ISIS’s systematic looting in Syria has captured the world’s attention, but a new study shows they’re not the only ones selling off the country’s cultural heritage. Territories controlled by the Syrian regime, Syrian rebels, and Kurdish fighters all show signs of widespread looting.
“Satellite Imagery-Based Analysis of Archaeological Looting in Syria,” published this fall in the journal Near Eastern Archaeology, breaks down the extent of looting in territories controlled by different factions in the country: 21% of all looting occurs in ISIS areas, 16.5% occurs in Syrian regime areas, and 28% and 27% occur in Kurdish and opposition-held areas, respectively. “Simply evaluating the total number of looted sites according to faction control as of early 2015, it does not appear that looting is more widespread in ISIS-held areas,” author Jesse Casana writes.
The news is surprising considering that ISIS has received so much attention in the media for its looting. In September 2014, a New York Times op-ed explained how ISIS leaders were allowing locals to loot archaeological sites as long as they shared a percentage of the profit, and that in some places they were even granting licenses to large-scale diggers who use heavy machinery. But they’re far from alone.
At some sites, like Tell Jifar, looting was carried out just a few hundred meters from Syrian troops. “The close association of military occupation by Syrian regime forces with extreme looting at sites like Apamea, Ebla, and elsewhere in western Syria leaves little doubt that military forces are either directly involved in looting or at least complicit in enabling it to occur,” Casana writes.
But the data show that the worst offenders of all were those in areas held by Kurdish and Syrian rebel fighters — places that, as Casana notes, “are, unsurprisingly, also the regions with the weakest centralized authority.”
Casana told Hyperallergic that he began the study out of a desire to “shed some light on an otherwise murky situation.” As an archaeologist he had worked in Syria for many years, and he wanted to know exactly how much looting was happening and what sites were being impacted. But nothing like that had been done, since aerial imagery readily available through sites like Google and Bing is rarely up-to-the-minute.
Casana and his team of researchers from the Syrian Heritage Initiative at the American Schools of Oriental Research were able to get current imagery from the Digital Globe, thanks to funding from the US Department of State. The satellite image company updates photos daily and allowed the researchers to request ones of specific sites. It meant they were able to see looting happen almost in real time.
To begin the project, the researchers created a comprehensive database of archaeological and cultural heritage sites in Syria. It includes some 15,000 potential sites, from those that are well known to others only highly specialized scholars might know and some that have never been studied at all.
They concentrated their initial analysis on 700 of the most famous sites, then assessed a random sample of 700 others with known dates. For each of those 1,400 sites, they scrutinized images from before the war as well as more recent ones. Out of those, 1,289 showed signs of looting — dark holes in the terrain are generally telltale. And while some of the excavating had been done before the civil war began in 2011, the vast majority had occurred in the last four years. “This represents a truly unprecedented expansion in looting activity and thus a dire threat to the region’s archaeological heritage,” Casana writes in the paper.
Next, the research team classified the damages as being either “minor,” “moderate,” or “severe.” The most common type they saw was minor, meaning that there were less than 15 holes at the site. “In many cases, small-scale looting is likely being undertaken by people who are desperately in need of food and other supplies,” Casana writes.
They found that while looting isn’t more widespread in ISIS-held territory, it is more destructive. The researchers classified 42% of all looting in these areas as moderate or severe, compared to only 23% in Syrian regime held areas, 14% in opposition areas, and 9% in Kurdish areas. In some places, large portions of earth were removed to be sorted out later, as happened at Tell Bi’a, a site famous for its Bronze Age architecture. Casana suggests this method might be “designed to leave looters less exposed to intervention by authorities or to violence.”
The team’s research will be invaluable during post-war reconstruction and assessment, though for now it simply helps tell a fuller story about what is happening with antiquities in Syria. “I think that detailed analysis that is not politically motivated is essential in a situation like this one, where antiquities have become a big part of the story about the war itself,” Casana told Hyperallergic.
He explained that he hopes the project will raise awareness of the situation in Syria and perhaps inspire a moratorium on the sale of Near Eastern antiquities through auction houses, dealers, and online marketplaces like eBay. He also suggested creating an international database of legitimately exported antiquities from the region so it would become more difficult to sell those without a pedigree or provenance.
“These things are within our power to do, and would ultimately have some real impacts on looting in Syria as middlemen dealers find it increasingly difficult to find buyers for objects,” he said.