TELL LAHAM, Iraq – Archeologist John Russell (search), flying in a U.S. military helicopter, looked out over the barrel of the gunner’s machine gun and saw his nightmare in the desert below: dozens of brazen looters in broad daylight busily robbing graves as old as 5,000 years.
"That whole chapter of our past is gone forever. How am I supposed to I feel?" said Russell, who was on the verge of tears.
But in a way, his flight over a half-dozen archeological sites and his inspection of this Sumerian city offers some hope. This week, the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (search) (CPA) in Baghdad began a new program to stop the wave of highly destructive looting that began with the American invasion.
Officials organized a special archeological protection service and are training its first 168 senior officers and instructors. The Italian Carabinieri (search) police committed cars, radios and weapons to the effort, and the CPA has set aside between $2 million and $3 million for the project.
And it sent Russell, who holds a doctorate and specializes in ancient Iraq, to begin surveying the damage.
The initial assessment — it's pretty bad.
In the two-hour-long flight south to this location from Baghdad, Russell flew over several sites, all of which showed recent looting damage. Two of them were looted so badly — with little grave-like holes dug from wall to wall — virtually no room was left to dig for anything else.
"You can easily spot the looters holes. They look like craters on the moon," Russell said.
And they did. Holes dotted the ground in Mashkan-shapir (search), a Babylonian-era city, which was considered a world power in the time of Hammurabi; in Nippur (search), which ruled the area between the Sumerian and Acadian regimes some 2,500 years ago; and in Drehem (search), famous for its 4,000-year-old hardened clay tablets — the probable object of the thieves' searches.
The worst appeared in Isin, which was a world center several hundred years before Hammurabi (search) wrote the first written code of laws in human history. Some of the looters scattered at the sound of the helicopters. Others waved.
The holes dug in this Sumerian (search) mound provided both good news and bad news. The holes were started by looters, who were then spotted, and arrested. Archeologists came here and surveyed the damage and discovered previously unknown tombs.
"The exposed artifacts will be removed properly and sent to a museum to be studied and the site will be covered over again for its own protection," Russell said.
The largest piece the archeological team disinterred was a burial urn that contained the bones of a baby. Russell said the remains could be from as early as a thousand years B.C., or as late as a few hundred years A.D. The looter’s hole from which it came will be backfilled with dirt, he said. And the whole site will be protected by the new guards.
"The best thing to do with an archeological site," Russell told Fox News, "is to leave it alone."
When a site is properly surveyed, it takes years to map the surroundings, take and analyze soil samples, and attempt to learn everything possible about the target group, he said. Scientists want to know how they lived, what they ate and what was their culture. Grabbing individual clay tablets and ancient cylinders makes that impossible, Russell said.
He said the proper excavation of a tomb — like the one uncovered here and left by looters — could take as much as five years. Some of the organized digs, halted by the 1991 Gulf War and left abandoned, began more than 100 years ago. Some of them were still productive before the beginning of the latest war last March.
Russell, a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art (search) in Boston and a technical advisor to the Iraqi cultural ministry, said the rebuilding of Iraq "should provide enough work for an entire generation of archeologists, and more" without anyone ever beginning a new dig. Opening canals and building roads in a country with some of the oldest urban ruins on the planet invariably turns up something, he said.
"Contractors and builders should provide their own archeologists, or support a university team before they begin destruction," Russell said, "and fortunately we now have language in the building agreements calling for just that."