LONDON – U.S.-led troops using the ancient Iraqi city of Babylon (search) as a base have damaged and contaminated artifacts dating back thousands of years in one of the world's most important archaeological sites, the British Museum said Saturday.
For example, military vehicles crushed a 2,600-year-old brick pavement, and archaeological fragments, including broken bricks stamped by King Nebuchadnezzar II (search) around the same time, were scattered across the site, a museum report said.
The dragons at the Ishtar Gate (search) were marred by cracks and gaps where someone tried to remove their decorative bricks, the paper said.
John Curtis, keeper of the British Museum's (search) Near East department, who was invited by the Iraqis to study the site, also found that large quantities of sand mixed with archaeological fragments have been taken from the site to fill military sandbags.
"This is tantamount to establishing a military camp around the Great Pyramid in Egypt or around Stonehenge in Britain," Curtis said in the report.
In an interview Saturday with Associated Press Television News, Iraq's Minister of Culture Mufeed al-Jazairee said coalition troops in Babylon had used "armored vehicles and helicopters that land and take off freely. In addition to that, the forces also set up other facilities and changes."
He added: "I expect that the archaeological city of Babylon has sustained damage but I don't know exactly the size of such damage."
The remains of Babylon have been occupied since the early days of the invasion by U.S. Marines and, more recently, by soldiers from Poland and other countries. Babylon is 50 miles south of Baghdad.
A Polish military spokesman in Iraq said troops were cooperating with Iraqi authorities in efforts to protect the site.
"I have asked our archaeologists to prepare a specific answer to the accusations, but I have to give them some time," Lt. Col. Artur Domanski said.
The city's main sites — the Ishtar Gate, the ruins of Babylon and the Nebuchadnezzar Palace — are in a separate area on the camp's perimeter, run by Iraqi officials as an archaeological park to paying visitors.
The U.S. military says all earth moving has been halted and it is considering moving troops away to protect the ruins.
Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said all engineering works were discussed with the head of the Babylon museum.
"An archaeologist examined every construction initiative for its impact on historical ruins," he said.
In the report, Curtis acknowledged that at first the U.S. presence had helped to protect the site from looters.
But subsequent work — including the decision to cover large areas of the site with gravel brought in from elsewhere to provide car parks and helipads — was damaging, he said.
Lord Redesdale, an archaeologist who heads a parliamentary archaeology committee, described the report's findings as "just dreadful."
"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," he said.
For more than 1,000 years, Babylon was one of the world's premier cities, where King Nebuchadnezzar II built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
The city declined and fell into ruin after it was conquered by the Persians under Cyrus the Great around 538 B.C.