Washington, August 13 : A new survey of eight of the most important archaeological sites in the south of Iraq has indicated that neglect, not looting, threatens the sites.
According to a report in National Geographic News, an international team of scholars who visited the historic sites in June found no obvious evidence of recent looting.
The findings came as a surprise to antiquities experts and scholars who had expected continued destruction of Iraqi heritage sites after the US invaded in 2003.
"We didn't see any new looting at the eight sites, which was really very, very encouraging," said team member Elizabeth Stone, a Mesopotamia specialist from Stony Brook University in New York.
While the study team cautions that the situation may be very different elsewhere in Iraq, the findings suggest a dramatically improved situation at the eight locations since 2003, when widespread illegal digging was recorded in the region.
The survey, however, uncovered other significant damage to ancient Mesopotamian monuments caused by neglect and military activity.
Using high-resolution satellite images from 2003, Stone identified extensive looting at more than 200 sites in southern Iraq.
Larsa, an important second millennium B.C. city nearly 150 miles (240 kilometers) south of modern-day Baghdad, was among the badly looted sites visited by the team.
"If there was major recent looting there we would have expected to find it," Stone said. "But I didn't see anything that was there in late 2003 or early 2004," she added.
Looting activity identified at other southern sites, including Tell el-'Oueili, Tell al-Lahm, Lagash, and Eridu, is thought to have occurred at least four years ago.
Other types of damage were revealed at sites such as Ur, capital of the Sumerian civilization from 2100 to 2000 B.C.
Damage to monuments caused by Iraqi defensive positions dug prior to the 2003 invasion and subsequent potentially harmful uncontrolled access by coalition troops was also highlighted in the report.
"Tens of thousands of military boots tramping over an archaeological site is not what we want," observed team member Paul Collins, curator of later Mesopotamian collections at the British Museum.
But, overall, the most serious threat is neglect.
"The ongoing problem is not so much looting or military damage, it is the fact that these sites have faced 30 years of neglect," said Collins. "The lack of resources for the Iraqi Department of Antiquities means they simply haven't been able to inspect the sites or do conservation or restoration work," he added.
According to Collins, many ancient buildings are simply eroding away.
The apparent halt to looting at the study sites may be partly due to better security since Iraq's Facilities Protection Service (FPS) was set up with Italian assistance in 2003.