamian History

    1. Andrew Lawler

    7500 B.C. Nemrik stone bird head

    CREDIT: DAI-Baghdad

    5000 Eridu temple

    3300 Early writing at Uruk

    2800 Royal cemetery at Ur

    2300 Sargon of Akkad

    Babylon under Hammurabi

    1800 Old Assyrian trade with Anatolia

    1350 Ashur Middle Assyrian capital

    850 New Assyrian capital of Kalhu

    Assyrians destroy Babylon

    700 Sennacherib builds Nineveh palace

    Babylon restored

    600 Medes and Babylonians conquer Assyria

    CREDIT: A. Lawler

    500 Persians control Mesopotamia

    330 Alexander the Great invades

    150 Parthians seize Babylon

    End of cuneiform

    A.D. 70 Hatra founded

    190 Romans reach Persian Gulf

    250 Ctesiphon, Sasannian capital

    650 Arabs conquer Mesopotamia

    850 Samarra built

    1250 Baghdad sacked by Mongols

    1550 Ottomans control Mesopotamia

    1845 Layard excavates Nineveh, Nimrud

    1900 Koldewey excavates Babylon

    CREDIT: University of Pennsylvania

    1930 Woolley evcavates Ur

    1960 Revolution topples Iraqi monarchy

    CREDIT: University of Pennsylvania

    1970 Saddam's Ba'ath party takes power

    1980 Iran-Iraq war begins

    1988 Muzahem discovers Nimrud gold

    1990 Iraq invades Kuwait

    1991 Baghdad bombed; regional museums looted

    1992 Scholars estimate 3000+ objects lost in 1991 looting

    1994 Assyrian sculpture sells for $12 million

    1995 Serious looting of sites begins

    1997 Khorsabad head stolen

    1999 Iraqi archaeologists resume digging

    2000 State Board of Antiquities created

    2001 Foreign archaeologists return


    Iraq Opening Sets Off Scramble for Sites

    1. Andrew Lawler

    European and Japanese excavators are returning to Iraq while frustrated American and British archaeologists cool their heels

    WARKA—A fierce sandstorm blows up suddenly over the hot plain, obscuring the chain of “hills” that punctuates its flatness. These mounds are all that remain of the wall that once encircled the ancient city of Uruk, which legend attributes to King Gilgamesh. Head wrapped in a protective scarf, Margarete van Ess of Berlin's German Archaeological Institute doesn't seem to mind the dusty desert wind. The leader of one of several foreign teams now returning to Iraq, she is delighted to be back and digging after a decade of exile.

    Dry spell.

    Margarete van Ess is back in Uruk after a decade-long hiatus.


    The return of van Ess and other foreign archaeologists marks an abrupt and dramatic end to Iraq's near-total isolation from scientific circles since 1990, following its invasion of Kuwait. “We welcome our foreign colleagues,” says Benham Abu Al-Soof, an Iraqi archaeologist and parliamentarian. “There is room for everybody—we have no barriers.” Archaeologists from Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Belgium, and Austria are cautiously taking him up on the offer, preparing a new generation of excavations that will profit from advanced field methods and technologies. “It's very exciting, and we are hoping slowly to begin our work again,” says van Ess.

    Conspicuously absent are the Americans and the British, long key players in the 160 years of Iraqi archaeology, during which time important sites were claimed by research institutions of various foreign countries. Barred by the stricter policies of their governments, which prohibit travel to Iraq and cultural contacts, U.S. and British scientists are left out of the scramble for prime sites in which their European and Japanese counterparts are currently engaged. “It's awful, it's horrible. We'll be the last ones back,” says McGuire Gibson, an archaeologist at the University of Chicago who has devoted much of his professional life to the ancient Sumerian city of Nippur. “It puts our students at a tremendous disadvantage.”

    Meanwhile, excavators like van Ess are already back in the field or heading that way. Austrians are at work at Borsippa, a site south of Babylon; an Italian team is digging at Hatra, a Roman and Parthian site in northwestern Iraq; and the Japanese recently began work at the Sumerian site of Kish in the south. A Belgian team plans to resume work shortly at Tell ed-Deir, and another group of Italians will likely return to Seleucia on the Tigris. French archaeologists also intend to go back to the Sumerian site of Larsa next year.

