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The Situation: A Post for the Grand Challenges for Archaeology Blogging Carnival

January 31, 2016

This post is written especially for Doug Rocks-Macqueen’s January blogging carnival at Doug’s Archaeology Blog, seeking responses to the question “What are the grand challenges facing your archaeology?” You can read the rest of the responses here. For regular readers I hope this post will serve as a useful summary of the various topics discussed on this blog in the past year. For new readers I hope it will serve as a good starting point for reading about the issues discussed on this blog.

Wherever scholars of the ancient Near East gather these days the topic of conversation invariably turns to The Situation. The Situation hangs like a spectre casting a pall over our entire field. The Situation both steels our resolve while giving our work an urgent sense of purpose, and makes us despair as to whether any of it will survive.

The Situation has been slow-burning for a long while. The Iran-Iraq War limited archaeological missions from 1980-1988. The last American archaeological teams left Iraq in 1990. They have only returned to Iraqi Kurdistan in the past few years. War was followed by sanctions and poverty in the 1990s and regime change in the 2000s which led to disastrous looting of museums and archaeological sites. A brief glimmer of hope asserted itself after 2011, only to be dashed as ISIS swept to power in Iraq and Syria and began the destruction of cultural heritage on a scale not seen in the region in centuries.

Looting. The antiquities trade. Root causes of poverty and lack of security. Intentional destruction of heritage for propagandistic purposes. Failed and hollow states. War seemingly without end.

The Situation is a crisis decades in the making. It will not be solved overnight, or next year, or even in ten years. But we in the field of the archaeology of the Near East must grapple with it, for the long term viability of our field is at stake. If we are to avoid becoming a dead field with a closed corpus of data, we must wrestle with the following issues:

1) Failed and Hollow States

A failed state is a state whose government no longer controls most of its territory. Syria, Libya and Yemen are failed states. Iraq has been on the brink of becoming one. A hollow state is a state where the government maintains all the trappings of a state – government offices, a standing army and police force, elections – even as the government loses day to day control over what happens in large swaths of its territory. Egypt has moved towards this from time to time since 2011, and Afghanistan is already there.

Failed or hollow states no longer effectively enforce laws against looting. Failed or hollow states produce desperate people who do what they have to do in order to survive. Failed or hollow states no longer provide secure environments for archaeological research. Archaeologists have even become targets themselves.

Failing states allow for the rise of superempowered groups bonded by a shared cause and rooted in primary loyalties to culture and family which run deeper than the state. As people lose trust in the state and its institutions these groups multiply and adapt as they seek to undermine the state. New tactics, such as funding an insurgency from antiquities sales, or destroying archaeological sites as a strategy of warfare, are sure to be adopted by more groups than ISIS.

2) We are Unprepared to Respond

We are unprepared to respond to any of this, because our entire apparatus of cultural heritage research and preservation depends on the power of the state. As a result, our response has been to double down on state power. We want heavily armed guards at every site and museum, looters jailed, imports banned, computer databases created, dealers investigated and some even daydream about sending UN peacekeepers to secure archaeological sites. Our codes of ethics are rooted in repatriation, international agreements and countries of origin.

These strategies still work where states maintain their power. But when the state is gone the result is a disaster, and there is little that state power can do to restore the situation. As state power declines in many parts of the world, we will need to conceptualize new methods of heritage preservation for the 21st century.

3) Archaeology Will Become a Tool of Many Nationalisms

Over much of the Middle East, one nationalism has been replaced by many nationalisms. The ideological basis of the old post-colonial Arab states is gone. Over the past five years the idea that the Arabic-speaking world was one unified cultural entity stretching from Morocco to the Indian Ocean has been shattered into pieces as one country after another has torn itself apart.

As it did so, the peoples of the Middle Ease fell back on identities which pre-date their modern states. Arab nationalism in Syrian and Iraqi strains has been replaced by nationalism in Sunni, Shia, Alawite, Armenian, Druze, Turkmen, Syriac, Kurdish and Assyrian flavors. Each identity involves reaching back to the past for something to hold on to in times of turmoil. Each nationalism involves utilizing history.

