IT'S not difficult to be intrigued by the wording in Dr Donna Yates' Twitter bio. "Archaeologist in a criminology dept," it reads. "I study artefact smuggling, art crime, heritage, culture." Not your average antiquarian, it adds, almost as an afterthought. Indeed she isn't.

Dr Yates is one of our foremost authorities in the subject. She lectures in Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime at Glasgow University's Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, and is also part of the Trafficking Culture Project, an international grouping that does deep research into the contemporary global trade in looted cultural objects.

Less than 48 hours after talking to The Herald, Yates headed for Glasgow Airport, bound for Connecticut, and a special 'Culture in Crisis' workshop at Yale University, where she was to deliver a speech about the global, illicit trade in antiquities. The trade, according to Trafficking Culture, is nothing less than a criminal industry that spans the globe. Yates herself has spoken of an “insatiable demand” for stolen antiquities.

To add to the overall, dispiriting picture, Islamist extremists have been destroying cultural heritage sites in Syria, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere. Speaking at Yale last week, Irina Bokova, the head of UNESCO, said that, in her view, such losses were a form of “cultural cleansing."

Yates, who is still only 33 years old, was born in Indiana, raised partly in Kansas and mostly in Georgia ("my father was in the US military and we moved around"). Hooked on archaeology at an early age, she studied the subject at university. "I absolutely fell in love with ancient Maya," she says, "and I ended up in Belize and Guatemala when I was 20.

"The site in Guatemala I was working at is this massive, remote site deep in the jungle, which between the seventies and the nineties was completely gutted. Every temple had been ransacked because the tombs within them have so many saleable objects. I worked mostly with Guatemalan workers and would talk to them during lunch breaks. Most of them had done looting, because they were pretty desperate. They told me a site called Cancuén was being looted right then. The people who had done it had killed other people." A looted ballcourt-marker, linked to a pan-Mesoamerican sports activity, had been buried in the workers' village near the Belize border with the aim of smuggling it into Belize. "In the course of that," Yates adds, "a district governor was killed, and a woman was beaten nearly to death. "It was all ridiculous, and strange. They kept telling me, 'We're telling you this but don't tell anyone.' And we were supposed just to go back and do archaeology and pretend like this was a regular occurrence. I just couldn't do that."

She still had a year left at university. Once she graduated, she kept up her interest in archaeology, finding herself back in Bolivia at one point, but what she had learned about Cancuen stayed with her. Eventually, she emailed the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre, asking if they wanted a graduate student. They did. She went on to earn her master's and a Ph.D in archaeology at Cambridge, focusing on aspects of looted antiquities.

She has now been at Glasgow for four years, and is enthusiastic about the work of the Trafficking Culture initiative. "We're a group of scholars that work together with different areas of focus; I'm an archaeologist with a focus on Latin America; there's another archaeologist with a focus on Greece. There's a criminologist who does criminology things everywhere. We pool our resources.

"We're academics. We're not activists, or NGOs or anything like that. The goal is to provide the kind of research that is needed to make good policy rather than to lobby, or to get individual artefacts back. The aim is to understand the whole structure and to evaluate what laws and interventions are actually working.”

Her talk at Yale - ‘Why is the past repeating itself?’ - suggested that the international plans and policies aimed at tackling the looting and trafficking of cultural objects from conflict zones mirrored the “ineffective measures” that had been the model for global response for nearly half a century. But there are, she asserts, other options.

“Things have changed as this issue becomes more public and less private, which is very positive,” she says now. “But if we’re talking about laws and regulation, for the most part we’ve been doing the same thing at an international level since 1970. Different kinds of laws and interventions on a local level seem to have worked better.

“There are lots of suggestions as to how things cold be made better but I’m not sure if anyone will listen to them. It’s very difficult to move things at an international level especially if certain policies are entrenched.

“I’d love to see something happening in terms of what we do for wildlife,” she says, referring to the CITES convention on endangered species. “If you think about it, you can’t traffic in ivory. You just can’t do it. It’s against international law, even though there’s a market for it, even though some people would like to buy it. We have decided, collectively, that that is wrong.

“How we deal with wildlife [is] we have an international system of permits. Same permit, everywhere in the world, all computerised. We have nothing like that for antiquities or art. It’s different for every jurisdiction: some countries have export permits, some don’t. They’re all very different, so everybody can fake them. The moment a centralised system was introduced, that would be absolutely great. CITES has pluses and minuses, but we can base things on that.”

Even the briefest look at the Trafficking Culture website reveals the dizzying scale of the problem: the most recent cases range from a third-century South Arabian alabaster tablet, stolen from the Aden Museum in 1994 and later consigned for sale at a leading auction house (the object was returned to Yemen) to figurines stolen from the tomb of Empress Dou, and returned to China by that same auction house. There are dozens, and dozens, of other cases. Lots of shady characters, too.

And these things matter, the antiquities that are looted and offered to museums or private collectors. Every one that is stolen means we lose a link with our past. “It absolutely does matter,” affirms Yates. “It’s the basis of our identity, it’s how we identify ourselves as an individual, as a culture. It’s how we know who we are. It’s deeply, deeply emotional destruction and loss of the past.

“That’s a whole area of research: just why people have these emotional attachments, why that is so important, why destruction of the past is so very crushing. Why is the destruction of the past something that is constantly introduced in war to oppress people? It clearly matters in all sorts of ways.

“The other side is that there is a market for it. There’s a desire to own, to keep for yourself something that others might think should be public and available to everyone.

“I’m mostly in this,” she volunteers, “because of the power imbalance between somebody who has a huge amount of financial buying-power, who wants to keep these bits and pieces of the past to themselves, and people who don’t have a strong international voice, who don’t have that power. Translating it to criminology, it’s like white-collar crime versus the masses, but for me, working in the developing world, it’s very poor people being taken advantage of by very rich people.”

Ultimately, Donna Yates would like to see the collecting of antiquities become socially unacceptable, “like having a gigantic elephant tusk on your mantle. I want somebody who has, say, Iraqi figurines on their mantle - I want all their fancy dinner-guests to go …” and here she mimics a sharp, disapproving intake of breath. Yes, she concedes, such a collective attitude would require a huge cultural shift. “It will, but I think we’re moving in that direction. At least, I hope we are.”