    Left behind.

    Barred from Iraq, McGuire Gibson now digs in Syria.


    German archaeologists have the largest presence of all the foreign teams. For example, they are at Uruk, a city with a formidable history. First excavated in 1912 and subsequently yielding 3 millennia of rich layers of temples, palaces, houses, and walls, Uruk is Earth's oldest known literate city and the site of the only known temple on top of a ziggurat. But the city, called Erech in the Bible, poses a puzzle for archaeologists: Its inhabitants often used clay tablets and pottery as fill, making it tough to place objects in their original context. “It is a rather difficult stratigraphic situation,” says van Ess.

    Her team has just begun a 5-year survey designed to provide a general stratigraphic picture of Uruk's layers, determine how the city was divided into quarters, and reveal how ancient citizens may have moved along its streets and canals. She expects to begin a series of small excavations around 2003 to gather more specific data.

    Another group led by Peter Miglus of the University of Heidelberg in Germany intends to start work this fall at Ashur, the ancient Assyrian capital that juts out into the Tigris valley north of Baghdad. German digs at the site date back to 1903 but stopped in 1990; the new team intends to begin excavation at a temple on the western edge of the site. Miglus has been working on smaller projects in cooperation with the University of Baghdad since the late 1990s in order to ease the way back into Iraq. “We wanted to find out how this would work,” he explains.

    Old digs.

    German researchers at Uruk have been uncovering temples, palaces, and the earliest cuneiform since 1914.


    Meanwhile, Germany's Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz has been playing an important role in conserving and repairing damaged metal and stone objects, as well as in training Iraqis at its state-of-the-art conservation lab. Michael Müller-Karpe, an archaeologist at the museum, has close contacts with his Iraqi colleagues, having worked extensively at the Iraqi Museum throughout the 1990s.

    Yet despite the bustle of activity and Al-Soof's open-armed invitation, many researchers are only too aware that politics or war could force them to beat a hasty retreat, as happened in the 1980s and then again in 1990. “After the [Iran-Iraq] war, people thought it would be easy to come back, but now there's a little more caution,” says Arnulf Hausleiter, an archaeologist at Berlin's Free University. And Iraq's years of isolation combined with its red tape make patience a necessity. “The Iraqis are not used to foreign missions yet,” he says. “They are always nice and helpful, but everything takes a long time.”

    Such troubles would be welcome to American and British researchers. “The French see the vacuum we've left, and their government is encouraging cultural contacts with Iraq,” says one frustrated British archaeologist. “They've got their foot in the door.”

    For the time being, Gibson is cooling his heels in Syria, just 8 kilometers from the Iraqi border, where he has been digging at an ancient site at Hamoukar. But he yearns to return to Nippur, in southern Mesopotamia. In 1990, he had just uncovered a temple to Gula, goddess of medicine, when the Gulf War broke out. He had planned to excavate both the temple and its neighborhood to understand their relationship. “We left in late March of 1990, intending to come back in a few months,” he says.

    The site survived both the war and the subsequent chaos unscathed. But in 1994 Gibson learned that part of his dig house had been torched during a local tribal dispute. Although he has returned to visit the site several times, he cannot fix the dig house roof, much less excavate, until the United States eases its stance on Saddam's regime.

    Iraq's loss has been two other countries' gain. Without access to Iraq, Americans like Gibson as well as Europeans have done a good deal of work in Turkey and Syria in recent years. And it has produced significant results; the archaeologists have identified towns and cities of the 4th and 3rd millennia B.C. that were larger and more complex than previously known.

    But Iraqi archaeologists are confident their colleagues eventually will all return from the rim to the heartland of Mesopotamia. “The American and British groups working in Syria and Turkey will finish up and come back to Iraq again,” predicts Muayad Damerji, antiquities counselor to the Ministry of Culture. “They will come back, I am sure.”