Nearly a year and a half ago I wrote on this blog that “Archaeology will have to come to terms with the fact that Arab nationalism is dead.”

The support offered for archaeology by twentieth-century Arab nationalist governments in many places is no more as new funding priorities are set. In others archaeology will continue albeit in the service of new nationalisms, creating new challenges in professional ethics and increasing the likelihood that archaeologists’ work will be used as a weapon for someone’s cause.

What’s Next?

The challenges set forth here seem deeply distressing and often feel insurmountable. Responding and adapting to them is a challenge with which the new generation of students of the ancient Near East must grapple over the coming decades. Some answers may be found in building resilient platforms for heritage protection. Other answers may be found in critically examining our own presuppositions about the nature of cultural heritage and its preservation. New paradigms for ethics must seriously engage with people’s right to their own heritage and avoid the easy pitfall of declaring an overriding neo-colonial western interest in preserving ancient artifacts.

All is not lost, and technology and new methods of organization may enable heritage preservation in ways not possible before. But in order to find the answers we must first ask the right questions.

Article © Christopher Jones 2016.

Book Review: “Brave New War” by John Robb

January 20, 2016

This post is first in a new series for this blog which will review recent books from the fields of international security studies in order to examine what relevance their ideas may have for the future of cultural heritage preservation in the Middle East.

John Robb, Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2007. 208 pp.

Brave New War is a book whose prescience and influence has only grown as the Arab Spring has come and gone, leading it to be called “a classic” and “a rather brilliant synthesis” and frequently appear on military reading lists. And all for a slim book written by a first-time author, published by an academic press with only five pages of endnotes, whose foreword, written by longtime Atlantic correspondent James Fallows, warns that the book’s analysis “is in many ways darker than even the conventionally pessimistic view.”

BraveNewWarJohn Robb began his career as an Air Force officer flying in special operations units before beginning a new career as a tech entrepreneur, where he helped to invent the RSS feed. His work, both in this book at on his blog Global Guerrillas, is in many ways the result of years of military and business experience.

The limited endnotes should not be taken as a mark against the book’s scholarly value but as indicative of the revolutionary nature of its analysis. Robb’s basic thesis is that nuclear weapons and wide economic integration have combined to bring an end to the era of state-versus-state conflict. The risks are too great, and the only state-versus-state wars are wars of choice where risk can be tightly controlled. Wars of the future will be fought at the sub-national level by what Robb terms “Superempowered Groups.” These are groups of people bonded by a shared cause who can leverage modern technology in such a way that they can fight states and win.

Advances in technology mean that the number of people needed in order to wage war continues to decrease, while advances in communications make it easier than ever for like-minded people to find others who share their cause. As a result, states are losing control of their borders, their economies, their finances and their populations. Robb goes so far as to suggest that the end result of these processes will be the creation of a “superempowered individual” who has “the ability to declare war on the world and win.” (p. 7-8, 17)

Superempowered groups have several advantages over states. Membership is defined by acceptance into the group rather than citizenship. They do not need to control territory and often have a non-hierarchical organizational structure, enabling them to make decisions quickly and free from bureaucracy. A superempowered group could be a terrorist organization, or a hacker cell, or a drug cartel – in each case their goal is to undermine the state. Failed states with no effective government or hollow states where government remains in power but does not control large swaths of territory allow these organizations to operate freely (p. 18-21, 80-93).

How can a small albeit superempowered group fight a state and win? Through a tactic Robb calls “Systems Disruption.” The goal of the tactic is to identify nodes in an economic, technological or other system whose destruction will cause that system to collapse. Such attacks are cheap to carry out but can cause massive economic damage. For instance, in the summer of 2004 insurgents in southern Iraq blew up a section of oil pipeline with a $2000 bomb and shut down all oil exports from southern Iraq for several days. The damage cost Iraq $500 million in export revenue, a return on investment of 250,000 times the cost of the attack (p. 95-100).

