Protecting Iraqi Cultural Heritage

Deterring Antiquities Looting and Trafficking

Priceless artefacts in museums in Iraq have been protected from the threat of destruction and theft by marking them with a unique invisible code, in a scheme that could now be replicated around the world (as discussed in The Conversation).

Two phases of this innovative project, funded through the British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund and led by archaeologist Professor Roger Matthews at the University of Reading, use SmartWater liquid to print a unique chemical signature onto objects that is invisible in normal light.

The project, in collaboration with the SmartWater Foundation, the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, and Sulaimani Antiquities, allows objects to be traced, acting as a deterrent to thieves and traffickers.

More than half a million artefacts in five Iraqi museums have been protected using this new approach. Plans are underway to extend the labelling to exhibits at museums in other regions globally, to help preserve the cultural wealth of these nations.

Professor Matthews, in his role as RASHID International president, said: “The items in the museum collections we worked with are priceless, in particular as regards the immense cultural value they offer to Iraq.

“This initiative effectively gives objects their own chemical fingerprint, allowing them to be traced if they fall into the wrong hands. It provides law enforcement agencies with the necessary evidence to arrest and prosecute those found in illegal possession of artefacts".

You can read the full report on the first phase of the project here:

Evaluation Report SmartWater Project OA.pdf


Over 500,000 objects in Iraq have been protected to date. SmartWater was applied to 450,000 objects in the Iraq Museum, in the capital Baghdad, and 90,000 in Slemani Museum, in the Kurdistan city of Sulaimani, 10,000 in Basra Museum, 10,000 in Nasriyah Museum and 5,000 in Dohuk Museum.

Mr Ali Al-Makhzoomi, the project’s administrator took the technique, learnt at SmartWater Foundation’s HQ in the UK, to Iraq to upskill more than 60 local museum professionals. The project team also helped museum staff to record and catalogue items, under the supervision of Dr Amira Edan (Director, Iraq Museum) and Mr Hashim Hama Abdullah (Director, Slemani Museum).

This approach is empowering local people to prevent artefacts being stolen or destroyed, and means more people will benefit from the rich cultural history of the region.

The SmartWater Heritage liquid, developed in collaboration with the Universities of Reading and Shawnee State (USA), applies a unique code to artefacts and can only be seen under an ultraviolet black light. It causes no damage to stone, pottery, metal or glass and it can withstand explosive blasts, harsh solvents and extreme environmental conditions.

The artefacts include pieces from all periods of Iraq’s past, from stone age axes, to Neolithic pots dating back as far as 7000 BC to when the world’s first agricultural villages were being established. In 2003, and during the ISIS occupation of Mosul between 2014 and 2017, items like this were frequently looted from museums, later resurfacing on international antiquity markets. Further research is underway to develop a SmartWater product that can be used on materials such as wood, paper and fabric.

SmartWater is used to fight crime and theft around the world, in businesses, homes and heritage institutions. SmartWater scientists, , work with international law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI and other Federal, State and County departments in the USA, police at New Scotland Yard, London, Police Nationale and Gendarmerie in France and many other policing agencies throughout mainland Europe and the rest of the World. The SmartWater Foundation is the ‘not for profit’ arm of the Company.

The British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund, in partnership with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, is set up to protect cultural heritage at risk.

Professor Matthews and RASHID International previously published a report documenting the systematic destruction by ISIS of heritage sites, as a means of persecuting Iraq’s Yazidi population. The report has been used by a UN investigative team to help collate evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Iraq.


Professor Matthews and fellow University of Reading archaeologists Dr Wendy Matthews and Dr Amy Richardson are investigating the world’s earliest settled societies in the Zagros mountains of Iraq and Iran. This is a key period in the history of humankind, as these settlements paved the way for towns and cities underpinning modern-day civilisation.

The MENTICA (Middle East Neolithic Transition – Integrated Community Approaches) project was awarded €2.5 million from the European Research Council in 2018. It is one of the most ambitious studies of its kind ever undertaken, and seeks to learn how early agricultural communities overcame major challenges including climate change.