A GLASGOW University academic has claimed that military personnel are involved in the looting of historic sites in Syria and Iraq.

Dr Claudia Gatz is taking a leading role in combating the threat facing war-torn ancient archaeological sites in the Middle East, some of which, she says, are seeing looting by various armies.

The university is hosting a major international conference, which began yesterday, that is discussing the international response to preserve and protect cultural heritage and historical sites.

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Glatz, a senior lecturer in archaeology at the university, said: “Some of those very important sites such as Dura-Europos (Syria) and Hatra (Iraq) have seen systematic looting and destruction, which results in characteristic pock-marking of sites with one looting hole next to another. That is organised looting which goes far beyond a few villagers.

“Monitoring of looting such as that by my colleague, Professor Jesse Casana, of Dartmouth College, USA, seems to show that such systematic digging is often related to the military moving into an area, so they are either turning a blind eye to it or they are actively involved.”

According to the university “with several key archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq currently under threat, or having already suffered from the effects of war, a central concern for archaeologists internationally is how to monitor vulnerable sites and to protect them from further damage and looting.”

Glatz, co-directs the Sirwan Regional Project in North-Eastern Iraq and works in collaboration with the local Kurdish Directorate of Antiquities based at Kalar.

The Sirwan (Kurdish) or Diyala (Arabic) River is an important communication and transport corridor, connecting the Sharezor high-plateau with southern Mesopotamia. It runs along the Iraq-Iran border and is cross-cut by the Khorasan Highway, a branch of the later Silk Routes, leading into the Iranian highlands.

According to the university: “The importance of these routes is illustrated by the presence of numerous third and second millennium BC rock monuments and inscriptions, as well as by a large number of Parthian, Sasanian, and medieval forts. During the Iraq-Iran war, many of the region’s archaeological sites were fortified as military outposts by the Saddam regime, and severely damaged as a result. The Sirwan Regional Project has identified over 600 likely archaeological sites to date using satellite imagery and investigated around 200 more intensively on the ground. The sites range in date from the earliest farming communities (Neolithic) to the modern period.”

Glatz and Casana are currently excavating a Late Bronze Age (Kassite-period, c.1450-1150 BC) monumental complex at the site of Khani Masi, located to the south of the modern town of Kalar.

Glatz explained: “The Kurdish region of Iraq was largely inaccessible to international archaeological research during the Saddam era.

“There is evidence of looting on some of the sites we work on but it is minor compared to what is going on in Syria and other parts of Iraq.”

Archaeological sites are under other pressures apart from war and conflict, which are facing the more stable areas of the Middle East, as Glatz said: “At the moment the biggest danger to archaeological heritage in the North East Iraq region that we are working in is economic development, construction work and the clearing of archaeological sites to create more agricultural land.

“As archaeologists we are trying to safeguard as much as we can. There are a number of international projects monitoring looting and destruction using modern technologies.”