Looting of archaeological sites in Syria is more widespread than previously thought and not just the work of Islamic State. Isis is responsible for just a quarter of all lootings, with raids taking place in territory held by the Syrian government and other groups, new research has shown.
The study, by archaeologists from Dartmouth College, found that looting of Syrian archaeological sites had increased since the start of the civil war in 2012. Evidence of heavy looting has now been found in territories held by the Syrian government, Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) and opposition forces — as well as the Islamic State.
The team concluded that less than a quarter of looting from historic Syrian sites was the work of Isis.
“Most media attention has focused on the spectacles of destruction that Isis has orchestrated and posted online, and this has led to a widespread misunderstanding that Isis is the main culprit when it comes to the looting of archaeological sites and damage to monuments,” said Jesse Casana, who led the research.
Casana analysed a total of 1,289 archaeological sites across Syria using footage from Digital Globe — a company specialising in high-resolution footage of the Earth. Digital Globe’s images are updated in “near real time” — unlike equivalent tools like Google Earth and Bing Maps — from 2007 to present. This, combined with satellite imagery from the 1960s, gave Casana’s team a picture of how looting patterns had developed.
The study — funded by the US Department of State — found that looting was occurring on a wider scale than had originally been thought. Sites that have suffered include the Roman city of Apamea in western Syria, and the Bronze Age capital Ebla (modern-day Tell Mardikh).
The looting of Apamea began in 2012 after Syrian forces invaded, and continued for 18 months. The most extreme looting was in the government-controlled area, according to the study. The worst damage — conducted with heavy machinery — happened when Syrian soldiers were standing just 200 metres away.
“Using satellite imagery, our research is able to demonstrate that looting is actually very common across all parts of Syria, and that instances of severe, state-sanctioned looting are occurring in both Isis-held and Syrian regime areas,” said Casana.
The study found that 22 percent of archaeological sites in Syria had been looted in some way. Less than a quarter of those sites are in territories held by the Isis.
Of the other looted ruins, 16.5 percent are in regions controlled by the Syrian regime under Bashar al-Assad, 26.6 percent under opposition forces and 27.6 percent under the Kurdish YPG, the study shows.
But the severity of lootings in each territory tells a slightly different story. Casana and his team assessed the severity of damage at each site by counting looting pits — created to pillage ruins. They found that Isis was responsible for 42.7 percent of the total number of heavy lootings — even though it only controls 21.4 percent of the ruins.
Looting of ancient ruins was a common occurrence in Syria before the civil war. But half of the sites that the researchers assessed were “pristine” before the war, while half had been previously damaged.
The increase in looting is likely to have stemmed from the breakdown in civil authority, with the majority of incidences involving small-scale lifts by people in need of food and easy cash, according to the study.
But the severe incidences — which account for two percent of the total — were conducted using heavy machinery and organised teams of people.
“A troubling trend that is new to Syria since the start of the war is extreme looting episodes in which major sites are systematically destroyed in short periods of time by small armies of looters,” said Casana in the the study.
There are more than 15,000 archaeological sites in Syria and it is likely the extent of the damage could be far more wide-reaching than currently documented. Casana predicts that more than 3,000 sites have been looted since the war began in 2012.