The longer the war in Iraq grinds on, the more worried historians are becoming. Western civilisation's roots are disappearing at an ever-increasing pace because of the conflict and they are powerless to do anything about it. Beneath Iraq's sands lie more than 6,000 years of history - the ruins of what archaeologists have determined to be the oldest-known cities and towns. Few have been discovered and study of those that have been found is sporadic because of war and the stifling rule of dictator Saddam Hussein. But the end of Hussein's rule, with United States-led military intervention in March 2003, only exacerbated the situation: with the ensuing chaos came destruction of the sites. A British Museum report last week revealed the seriousness of the situation at one of the country's best-known historical sites, Babylon. A military camp set up by American troops and later taken over by Polish soldiers had caused irreparable damage and contamination. It found that a 2,600-year-old pavement had been crushed by vehicles, bricks smashed, artefact-laden dirt packed into sandbags and gravel spread and compacted over ruins for a car park and helicopter landing pads. The report's author, the head of the museum's ancient and Near East department, John Curtis, said: 'This is tantamount to establishing a military camp around the Great Pyramid in Egypt or around Stonehenge in Britain.' He explained that although the presence of the soldiers had prevented looting, which had been rampant since the start of the war, they had shown little regard for the history they were encamped upon. He recommended a full international investigation. Babylon, 50 km south of Baghdad on the east bank of the Euphrates River, is the best-known ruin in what has become known as the 'cradle of civilisation'. The capital of Babylonia, it thrived between 1,800BC and 600BC and was the site of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Hanging Gardens, and the tower of Babel, mentioned in Christian and Jewish scriptures. Unknown numbers of other ruins pockmark Iraq, especially in the fertile crescent of ancient Mesopotamia between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. The rich soil deposited by the rivers during annual floods apparently led to farmers ending nomadic existences and settling down to create communities that evolved into towns and cities. For American archaeologist Elizabeth Stone, Iraq's sites were crucial to understanding civilisation. In her estimation, their importance was greater than those of sites in China and Egypt. 'All our ideas of how we live in cities came from there,' Professor Stone, of New York state's Stony Brook University, said. 'They had the first law, they invented writing and even beer - all these things happened in the cities in the south, which are the ones being targeted by the looters and damaged. For these sites to be destroyed like this is tragic.' The first major excavations in Iraq began in the 1930s and continued sporadically until the first Gulf war in 1991. International sanctions against Hussein's regime kept foreign archaeologists out until 2000, but their work was again interrupted by the war in 2003. Experts said that looting began in the 1930s, but accelerated dramatically after sanctions took effect and Iraqis sank deeper into poverty. Since March 2003, the scramble for riches in the ruins had reached unprecedented levels. The chairwoman of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, Harriet Crawford, contended last week that economics were behind the upsurge. 'Antiquities are almost as good as cash and are being sold in Iraqi markets and smuggled out of the country and into the international market, where they are sold to unscrupulous collectors,' Dr Crawford said. 'Sometimes, papers are forged and they are sold on the open market.' Jordanian, Syrian, Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian border officials have so far intercepted artefacts, although nothing is known about what may have been smuggled into Iran or Turkey. A lack of security after the fall of Hussein led to looting of museums and historic sites. Thousands of statues, seals and clay writing tablets were taken from the national museum in Baghdad. Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Samir al-Sumaidaie, said three 4,000-year-old marble and alabaster relics used to seal correspondence and looted from the museum had been returned to his country. They had been seized by United States customs officials from an American scholar, who claimed to have bought them during a recent visit to Baghdad. Part of the problem with recovery is that some of the items stolen are small. A collection of 5,000 cylinder seals also taken from the museum could have been removed from the country in a backpack. Looting decreased the value of items because the locations from which they were taken were generally not known, Dr Crawford said. 'It's a double whammy,' the retired lecturer at University College, London, said. 'Not only has the site been wrecked, but the object, having lost its place of finding, has also lost a proportion of its value. As far as the scholarly community is concerned, it becomes an art object rather than an historical object.' Professor Stone, who has been carrying out field work in Iraq since 1971, backed Dr Crawford's assessment. Clay tablets were meaningless when removed from the ruins of the public building or house they were looted from, she said. 'You can really relate what was going on in the written record with what was going on in the archaeological record,' Professor Stone said. 'That cannot be done if they are removed.' Coalition soldiers unaware of the value of the sites they were occupying had not helped by smashing artifacts. Archaeologists had told senior American and British military officers about the importance of the sites, but the message had clearly not filtered to the ground forces. 'The troops have a lot on their plate, but both the Geneva and The Hague conventions make it clear that occupying powers have the responsibility to safeguard antiquities,' Professor Stone said. 'The cultural heritage of the occupied country hasn't really been protected.' Photographs from three helicopter assessment missions show the extent of the damage to known sites is massive. Dr Crawford said some sites had been excavated so thoroughly by looters that they 'look like craters on the moon'. 'Archaeology is a non-renewable resource,' she declared. 'This is destruction of knowledge not only of the history of Iraq, but of an enormous swathe of the western world as well.' Only one Iraqi site, Hatra, is recorded by the United Nations cultural branch Unesco on its list of protected World Heritage sites. That, according to experts, was because of Hussein's restrictions, shoddy restoration work carried out under his orders and the inexperience of Iraqi archaeologists in putting together the necessary paperwork. Hussein's overthrow will change that, though, with archaeologists believing up to another dozen sites should be added. Mr Curtis called in his report for Unesco to include Babylon as soon as possible to help protect the city from further damage. Such moves and the future of Iraq's history seem for now to be dependent not on such demands, but the stability of the country. The sooner that is restored, the quicker archaeologists will be able to return to resume their work.