    Sale of Nineveh Fragments Exposes Looting Network

    1. Andrew Lawler

    MOSUL—When invading Babylonians and Medes attacked ancient Nineveh and burned the palace of Assyrian King Sennacherib here in 612 B.C., they didn't know they were ensuring his posthumous fame. The upper stories of what was called “the palace without rival” collapsed, burying hundreds of massive stone slabs in the throne room under meters of debris. Excavated in the 1840s, these elaborately carved slabs caused a sensation with their lively depiction of the king's victorious campaigns in the Near East.

    What the enemy troops failed to destroy 2600 years ago, looters encouraged by the Western and Japanese thirst for antiquities have been vanquishing in the past 10. On a recent visit, smashed stones littered the ground where whole slabs once stood. Even the protective metal roof was gone, victim of scavengers. John Russell, an archaeologist at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston who has meticulously documented the site for 2 decades, calls the devastation “the final sack of Nineveh.”

    The sad fate of Sennacherib's palace transformed Russell from mild-mannered professor to antiquities activist. Blocked from further digging at Nineveh because of U.S. restrictions, he instead has exposed a network of local Iraqis and shadowy dealers eager to take advantage of easy pickings and the country's political and economic isolation. Thanks to his efforts, at least one fragment from the palace is scheduled to be returned soon to Iraq from London.

    But other pieces from the palace—likely numbering more than a dozen—are out of the reach of Iraqi authorities and archaeologists eager to understand the art, politics, and social life of Assyria. And what remains on site has been diminished in value. After a March visit to Nineveh, Russell estimated that of the 100 or so exposed slabs there, about one-third have been seriously damaged.

    Occupied by humans for 9 millennia, Nineveh served as the last and grandest Assyrian capital, boasting 12 kilometers of walls with 18 gates enclosing more than 7 square kilometers rich in carved stone and clay tablets. The modern city of Mosul, originally confined to the opposite side of the Tigris, now sprawls within the old city walls.

    Before and after.

    This Sennacherib slab was intact in 1989, but by this spring it was destroyed.


    In this desperately poor region, the temptation of nearby treasure is hard to resist. There's big money involved: The 1994 sale of an Assyrian sculpture—that had long been at an English private school—brought nearly $12 million from a Japanese dealer, a record price for an antiquity. Ironically, it was Russell who identified it as an original rather than the plaster cast it was taken to be. The high price fetched at the auction occurred just as serious looting began in Iraq, according to foreign and Iraqi scholars.

    The following year, Russell identified through photos several fragments from Sennacherib's palace that were in place as late as 1990 but that are now in the possession of a London collector, who claims not to have known they were stolen. Russell's reporting of the looted pieces ultimately led to an unusual British court battle between the collector and the Iraqi government. One slab fragment is slated to be brought this year to Baghdad—but only because Iraq reluctantly agreed to compensate the collector for the alleged original purchase price of $14,000.

    Russell and other archaeologists say that hundreds if not thousands of looted objects from Iraq are circulating around the West and in Saudi Arabia and Japan. Two or three other Iraqi objects from various sites have been returned by the British, but tense relations between Iraq and most Western nations leave little room for joint efforts to curb the looter-dealer-collector network. Still, Russell's efforts—which include a book and several articles—have put a spotlight on the problem. “It has touched a nerve in him,” says David Stronach, an archaeologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who led dig teams at Nineveh in the 1980s. “And though it is an enormously uphill struggle, he is doing a great service.”


    New Digs Draw Applause and Concern

    1. Andrew Lawler

    Iraqi archaeologists are back in the field and making significant finds. But Western researchers worry about their methods after years of isolation

    UMM AL-AQIRIB—Iraqi archaeologists working last year on an ancient Sumerian site in this remote area in southern Iraq heard a rumor that looters were ready to pounce as soon as work stopped for the summer. So they took no chances. The researchers and a team of 30 local diggers worked straight through the ferocious summer, enduring temperatures that regularly soared past 50 degrees Celsius.

    Their efforts paid off: The excavators uncovered a rare cemetery, a huge complex of buildings in an unusual configuration, and a 7-meter-high wall in remarkable condition—all of which challenge current assumptions about city development in the 4th and 3rd millennia B.C. “It's astonishing,” says McGuire Gibson, a University of Chicago archaeologist. These findings “will rewrite the history of architecture in ancient Mesopotamia.”