The most obvious nodes are usually well protected: Robb discusses the failed Al-Qaida attack on the oil processing facilities at Abaqiq, Saudi Arabia in February 2006 as an example of the difficulty of such attacks (p. 100-101). But modern systems are interdependent and susceptible to cascading failures. The oil pumping station in Basra, Iraq was well protected, so insurgents attacked fuel shipments to a nearby power plant instead. With no fuel the power plant shut down, cutting electricity to the pumping station and causing it to shut down as well (p. 103).

Superempowered groups are able to identify these weak points because there are dozens or even hundreds of them all trying to solve the same problems. Whereas “classical” insurgencies such as the Viet Cong or the FLN in Algeria maintained hierarchical organizations, in Iraq the United States fought at least seventy different armed factions with no unified command structure (p. 111-116). The result is what Robb terms “Open Source Warfare,” a metaphorical “bazaar of violence” were groups are constantly innovating and learning from each other. Eventually a sort of adaptive emergent intelligence rises from the system, where all the uncoordinated groups which make up an insurgency are collectively finding new targets to attack and new ways to protect themselves. As the state fails the cycle continues. New groups are formed as more and more people lose trust in the state and fall back on primary loyalties (p. 80-89, 116-127).

Attacks on Cultural Heritage as Systems Disruption in an Open Source War

Recent attacks on cultural heritage in the Middle East can be understood as a form of systems disruption. First, many cultural heritage sites are tourist magnets and are therefore economic nodes. Attacking them discourages other tourists and damages the economy, undermining the state’s revenue and its ability to protect its citizens’ lives and livelihoods. The recent attacks on the Bardo Museum in Tunisia, the Karnak Temple in Egypt, and last week’s suicide bombing at Sultanahmet Square in Istanbul were clearly carried out with this objective in mind.


Maps showing ethnic cleansing in Baghdad neighborhoods in the aftermath of the February 2006 bombing of the al-Askari shrine in Samarra. Mixed neighborhoods (yellow) have almost disappeared, replaced by Sunni-majority neighborhoods (red) and Shia-majority (green). Christian-majority neighborhoods (blue) remained the same. Maps by Dr. Michael Izady. (source)

But in addition to being economic nodes, cultural heritage sites serve as nodes in an ideological economy. Robb describes Al-Qaida’s bombing of the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra in 2006 as “a form of social system disruption” (p. 61-62). Not one person was killed or injured in the explosion, but the destruction of one of the holiest shrines in Shia Islam announced that Iraq’s Sunni insurgency was not fighting only to drive the Americans from Iraq but to subjugate its Shia population. The result was a surge of revenge attacks followed by campaigns of ethnic cleansing which turned the Iraqi insurgency into a full blown ethnic conflict which continues to the present day.

Worse, in an open source war effective tactics go ‘viral’ and are soon adopted by militant groups around the world. The Taliban were the first to use the destruction of cultural heritage as a public display of militant Islamist piety when they destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001. A few years later the Taliban sought to replicate their feat by attacking Buddhist sites in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. Their successful display of power and zeal was replicated in Iraq in 2006 and again in Mali in 2012 when the group Ansar Dine began destroying Islamic heritage sites at Timbuktu. ISIS then elevated it to a level never before seen in the region.

Each group seeks to improve on the idea, and prove they are more dedicated and uncompromising than the others by destroying more spectacular targets (the al-Askari Mosque, the ruins of Nimrud, the temples of Palmyra) or by rooting out ever more obscure sites to prove how dedicated they are at eradicating undesirable elements. The tactic has proven eminently successful so far and we can expect many more groups to replicate the tactic and innovate new ways to use the destruction of cultural heritage in war.

Cultural Heritage as a Resilient Community?

