Rory McCarthy in Baghdad, and Maev Kennedy
Saturday January 15 2005
Troops from the US-led force in Iraq have caused widespread damage and severe contamination to the remains of the ancient city of Babylon, according to a damning report released today by the British Museum. John Curtis, keeper of the museum's Ancient Near East department and an authority on Iraq's many archaeological sites, found "substantial damage" on an investigative visit to Babylon last month.
The ancient city has been used by US and Polish forces as a military depot for the past two years, despite objections from archaeologists. "This is tantamount to establishing a military camp around the Great Pyramid in Egypt or around Stonehenge in Britain," says the report, which has been seen by the Guardian.
Among the damage found by Mr Curtis, who was invited to Babylon by Iraqi antiquities experts, were cracks and gaps where somebody had tried to gouge out the decorated bricks forming the famous dragons of the Ishtar Gate. He saw a 2,600-year-old brick pavement crushed by military vehicles, archaeological fragments scattered across the site, and trenches driven into ancient deposits. Vast amounts of sand and earth, visibly mixed with archaeological fragments, were gouged from the site to fill thousands of sandbags and metal mesh baskets. When this practice was stopped, large quantities of sand and earth were brought in from elsewhere, contaminating the site for future generations of archaeologists.
Mr Curtis called for an international investigation by archaeologists chosen by the Iraqis to record all the damage done by the occupation forces. Last night the US military defended its operations at the site, but said all earth-moving projects had been stopped and it was considering moving troops away to protect the ruins.
Babylon, a city renowned for its beauty and its splendour 1,000 years before Europe built anything comparable, was chosen as the site for a US military base in April 2003, just after the invasion of Iraq. Military commanders set up their camp in the heart of one of the world's most important archaeological sites and surrounded the enclosed part of the ancient city. At least 2,000 troops were installed, daily passing iconic relics like the enormous basalt Lion of Babylon sculpture.
In September 2003 the base was passed to a Polish-led force, which held it until today's formal handover of the site to the Iraqi culture ministry. In his report, Mr Curtis accepted that initially the US military presence helped protect the site from looters. But he described as "regrettable" the decision to set up a base in such an important spot.
He found that large areas of the site had been covered in gravel brought in from outside, compacted and sometimes chemically treated to provide helipads, car parks and accommodation and storage areas. "The status of future information about these areas will therefore be seriously compromised," he said.
Archaeologists were horrified by the confirmation of reports which have been filtering out of Iraq for months. "Outrage is hardly the word, this is just dreadful," said Lord Redesdale, an archaeologist and head of the all-party parliamentary archaeological group. "These are world sites. Not only is what the American forces are doing damaging the archaeology of Iraq, it's actually damaging the cultural heritage of the whole world."
Tim Schadla Hall, reader in public archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London, said: "In this case we see an international conflict in which the US has failed to take into account the requirements of the Hague convention ... to protect major archaeological sites - just another convention it seems happy to ignore." Lieutenant Colonel Steven Boylan, a US military spokes man in Baghdad, said engineering works at the camp were discussed with the head of the Babylon museum. "An archaeologist examined every construction initiative for its impact on historical ruins." He said plans were being considered to move some of the units in order "to better preserve the Babylon ruins." "The significance of Babylon is not lost on the coalition," he added. "The site dates back to the time of Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon, but there are very few visible original remains to the untrained eye."