    Gibson was part of a team of Western researchers visiting Iraq this spring, the first such group to size up some of the 15 Iraqi excavations begun in the past 18 months after nearly a decade's hiatus. A new generation of Iraqi archaeologists has fanned out to six sites in the south, five in the north, and four in the area around Baghdad—mostly places threatened by looters, irrigation-canal construction, or the rising waters of new dams.

    New finds such as those at Umm Al-Aqirib—“Mother of Scorpions” in Arabic—and nearby Djokha are causing ripples of excitement among Near Eastern specialists. But Western scientists also worry that their colleagues' economic troubles, long isolation, and emphasis on restoration—trying to reconstruct ancient sites rather than simply preserving what remains—may pose a threat to important and fragile ruins.

    At Al-Aqirib, which comprises 5 square kilometers of sand dunes, the team led by Iraq antiquities research director Donny George excavated a palace or administrative building from the 3rd millennium B.C. that is 50 meters square. Jars in the structure still contained the residues of wheat and barley. Nearby, the team has uncovered what appears to be a temple, 38 meters by 28 meters with a 7-meter-high wall, that may date to before 3000 B.C. and that is nearly flush against the base of a platform or ziggurat—an unusual arrangement for that period, says George. On the other side of the platform is a large area of graves dating from roughly the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C.

    Fine work.

    Iraqi excavators at Ashur, left. At Djokha, Nawala Al-Mutawalli has found unusually good building methods.


    The extent of the cemetery, which has been partially looted, remains uncertain, but excavators have opened 18 graves so far and generally found either one stone or one copper bowl next to human remains. In the tomb of one woman, apparently someone of means, were 46 pieces of lapis lazuli. Although Mesopotamian burials typically were under homes, one British scholar speculates that Al-Aqirib was a Sumerian religious center and therefore a popular burial place. Other archaeologists agree that the site raises a host of provocative questions. “They have a real puzzle on their hands,” says Gibson.

    Sumer surprise.

    This complex unearthed by Donny George's team astonishes Western researchers.


    That is true at other sites as well. At Djokha, for example, about 7 kilometers away, archaeologist Nawala Al-Mutawalli is excavating a site, nearly devastated by looters, that was a major urban center from the end of the 4th millennium to the beginning of the 2nd millennium B.C. She has uncovered temples and homes, mostly from the 2nd and 3rd millennia B.C., made with an unusually large number of baked bricks—mud bricks were the more common and cheaper alternative—with valuable bitumen mortar that came from distant northern Mesopotamia. “These are unusually high building standards,” she says. “You usually find such techniques mainly on ziggurats.”

    In the north, an Iraqi team is busy uncovering mansions on the southern side of the old Assyrian capital of Ashur that date to around the 8th century B.C. During a recent visit, more than a dozen workers had just uncovered courtyards paved with patterns of small stones on top of sophisticated drainage systems. Digging at the site began in 1999, also to ward off looters. With the area now secure, a German team plans to start its own digging this fall on the western side of the site (see p. 36).

    Iraqi archaeologists are also desperately trying to explore sites threatened by irrigation and dam building. Thus archaeologist Fawziwa Al-Maliki, for example, has hastened to begin surveying Habil Ibrahim—a legendary home of Abraham north of Mosul—which is threatened by canal building and farming. And at Tell Al-Namil, also in the north, archaeologist Burhan Shakir is excavating a site that has already suffered at the hands of local villagers but is now threatened by the rising waters of a nearby dam. An unusual circular building with a series of walls includes a main entrance that boasted a 4-meter-wide arch, a spiral staircase, and a brick well; a nearby cemetery has 220 graves. The complex dates to about 2900 B.C.

    Conserve or preserve?

    Although impressed by the initial work of these and other young Iraqi archaeologists, several Western researchers worry that a new generation of excavators lacks education in current methods and technologies. They also fear that the new digs could leave little funding for less glamorous efforts, such as object and site conservation. And they remain wary of the Iraqi tradition of site reconstruction at places like Babylon and Hatra.