Robb is pessimistic about the state’s ability to defeat an open source insurgency. The adaptive nature of the insurgency means some group will eventually find a way to counter the state’s tactics and the others will follow their example. “You can’t kill their leaders, because they don’t need them,” he argues. “You can’t reliably prevent future attacks, because they’re small scale, dispersed, and unpredictable. You can’t outmaneuver or outsmart them, because their innovative organization system makes that nearly impossible. Welcome to the open-source war.” (p. 110).

Centralizing the state’s security apparatus through mass surveillance, data collection and the application of force is unlikely to be effective because a police state is structurally incapable of matching the open source insurgency’s speed and innovation in decision-making. (Pre-emptively invading other countries and reconstructing their societies into states friendlier to the west is even less likely to work, and for many of the same reasons)  (p. 156-164).

To date, the global response to the cultural heritage crisis has been that of the police state. Meetings are held in which international agreements between states are re-iterated. International law related to cultural heritage presumes the nation-state at every step. Codes of ethics revolve around countries of origin. We want states to post heavily armed guards and every site and museum, impose stiff penalties for looters, ban imports from at-risk countries, create computer databases of artifacts, deploy law enforcement to apply close scrutiny to buyers, and daydream about deploying United Nations troops to secure archaeological sites.

And some of these responses are at present perfectly reasonable, because in the contemporary world when the state fails heritage preservation is a disaster. Museums are emptied, their contents hidden or plundered. Archaeological sites are looted. Most people may not support either of these things happening to their historic sites, but they are powerless to stop them from happening.

Announcing that he is “ready to call it quits on the highly centralized and overly prescriptive proposals by governing bodies,” in the long term Robb argues that future security will be best secured through what he calls “Resilient Communities,” decentralized systems which are designed to limit the damage done by systems disruption.

Robb is not advocating backwoods survivalism. Rather, he suggests turning the systems which undergird modern society into platforms. Systems are hierarchical, platforms are flat. Everyone is free to interact with a platform as both a consumer and a provider. A platform is open, so users can innovate freely.

Robb uses the electrical grid as an example of a hierarchical system that could be turned into a resilient platform. The first step would be allowing users to also contribute power through plug-in solar panels or other methods, and setting pricing through a transparent system so that users were billed based on how much power they used versus how much they contributed. Power companies would become facilitators of exchange rather than mass-producers. The result would be a power grid far less susceptible to disruptions such as the 2003 Northeast blackout (and one that would likely be more environmentally friendly to boot). (p. 164-175).

What would a resilient community platform for cultural heritage preservation look like? Such a platform would avoid centralizing too many artifacts in one place but would have to be done in such a way that individuals not only retain the ability to access to all the artifacts but would also be able to contribute to the platform in some meaningful way. Contributing would also serve to increase a sense of ownership over cultural heritage within the community.

On the other hand, local control of artifacts means fewer resources available for conservation and study as well as even thornier ethical issues. Can the locals decide to destroy their cultural heritage? How is this heritage presented and how does one navigate layer upon layer of overlapping interests? More local control will almost certainly mean artifacts will sometimes be presented in ways that conflict with how the current powers controlling cultural heritage would want them to be.

This review is not meant to set forth a prescription for heritage preservation in the twenty-first century, but to begin to think about ways to approach the challenges that are being raised and how our current systems of heritage preservation can be adapted to this new world. How will archaeology in the future cope with failed or hollow states? Ignoring the issue is sadly no longer an option.

Article © Christopher Jones 2016.

How Much Money is ISIS Making from Antiquities Looting?

January 12, 2016

While the heavy involvement of ISIS and other Syrian factions in antiquities trafficking has been conclusively demonstrated, the relative importance of these efforts to ISIS’ overall funding structure has never been comprehensively analyzed in the public domain. This article will examine all publicly available sources and attempt to estimate the importance of looted antiquities to ISIS’ finances.

(Please note that this is an open source analysis of a topic with few open sources, and as new information becomes available the conclusions presented here could radically change.)

