British experts aid computer survey in attempt to protect monuments from looters and war damage
British archaeologists are training Iraqis to draw up the first modern inventory of the country's ancient sites and monuments in an attempt to curtail widespread looting.
The survey of thousands of Sumerian palaces, Assyrian ziggurats (towers) and Bronze Age settlements is being delayed because of the threat of kidnappings and attacks by insurgents.
The involvement of English Heritage continues a long tradition of British participation in Mesopotamian excavations, which in the past has attracted such figures as the novelist Agatha Christie and her archaeologist husband Sir Max Mallowan.
The scale of pilfering and destruction at innumerable sites is causing dismay in the profession, though many items stolen from the Baghdad Museum's storage rooms immediately after the American-led invasion have been returned.
"The situation has become desperate since the end of the war," said Bill Blake, who is the head of English Heritage's Metric Survey Team and recently returned from running courses in neighbouring Jordan. "State control has effectively collapsed and people are helping themselves to whatever they can get. They are taking material for building or digging for antiquities to be sold abroad.
"I have seen pictures of Bronze Age sites, dating back to 3000-4000BC, which march from horizon to horizon. They are uninvestigated as far as we know. There are tell sites [mounds of accumulated detritus from previous settlements] which look like moonscapes of hills. They have Arab cemeteries on the surface, then you dig down to pre-bronze age occupation. All sorts of cultural artefacts are disappearing - decorated pottery, sculptures and cuneiform tablets. Iraq was the cradle of western civilisation."
The English Heritage team, working in partnership with the Getty Conservation Institute and World Monument Fund, have been advising their Iraqi counterparts on latest surveying techniques, such as the use of GPS mapping equipment, data recording forms and satellite imaging.
The sessions are being held in Jordan because of the dangers for westerners in Iraq. Archaeologists who worked on the reconstruction of Babylon for Saddam Hussein as well as those from Baghdad and the Kurdish north have attended.
"I'm very impressed at the commitment of the people. Some of them had to work at gunpoint on the Babylon reconstruction. Now they are preparing a full inventory of the sites in Iraq. It's an opportunity to encourage those living near local sites to teach them to value historic remains in a new way."
Not only ancient monuments but unique 19th century houses in Baghdad are being destroyed, Mr Blake added. "There's a terrible loss of early, steel-framed buildings, for example, which are being pulled down because people want the metal."
Gaetano Palumbo, from the World Monument Fund, said the last known survey recorded 10,000 archaeological sites in Iraq. "This new and comprehensive inventory will be a computer-based system which will be used for conservation and to prevent looting," he said.
"We need to give a lot of training to ensure the best skills are passed over to staff from the Iraqi Board of Antiquities. We will use satellite imagery analysis and expect to discover new sites."
As well as the looting, damage has been caused by occupying troops. The most notorious example was at Babylon where US helicopters were said to have sandblasted fragile bricks in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon from 605-562BC.
"There are a number of bases which are still too close to ancient sites," Mr Palumbo revealed. "There's one near Ur and another near Kirkuk. Both are American, I believe. It's impossible to know what damage is being done."
A new police force to protect the nation's extraordinary cultural heritage and deter looters is being trained by Polish and Italian troops.
Britain's involvement in unearthing Iraq's antiquities was at its most intensive in the years after the first world war when the country was formally a British protectorate. Among those who led the excavations was Sir Max Mallowan, first director of the British School in Iraq.
His wife, Agatha Christie, spent several seasons cataloguing archaeological finds at Ur and Nineveh in the late 1920s and 1930s.
Her novel Murder in Mesopotamia draws on her experience in Iraq. "An archaeologist is the best husband any woman can have," she famously remarked of her time there. "The older she gets, the more interested he is in her."
One British archaeologist who has been to Iraq within the past year is John Curtis at the British Museum. He reported on the damage done to the Babylon site by US helicopters and vehicles. Earlier this spring he arranged for three Iraqi colleagues to come to the museum and University College London for training courses.
"The security situation has to improve before we have any substantial progress," said Dr Curtis. "Iraq is really one vast archaelogical site which has been continually inhabited for 8,000 years. Some of the sites are being pillaged in a very intensive way. It's certainly being organised by tribal groups.
"Some of what has been looted is being sold abroad. A consignment of artefacts was impounded in Newark, New Jersey. But I'm not aware of any Iraq items reaching London."