The first postwar survey of archeological sites in Iraq shows that tens of thousands of artifacts have been dug up and smuggled out of the country or cast aside to disintegrate in the desert.
The situation in the countryside is in sharp contrast to that at Baghdad's National Museum, where curators were able to hide the bulk of their collection. Losses there were actually much smaller than had first been reported.
But away from urban areas, the looting and damage is still continuing, a team of archeologists sent to the region by the National Geographic Society reported Wednesday.
"There are things we will never learn" because of the thefts, said team member Tony J. Wilkinson, an archeologist at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute. "Evidence is being ripped from the ground, just as you tear pages from a history book."
The team started in Baghdad on May 12 and spent more than two weeks visiting well-known archeological sites around the country, some that had been more or less fully excavated and others that had seen virtually no work.
Although some of the sites were relatively intact, particularly in northern Iraq, others had been plundered. Groups of locals, and perhaps some looters from farther away, had dug large holes through floors, foundations and mounds, looking for valuables for the antiquities black market, a member of the team said.
From the air, sites like Umm al-Hariyat and Larsa "look like a waffle," said McGuire Gibson, also of the Oriental Institute. "They are full of holes, pretty much destroyed."
At some sites, there were 200 to 300 men illegally digging into the mounds, he said. "They would wave at the helicopter as we flew over," Gibson said. At one location, the group's military escort chased another large group off, he said, "but they were coming back to the site as we left."
Team leader Henry Wright of the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology said that at some sites, thieves have taken only the best items, casting others aside. "The ground is littered with intact pots, human bones from burials, animal bones, carbonized wooden beams, stone tools, even copper artifacts," he said.
Looters have also taken only the best cuneiform tablets, "but if they are fragmentary, people throw them out on the site, and they go back to the dirt," said archeologist Elizabeth C. Stone of Stony Brook University, State University of New York.
The team gave high marks to the military. "Somebody in the U.S. government deserves positive credit for sparing the archeological sites from bombing, and we found nothing but concern and politeness from the military people we encountered," Wright said.
One Marine presented the team with a copper harpoon, probably dating from 1900 BC, that he found at Larsa. The team buried it for preservation, noting the global positioning coordinates so it could be recovered in the future.
Gibson said damage to the National Museum in Baghdad was severe, despite recent media reports that many artifacts had been saved or returned. "It was, in fact, nowhere near as bad as we initially feared, but they have lost several thousand objects. It's not 33," he said, referring to the U.S. administration's estimate of the number of items missing.
Overall, the team visited nine sites in the north and found five with serious evidence of looting.
A ground team visited 10 sites in the south and found eight with serious looting, while a helicopter team visited an additional 13 southern sites and found only three relatively undamaged.
"This was just a rapid assessment of the major sites, but there are hundreds to thousands of other sites of interest" that also may be damaged, Wright said.
Among the findings:
* At the Mosul Museum, there was extensive breakage of statues in the Hatra gallery and "targeted theft" in the Assyrian gallery.
* At the ancient Assyrian capital of Nimrud, two large stone Assyrian reliefs had been stolen from the walls, and thieves were trying to hack out a third when they were interrupted by guards. That panel was damaged by the hacking and bullets from the gunfight.
* At Larsa, now known as Senkereh, there were large holes in the buildings and artifacts had been scattered over the ground.
* The archeological dig at Babylon was intact, but the museum there had been looted and burned.
The group's report can be found on the Web at www.nationalgeographic.com.