Early Reports

Most media reports about antiquities looting in Syria written prior to the rise of ISIS in early 2014 did not provide any estimated dollar value for the amount of goods leaving the country. The exception was a February 12, 2013 piece by Taylor Luck for the Washington Post which interviewed several rebels affiliated with the Free Syrian Army who were involved in looting and smuggling artifacts and testified that the average batch of antiquities could fetch $50,000.

The first report to put a firm dollar amount on looting came on June 15, 2014 from Martin Chulov for The Guardian. On June 4, 2014 Iraqi police commandos killed ISIS leader Abu Abdulrahman al-Bilawi in his hideout and captured a large trove of USB sticks containing spreadsheets with detailed information about ISIS’ internal structure. Chulov interviewed a number of anonymous Iraqi and western intelligence officers about the documents, and according to one intelligence officer:

“They had taken $36m from al-Nabuk alone [an area in the Qalamoun mountains west of Damascus]. The antiquities there are up to 8,000 years old…Before this, the western officials had been asking us where they had gotten some of their money from, $50,000 here, or $20,000 there. It was peanuts. Now they know and we know. They had done this all themselves. There was no state actor at all behind them, which we had long known. They don’t need one.”

This statement was interpreted by many readers and other media sources as saying that ISIS had made $36 million from looting antiquities in the al-Nabuk region. However, the source did not say that all or even most of the $36 million haul came from antiquities rather than from other looted items (cars, consumer goods) or other sources of revenue.

Nevertheless, the “$36 million” figure began to be uncritically repeated in dozens of media reports, with some even extrapolating that figure to all of ISIS-held territory to claim that ISIS was making hundreds of millions of dollars from antiquities smuggling.

The lack of any real data to back up the figures began to attract criticism, especially from the antiquities dealer community who began to suspect that calls to aggressively fight antiquities trafficking in the name of fighting terrorism were actually a Trojan Horse being advanced by academics who wanted to shut down the legal antiquities trade for ideological reasons.

The Abu Sayyaf Raid

On May 15, 2015 a raid by American special forces on an ISIS safe house in a small village outside Deir ez-Zor in Syria killed ISIS leader Fathi Ben Awn Ben Jildi Murad al-Tunisi, better known by his nickname Abu Sayyaf, freed an 18-year old Yazidi woman, and captured a trove of documents.


Chart released by the U.S. State Department showing the internal structure of the antiquities division of ISIS’ Diwan al-Rikaz in Deir ez-Zor governate.

Some of the documents captured during the raid were declassified several months later and have already been discussed in detail on this site, illustrating the inner workings of ISIS’ Diwan al-Rikaz or Department of Natural Resources. The documents showed that ISIS had systematized archaeological looting, with departments dedicated to the research, discovery and exploitation of new archaeological sites and a permit system to authorize diggers.

Contra the earlier Guardian report, they showed that ISIS classified antiquities as a natural resource alongside oil and minerals, as something to be extracted from the ground rather than as “ghanim” a.k.a looted items or spoils of war.

Most important, the raid captured a receipt book detailing the khums tax levied on authorized antiquities diggers in ISIS’ Wilayah al-Kheir (largely coterminous with Syria’s Deir ez-Zor governate, with some territory in Iraq). The book contained eight receipts, of which showed that in the period from November 2014 to May 2015 Abu Sayyaf had collected $265,000 in taxes on looted antiquities, which multiplied by the 20% tax rate showed that the value of looted antiquities was around $1.25 million.

However, these receipts were but a snapshot and could not show how much money ISIS had made in total from antiquities, or what percentage of their revenue was derived from antiquities looting.

At the same time, satellite photographs have shown that the most severely looted sites are in ISIS-controlled territory. In Deir ez-Zor governate the site of Mari saw industrial looting efforts begin as soon as ISIS took control of the site. A comparison of satellite photographs taken on August 4, 2011 and March 25, 2014 showed 165 new looter pits, an average of 0.17 new pits per day. After ISIS took control of the area in April 2014, a new photograph taken on November 11, 2014 showed that 1,286 pits were dug during this period, a rate of 5.5 new pits per day.[1]

Satellite photograph showing industrialized looting at Mari, November 11, 2014. Digital Globe/U.S. Department of State (source)

Satellite photograph showing heavy looting at Dura-Europos, April 2, 2014. The city is possibly the most heavily looted site in Syria, however all the pits in this picture were dug prior to ISIS taking control of the area. Digital Globe/U.S. Department of State (source).