    Shaky foundations.

    Poor restoration work at the Aqar Quf ziggurat near Baghdad has deteriorated quickly.


    The reconstruction at Babylon during the 1980s, for example, placed new walls on old and unstable foundations sitting on a rising water table. UNESCO officials say they rejected an Iraqi attempt to place Babylon on a list of world heritage sites because, in their view, it was compromised by the rebuilding effort. The effects of such reconstruction are most visible at Aqar Quf, a ziggurat outside Baghdad, where the new bricks on the old base are collapsing.

    There is also an absence of specialists to care for what is uncovered. “There are no trained conservators in the country,” says one foreign archaeologist. He notes that although a German institute has offered to train Iraqi conservators and cover their expenses, it has gotten few takers. “There's an attitude that you don't want to stoop to preservation and conservation,” he adds. And the internal problems with publishing and communicating Iraqi efforts to the outside world only increases Western worries. “If you don't publish, you are just plundering,” says one Western researcher.

    Babylon rising.

    Saddam's government has poured funding into questionable reconstruction.


    George dismisses these worries as overblown. A recent spate of conferences, books, and journals is easing the isolation, he says, and students in the field are carefully trained and monitored by their elders. “They work 24 hours, drawing, digging, cleaning, gluing, restoring,” he says, noting that four or five people have been sent to Germany to learn the latest conservation techniques, and others are planning to make the same trip.

    As for restoration, George has sharp words for Western critics. “A lot of people would like ruins to stay ruins,” he says. “But whenever a central government was strong and wealthy, it restored and rebuilt the ancient cities—it's a long, long tradition going back to Sumerian times.” That tradition indeed dies hard. One senior Iraqi official recently sought advice from foreign archaeologists on rebuilding the famed tower of Babel, now surrounded by a swamp.

    Such proposals clearly appeal to President Saddam Hussein, who ordered that every new brick at Babylon be stamped with his name and who has built his own sprawling palace there. But after 2 decades of war and economic hardship, such ambitious and inherently costly schemes seem unlikely to go forward.


    Rifle-Toting Researcher Fights to Protect Ancient Sites

    1. Andrew Lawler

    BAGHDAD—Early one morning at the end of the Gulf War, Donny George was driving home to Baghdad after examining the ancient city of Hatra for signs of bomb damage or looting. A couple of allied jets roared over his car; the Iraqi archaeologist thought nothing of it until minutes later, when he came upon the bullet-pocked wreckage of a group of vehicles attacked by the same planes.

    George has had more than his share of such Indiana Jones-style adventures. He kept a constant vigil at the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad during the Gulf War, catching a nap in the cellar in between air raids; he organized opposition to the truckloads of armed looters who scoured the countryside in the mid-1990s; and he later survived a brutal assault by an unknown assailant. All the while, George has played a critical role in keeping his field alive during a traumatic time. “He really has been cradling Iraqi archaeology for years,” says Michael Müller-Karpe, an archaeologist at the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz, Germany, who has known George for some 25 years. “Archaeology owes a lot to him.”

    George, 50, started his career working in the museum storeroom; recently, he was named director general of research and publications in the newly created State Board of Antiquities. In that capacity, he is overseeing a series of new excavations, struggling to revive scholarly publications and conferences, and encouraging a new generation of researchers to enter the field. His fluent English—his father was an accountant at the British consulate—and skills at cutting red tape have been major factors in easing the return of foreign excavators.

    A senior member of a northern tribe, George earned all his degrees in Baghdad; his Ph.D. was on grave goods from a 6th-millennium-B.C. site. Later he served as field director at Babylon and then as the scientific and technical assistant to the chief of the old department. In the past decade, however, he has had little time to dig and do research. Instead, his job has been a study in continual crisis management.

    In 1991, he helped organize the massive effort of boxing and storing the thousands of antiquities in the Iraqi Museum prior to the Gulf War; he and colleagues remained in the museum. “We had 24-hours shifts, and every night there was bombing,” he says.

