Washington, July 6 : An international team of experts has determined that archaeological sites in southern Iraq have not been looted, as was believed earlier.
Since the 2003 coalition invasion there has been repeated concern expressed about looting of archaeological sites in Iraq.
According to a report in The Art Newspaper, an international team of archaeologists, which made an unpublicized visit to southern Iraq last month found no evidence of recent looting, contrary to long-expressed claims about sustained illegal digging at major sites.
The visit required the assistance of the British Army, which provided armed protection and a Merlin helicopter.
The specialists visited eight sites, to the north of Basra: Ur, Ubaid, Eridu, Warka, Larsa, Tell el-Ouelli, Lagash and Tell el-Lahm. These are in the four southerly provinces, which have been under the responsibility of the British Army.
The mission involved 25 personnel: five helicopter crew, four international archaeologists, three Iraqi archaeologists, seven protection officers, two senior army officers assigned to the project, two military photographers, a signaller and a medic.
For logistical reasons, visits had to be brief, between 40 minutes and two hours on the ground, but they were meticulously planned, with archaeologists (accompanied by armed officers) separating to examine different areas of a site.
There were also brief aerial inspections before and after landing.
With two exceptions, none of the sites seen last month had been inspected by international specialists since 2003, although Iraqi archaeologists monitor them periodically.
The international team that visited southern Iraq last month, had been expecting to find considerable evidence of looting after 2003, but to their astonishment and relief there was none.
Not a single recent dig hole was found at the eight sites, and the only evidence of illegal digging came from holes which were partially covered with silt and vegetation, which means that they must have been at least several years old.
The most recent damage was found at Larsa, Tell el-Ouelli, Tell el-Lahm and Lagash. However, this probably dated back to 2003, during and in the aftermath of the coalition invasion.
At Ur, Ubaid, Eridu and Warka, no evidence was found of any looting.
As to why the feared looting had not occurred in the southern sites, Dr John Curtis, keeper of the British Museum's Middle East department, offered a number of explanations like the watchtowers erected with Italian assistance in late 2003, roving police teams which supplement site guards, efforts by local antiquities staff, and the drying up of the international market for Iraqi antiquities.