Overall, sites controlled by ISIS have shown a much higher percentage of heavy looting than in territory controlled by other factions. While the percentage of sites that show signs of looting is comparable to other factions, out of 82 sites controlled by ISIS, 35 (42.7%) had experienced severe or moderate looting, which is fifteen more than sites controlled by all other factions combined. Out of all sites which had experienced severe or moderate looting 63% were in territory controlled by ISIS. (However it should be noted that at least one of these sites, Dura-Europos, had already been severely looted before ISIS took control of the area).[2]

Nevertheless, the evidence from the organizational charts as well as the massive and systematic looting of Mari show that ISIS is clearly devoting significant time and energy to exploiting archaeological sites. They must be expecting significant returns on their investment.

Read more…

Is Media Coverage Encouraging Archaeological Looting in Syria?

December 28, 2015

Earlier this month, the New Yorker published an article questioning some of the claims which have been made about the amount of money which ISIS and other factions are making from looted antiquities. Several antiquities dealers and artifact appraisers argued that there is no large market for Near Eastern antiquities in the United States and that many of the artifacts presented as being looted were not valuable items. According to dealer Randall Hixenbaugh, “When we say that these antiquities are worth millions of dollars, I think that prompts people to pick up shovels in eastern Syria. Are we not adding to the problem right now, by hyperbolic assessments of value?”

Hixenbaugh’s argument deserves careful consideration. Are media reports of hundreds of millions of dollars being made from antiquities sales causing people and militant organizations to dig up archaeological sites in hopes of getting rich?

To test this hypothesis I gathered a data set of articles harvested from Google News. I manually compiled links from the first sixty pages of search results for the keywords “archaeology looting Syria,” producing 250 articles (to see the data set, click here). To measure rates of looting I rely on satellite photographs showing the growth of looting pits which have been published in several articles.[1] Since most of these photographs were taken before December 2014, I chose to chronologically limit the sample of news articles to those published between January 1, 2011 and December 31, 2014.

The limits of the data set should be noted. The data only includes media outlets whose articles appear in Google News searches, and only includes articles written in English. Since the goal is to chart coverage rather than facts, no criterion was set for reliability of the sources. It was also not possible to weight articles by readership, although articles from prominent publications are more likely to appear in Google News searches.

NewsArticlesLootingThe results can be seen in the above chart. Articles about looting were scarce until late 2012, experienced a slight rise in early 2013 and steadily increased at the end of that year and the beginning of 2014. As the capture of Mosul, the attack on Sinjar, and the siege of Kobane riveted the world’s attention in the fall of 2014 the number of articles rapidly increased.

Therefore, if media speculation were driving looting we would expect looting to increase in the summer of 2013, and rapidly increase following the summer of 2014.

What do the satellites say? Imagery is generally available only for major sites:

Ebla: Photos showed no evidence of new looting pits in photos taken on December 6, 2011; September 27, 2012; January 17, 2013 or August 18, 2013. However between August 18, 2013 and August 4, 2014 at least 45 new looting pits appeared on the tell. Between September 27, 2012 and August 4, 2014 the site was also home to an expanding military presence by Syrian government forces.[2]

Mari: Comparison of photos taken on August 4, 2011 with one taken on March 25, 2014 show 165 new looter pits, an average of 0.17 new pits per day. From March 25 to November 11, 2014 looting advanced on an industrial scale: 1,286 pits were dug during this period at a rate of 5.5 new pits per day.[3] What changed was that in April 2014 the tell and the surrounding area were captured by ISIS, whose interest in industrialized looting in Deir-ez-Zor province has been well documented.

