A German archaeologist who earned a reputation for bravery after documenting damage to Iraq's archaeological sites was abducted Friday in Iraq. Susanne Osthoff had been engaged in humanitarian work there. Osthoff's driver was also kidnapped. According to German news reports, the assailants are threatening to kill the two hostages unless the German government stops cooperating with the Iraqi government. A video sent to news media by the kidnappers shows Osthoff and her driver sitting blindfolded and surrounded by three masked men.
Accustomed to moving back and forth between Germany and Iraq, Osthoff, 43, studied archaeology at the University of Munich and in the late 1980s helped excavate the ancient Babylonian city of Isin, in southern Iraq. Osthoff is "a very good and very talented" archaeologist, says Barthel Hrouda, who led the Isin excavations. Nevertheless, in the early 1990s, Osthoff put aside her archaeology career, although she returned to Iraq often to do humanitarian work and archaeological restoration.
After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Osthoff was one of the first to survey the damage to the country's archaeological treasures, which suffered widespread looting, says University of Chicago archaeologist McGuire Gibson. "Susanne took reporters to sites to take pictures of the destruction," Gibson says. "She was fearless." Roger Atwood, a contributing editor for Archaeology magazine and author of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World, agrees: "She is the bravest person I have ever met." Atwood recalls meeting Osthoff in Baghdad in May 2003, where she had just arrived with a shipment of food and medicine. Atwood gave her a ride to Isin to see how the ancient city had fared. "The site was being demolished by looters," he recalls. "There was nothing we could do."
Gibson says that Osthoff knew she was in danger. Last September, he says, Osthoff told him that she had been warned by American military officers that she was a potential kidnapping target. Regardless, she was doing aid work when she was abducted. "If anyone is a friend of all Iraqis, it is her," Atwood says.
At a press conference this morning, German chancellor Angela Merkel appealed to the kidnappers to release the hostages without delay. Germany has no troops in Iraq, and Osthoff is the first German national taken captive in the country since the U.S. invasion.