    After the bombing period ended, George immediately set out for places like Hatra—a Roman-influenced city built of stone in the first centuries A.D.—to examine potential damage. Looting of regional museums was widespread, and some museum personnel were killed in the Kurdish north and Shiite south. Then came devastating inflation. The bulk of Iraq's archaeologists, facing drastic reductions in their real income, fled the department for jobs elsewhere; even paying for guards was difficult. Excavation work was at a standstill.


    Donny George has had narrow escapes in the course of duty.


    By the mid-1990s, looting was rampant at remote sites. In one unexcavated Sumerian city, George says, “a large force of some 50 to 70 looters appeared, and there was a full day of fighting between our government forces and the looters.” At Larsa, an ancient site dug by French researchers, a guard was killed in a similar fight. And a guard at Warka (ancient Uruk) killed a looter. “I'd say we've had a dozen of our people injured and killed in these fights,” he adds.

    George himself was likely the victim of a looter reprisal. Coming home from work one night, he was struck three times with a blunt object. The assailant made no attempt to steal his wallet or car but fled when George—who is short but burly—resisted. He recovered with 14 stitches to his head. George's colleagues, both Iraqi and foreign, say there is little doubt his antilooting policies antagonized the organized groups who had enjoyed a largely free hand for years.

    Shortly after that 1999 attack, and with reluctant approval of the presidential palace, George and some of his colleagues began to dig at a few remote looted sites to recover what they could while discouraging further damage. There was no resistance—thanks in part to careful diplomacy with the local sheiks who have day-to-day control over the rural areas of Iraq. “We've managed to maintain very good relations with the sheiks,” says George. “We visit and talk frequently with each other; when they have funerals we go and pay respects. Sometimes people come from outside the area and test our control, and of course we have 24-hour armed guards, and I also have ‘ears’ in the area.” George himself kept a Kalashnikov rifle handy during a recent visit to the south.

    His local sources tell him that the looters have given up where the government has reasserted a presence. “The dangerous part is that they simply switched to other sites,” he says. “But it's tough; we can't dig everywhere.” Meanwhile, new digs have begun, including his own at Umm Al-Aqirib (see p. 38), and he is training a new generation of researchers—which boasts a high percentage of young women—to assist in the work. And he hopes to increase his department's research credibility by expanding its number of publications.

    “He's effective,” says Müller-Karpe. “And if there's a problem, he solves it.”


    Banished Assyrian Gold to Reemerge From Vault

    1. Andrew Lawler

    A spectacular discovery rivaling the Royal Graves of Ur and King Tut's tomb will soon be put on display in Baghdad and available to scholars

    NIMRUD—While clearing away debris from a palace room at the ruins of the ancient Assyrian capital of Kalhu in 1988, Iraqi archaeologist Muzahem Hussein spotted a few bricks laid in an odd pattern on the floor. That clue—which had gone unnoticed by generations of British excavators—led to a series of spectacular finds within three underground tombs that rivaled the Royal Cemetery of Ur and the bounty of Egypt's King Tutankhamun's tomb. Hundreds of finely wrought gold objects in excellent condition were unearthed here, along with inscriptions identifying the remains of three Assyrian queens, consorts to leaders of a vast 8th century B.C. empire.

    But war and its aftermath in modern Iraq quickly consigned the recovered grave goods to obscurity and a Baghdad bank vault, where they remain today. That disappearance has frustrated Near Eastern specialists. “The discovery was extraordinary in every regard—materials, technique, quantity—and of a kind never seen in antiquity,” says Amir Harrak, an art historian at the University of Toronto. The excavations not only revealed the astonishing craft of Assyrian goldsmiths but also provided unique insights into that ancient society's beliefs in the afterlife and into the life of its royal family. With limited information and lacking direct access, however, researchers have been left largely in the dark during the past decade.

    The situation may soon change. Iraqi officials say they will place the grave goods on public display in Baghdad's Iraqi Museum this fall, while Muzahem plans to release a detailed inventory and analysis. Scholars will meet in Britain in November* to discuss the Nimrud gold as well as the deteriorating conditions and the still-present threat of looting at the site. But archaeologists agree that new excavations are sure to reveal additional goods and data in the ruins of Kalhu, called Calah in the Bible, which was the center of an empire stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean.

