AN ELITE team of Scottish academics is at the forefront of tackling the global trade in priceless artifacts like those looted by Daesh from ancient cities such as Syria's Palmyra.

The team of archaeologists, lawyers, criminologists and anthropologists from Glasgow University - the only academic team on the planet devoted to studying the illicit trafficking in antiquities - has warned that while atrocities committed in Palmyra has focused global attention on the loss of precious heritage sites, the scale of the problem is far bigger than what is happening in Syria alone, with temples being looted every single day in some countries.

The global fight against the looting and selling of ancient artifacts will be high on the agenda when more than 2,000 delegates from 80 countries come to Glasgow this week to take part in the annual European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) meeting.

Dr Donna Yates, of the Trafficking Culture research programme, said: “People are thinking about heritage destruction now because it is on the news – but I don’t think they are getting anything close to the whole story. The story is way bigger.

“I am working now quite a bit in Nepal and India - and every day an Indian temple is being looted.

“In China, they have had massive arrests of hundreds of antiquities looters, but this barely breaks into the English language news.”

Yates said it was difficult to estimate the scale of the problem, but seizures of evidence on the ground showed it “has been large and is large”.

One example, she said, was that nearly every site associated with the ancient Mayan culture – adding up to thousands - had been looted.

All known sites associated with the Mimbres culture of southwestern USA - which spanned from 1000 to 1150AD and produced distinctive pottery with black geometric patterns and figures - have been looted and some completely obliterated.

An exhibition will be held during the four-day EAA conference, which begins on Wednesday, to show the work of the Trafficking Culture project.

The display will includes bricks from the ancient city of Larsa in Iraq, to demonstrate how looting took place long before any conflict in the area.

It will also tell how two researchers from the project - Professor Simon Mackenzie and Tess Davies - managed to trace two statue smuggling networks from Cambodia to Thailand by interviewing people ranging from village heads who had witnessed local temples being raided to the looters themselves. During their research they were told by one receiver at the Thai border to take a picture of any piece they wanted and he would arrange for it to be “looted and delivered within a month”.

Yates will discuss her work in Latin America at the EEA conference, which looks at how issues such as poverty, drug trafficking and instability in a country can impact on efforts to prevent looting of ancient sites.

She said it was vital to address the issue of illicit trafficking of antiquities as cultural objects form “an important part of the identity of living people”.

“They are tangible representations of very intangible things – it is how we place ourselves in time and define who we are," she said. “This has existed all through human history and it is extremely important.

“So the trafficking in these objects - the movement of them to the private world and the prevention of public interaction with the past - challenges these very important pieces of our identity and prevents us from having access to that.”

Other highlights of the EEA conference include exhibitions highlighting ten years of archaeological work at one of Britain’s most important prehistoric sites at Forteviot, in Strathearn, Perthshire and by renowned landscape photographer Thomas Joshua Cooper.

Stephen Driscoll, professor of historical archaeology at Glasgow University, said the conference was an opportunity to promote Scotland, particularly after the interest triggered by last year’s independence referendum.

“That just seems to have kept going – there is huge interest in Scotland," he said.