Across southern Iraq, large stretches of terrain resemble a moonscape, the earth pocked by dozens of untidy craters.
The man-made holes have been dug as part of the looting of Mesopotamia's archaeological sites that experts say is robbing Iraq of its ancient heritage.
The looting not only funds unscrupulous dealers of artifacts, but also elements of the Iraqi insurgency. Experts say it has dwarfed the high-profile looting of Iraq's National Museum shortly after the US took Baghdad in 2003.
That rampage, carried out by dozens of Iraqis as US troops looked on, resulted in the loss of an estimated 15,000 museum pieces, ranging from statues to clay tablets. More than 6,000 of those items have been recovered as Iraq continues to try to bring back pieces that have made their way to foreign markets.
But the silent destruction of the vestiges of some of the world's earliest civilizations proceeds nearly unabated, museum experts say, and could prove damaging to the chronicling of Iraq's storied heritage.
"The looting of ancient sites is an old problem, of course, but this phenomenon has accelerated since the invasion of Iraq and the general insecurity that has left so many sites with no protection," says Qais Hussein Rashid, director of research and antiquities excavations for Iraq's Board of Antiquities and Heritage. "We feel we are losing many of the keys to our past and the many pieces that together make up our heritage."
Iraq has more than 12,000 significant archaeological sites, dating back to 2500 BC at Kish, near ancient Babylon.
For all these sites the government of Iraq employs only 1,200 guards, leaving many gaps. "We have easily 11,000 archaeological locations with no protection," Mr. Rashid says.
Another challenge is that many of the most prized artifacts the looters pull from the ground are no bigger than a wallet and easily fit into a smuggler's pocket, such as small clay cuneiform tablets on which a king's inventory or a family's history was kept before the advent of parchment.
When rolled in a soft material like putty, the seals embossed a picture depicting some aspect of the owner's identity: an officer's role in a major battle or the duties of a royal scribe.
"In and of themselves these are distinctive Mesopotamian artifacts, but they tell us so much less as looted pieces than if the full context of their excavation had been recorded," says Geoff Emberling, director of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute Museum. "Were they found in a ruler's palace or an ordinary house, in what room, how deep in the ground? With looted pieces, we lose all of this."
An exhibit on the pillaging of Iraq's heritage, titled "Catastrophe!" is currently running at the Chicago museum, along with seminars from Iraqi experts and delivered to US troops deploying in the region.
"The destruction of Iraq's past has the potential of being one of the longest-lasting legacies of the US presence in Iraq," Mr. Emberling says. "It really seems incumbent upon us to do what we can to stop that process."
At the Baghdad offices of Iraq's Antiquities Board, Rashid looks over trays of the small seals. He says all but about a dozen were objects looted from archaeological sites since the invasion, and they are part of 701 smuggled items returned to Iraq from neighboring Syria in April. …