    Digging may soon resume, says Muzahem, a 21-year veteran of the site: “There was no digging from 1992 until 2000, but we hope to continue now if we have the funding.” His first target will be a largely unexplored area between the palace and ziggurat. He and other Iraqi archaeologists also hope to publish reports on finds they made in the early 1990s. For example, archaeologists discovered the remains of 300 manacled men in a deep well just meters from the royal tombs, according to Donny George, research director of the State Board of Antiquities. Foreign researchers familiar with the find speculate that they may have been the final defenders of the palace against the onslaught of Persians and Medes who destroyed the city in 612 B.C.

    Fit for a queen.

    A delicately crafted gold crown and necklace from the 8th century B.C. were among the finds at Nimrud, ancient Kalhu.


    Already an ancient provincial center, Kalhu served as Assyria's capital for 150 years, starting with King Ashurnasirpal II (who ruled from 883-859 B.C.). Eight kilometers of wall enclosed the vast 352-hectare site; the northwest palace containing the tombs originally included a throne room decorated with painted stone reliefs and massive human-headed winged bulls.

    Muzahem's original find in 1988 was a vaulted tomb containing a coffin still sealed with bitumen. Inside, the team discovered 200 objects, including gold, beads, cylinder seals, and a comb, along with the remains of an unidentified man. A year later, the team excavated a second burial complex. Within the coffin were the remains of a young woman resting against an older woman; they were identified as Atalia, the queen of Sargon II (who ruled from 721 to 705 B.C.), and her daughter Baniti, King Shalmaneser V's consort. The coffin and tomb were filled with hundreds of intricate gold objects, from crowns to small rosettes, which may have decorated the women's long-decayed clothes.

    Ancient art.

    An ornamental headband of woven gold (left) and a golden vessel found in queens' graves were likely used by ladies at the Kalhu palace, center of the Assyrian empire for 150 years.


    Inscriptions point out a third royal woman, Yaba, whose remains likely were the cremated ashes found in a nearby niche—a burial technique rarely seen before in Assyria. A gold bowl describes her as the wife of King Tiglath-pileser, predecessor to Shalmaneser V. Also in 1989, a third tomb with 440 gold objects was discovered; the stone sarcophagus contained only dust. Scholars believe the tomb to be that of Ashurnasirpal II's queen and suspect that her body may have been moved to the religious center of Ashur; the royal cemetery there was looted in antiquity.

    Some of the Nimrud jewelry pieces are said to have no parallels in the Near East—for example, the bell-shaped earrings and large bangles inlaid with semiprecious stones and engraved with vertical bars. “There is incredibly fine workmanship,” says Harrak. “It is more skillfully done than King Tut's treasure.” The result, he adds, is a “revolution in our knowledge of ancient technology and of the Assyrian belief in life after death.” Reviled in the Bible as a cruel and ruthless empire, Assyria's reputation has rested more on its military conquests than its aesthetics. But the tomb artifacts point to a native and highly developed artisan class.

    The poor conditions at the Kalhu site threaten other finds, however. During a recent visit by Western archaeologists, the effects of more than a decade of neglect were visible. Among the invaluable carved slabs from the palace, those not hauled off to European museums now lean against the partially reconstructed walls under collapsing metal awnings and are constantly exposed to the elements. Some of the palace rooms have been sealed to protect the carvings from looters, but other slabs may already have been lost. Sam Paley, an archaeologist at the State University of New York, Buffalo, says that slabs excavated by a Polish team in the 1970s and stored at Nimrud were broken into pieces; he has evidence that at least six are on the antiquities market. Each can fetch prices as high as $1 million, he notes.

    Meanwhile, the gold pictured here has been seen by only a handful since it was stored in its vault. George, who says he personally checked each piece 2 years ago, insists that the collection is in good condition despite bomb damage to the bank during the Gulf War. Once an adequate security system is installed at the museum, he says, the dazzling finds will be available to eager scholars.