Was most of the looting at the most extensively looted site in Syria conducted under the Islamic State or the Free Syrian Army?

A few months ago, I pieced together a sample of satellite image data from the the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project (1) with historical data on antiquities looting and the development of the Syrian civil war (2), in order to work out under which (para)military authorities the looting had taken place. I found evidence of ‘looting within regime and rebel territories as well as under jihadist rule’. There’s been further discussion of the project’s meticulous and much-needed work. As Sarah Parcak has said (separately), you ‘cannot argue w[ith] sat[ellite] data’.

“Alarmingly aggressive”, “industrial-scale” looting at Dura Europos al-Salhiya

A few months ago, I summarised,

Kathy Wren’s report on the AAAS team’s work also included ground-level photographs of the looting pits at the ‘most extensive[ly]’ looted site, Dura-Europos (at least one of which had been previously published by le Patrimoine Archéologique Syrien en Danger on the 2nd of April 2014).

Wren explained that the AAAS analysis showed that ‘76% of the area within the city wall had been damaged by April 2014, and the looting pits were so close together it was impossible to distinguish individual pits’. Apparently, it was almost levelled by a 300(?)-strong looting workforce. Roman archaeologist Simon James judged that they must have been ‘bankrolled to a massive extent’ to conduct the “industrial-scale” looting.

Now, NPR journalists Deborah Amos and Alison Meuse have explained the overall situation:

The looting of antiquities accelerated in 2014, as ISIS tightened its grip across northern and eastern Syria and Iraq. The militant group is now the major player in the illicit trade of antiquities, but not the only ones in the looting business. Syrian regime soldiers and opposition rebels started looking for profit almost as soon as the conflict began in Syria.

That generic statement and Syrian archaeologist Amr al-Azm’s observation that ‘ISIS came [in]to a pre-existing situation’ were the only references to antiquities looting under non-jihadist forces.

According to Amos and Meuse, the project has seen an ‘alarming[ly]… aggressive looting campaign in areas controlled by militants of the so-called Islamic State’. Project director Susan Wolfinbarger commented that the ‘looting is extensive, people are digging pits in the ground, holes so close together that we couldn’t tell one apart from the other’.

Amos and Meuse have relayed that ‘Dura Europos…. [is] one of the many important archaeological sites [that] militants of the self-styled Islamic State have ransacked and damaged.’ ‘Looters have destroyed more than 70 percent of Dura Europus.’

Most of the looting at the most extensively looted site was conducted under the Free Syrian Army (FSA)

When I triple-checked this time, a friend kindly pointed out official reports that, by mid-June 2013, the archaeological site of (Google-transliterated) “Orobos” had been looted with heavy machinery, modern replicas of ancient artefacts had been stolen from the museum, and some of the museum building had been “ruined”. By mid-July 2014, Dura Europos had been added to the national list of ‘distressed cultural areas’ that had suffered ‘exacerbation of the clandestine excavation crimes and deliberate damage to [their] historic monuments’.

By the time that the the Islamic State had taken over Dura Europos in September 2014, the Syrian Heritage Initiative judged that it had already suffered “large-scale, systematic looting”, which had ‘destroy[ed] the archaeological record over an enormous area’. According to the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), which operates in regime territory, looting at Dura Europos had stopped by November 2014, though it had started again by February 2015.

So, the Islamic State has looted Dura Europos. But it took over six months after harm had befallen 76% of the site, since when the area that has been lost to looting has seemingly not increased to more than 80% of the site (as it is still said to be “more than 70%”). As I found the first time that I looked into it, ‘the worst damage, the industrial-scale looting of the site, was done when the site was under Free Syrian Army control (against the local community’s wishes)’.

“More interested in income than ideology”

If ‘ISIS has turned the illicit antiquities trade into a multi-million dollar transnational business, according to U.S. officials who track the trade and Syrians on the ground who can monitor some of the sales’, then surely the rebels and the regime have done so too. After all, the rebels have, for example, most looted the most extensively looted site in the country; and the regime’s soldiers have, for example, most looted Apamea and Palmyra.

And if such evidence suggests that ‘these radical Islamists are more interested in income than ideology when it comes to the selling out [of] the ancient heritage of Syria and Iraq’, then surely the same can be said of the rebels and the regime as well.


1: It is a project of the Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). It is assisted by researchers at the Penn Cultural Heritage Center (at Pennsylvania Museum) and the Smithsonian Institution.

2: I found several of these sources indirectly, thanks to the massive public record-keeping of Heritage for Peace and the ASOR Syrian Heritage Initiative.

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