Dura-Europos: The timing is less precise for this site as there are only two images. The first, dated August 4, 2011, shows the site relatively undisturbed. The latter photo taken April 2, 2014 shows a moonscape. According to the AAAS report, counting the pits was impossible as “the pits overlap so that it is impossible to distinguish one unique pit from another.”[4] This looting took place prior to ISIS taking control of the site in April 2014.

Apamea: Photos show that Apamea was looted extensively and early. Photos taken on July 19, 2011 and April 3, 2012 show that in that time frame thousands of looter pits were opened in the government-owned portion of the site. Further images taken on September 27 and November 4 of 2012 show pits beginning to encroach into privately held areas of the site. Like Ebla, Apamea was also garrisoned by government troops, which according to Casana suggests “that the military was either directly involved or at least tacitly complicit in the looting.”[5]

Thoul Nayel: This late antique/early Islamic site was extensively looted before the war, and imagery from April 2011 and October 2012 shows that the looting continued during that time.[6]

Tell Chuera: Photos show extensive looting in a specific area outside the main city wall sometime between September 2012 and September 2013.[7]

Tell Ashtara: Photos taken in August 2011 and August 27, 2013 show a number of very large holes appearing on the mound. The holes are much larger than typical looter pits but less regular than military entrenchments, and Casana speculates they may have been dug by less disciplined Free Syrian Army forces.[8]

Tell Jifar: Looter pits were visible in photos taken in 2003 and 2007. An image taken April 3, 2012 indicates an expansion in looter pits alongside occupation of the site by Syrian government military forces.[9]

This brief survey does not show a correlation between media reports and site looting. The only sites whose looting correlates with an increase in media reports are Ebla and Mari. Apamea, Tell Chuera, Thoul Nayel, Tell Ashtara, and Tell Jifar were plundered before the role of looting in the conflict became widely reported. At Dura-Europos the data is not precise enough.

What’s more, alternative explanations exist for the increase in both Ebla and Mari, for the looting of each site coincides with a change in the site’s occupation by one of the warring factions. In these cases, it is possible that the new occupants of the site were encouraged by media reports. This is more likely in the case of Ebla than in Mari, since Mari is part of a systematic effort at site exploitation. However, one data point does not establish a pattern.

The lack of any universal pattern to the looting seems to indicate that it is driven by local rather than global factors. The universal factors which induce looting are the lack of security and desperation induced by war. The determining factors for what sites get looted and when seem to be entirely local.

However, this by no means disproves that media exaggerations can encourage looting. Indeed, one could argue that the type of looting most likely to be inspired by media reports is the type carried out by small groups of people at less well known sites. A few more looter pits appearing at hundreds of small tells would be much harder to track.

In conclusion, there is no evidence to support the hypothesis that media coverage encourages looting, however, it cannot be fully disproved and should continue to be considered as a possibility as new evidence arises.


[1] American Association for the Advancement of Science, Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project, Ancient History, Modern Destruction: Assessing the Current Status of Syria’s Tentative World Heritage Sites Using High-Resolution Satellite Imagery, Part One, by Susan Wolfinbarger, Jonathan Drake, Eric Ashcroft and Katharyn Hanson (Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2014); Jesse Casana and Mitra Panahipour, “Notes on a Disappearing Past: Satellite-Based Monitoring of Looting and Damage to Archaeological Sites in Syria,” Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies 2, No. 2 (2014): 128-151.

[2] AAAS, Ancient History, Modern Destruction, 10-16.

[3] AAAS, Ancient History, Modern Destruction, 19-21.

[4] AAAS, Ancient History, Modern Destruction, 5-9.

[5] Casana and Panahipour, “Notes on a Disappearing Past,” 129, 131.

[6] Casana and Panahipour, “Notes on a Disappearing Past,” 136.

[7] Casana and Panahipour, “Notes on a Disappearing Past,” 144-146.

[8] Casana and Panahipour, “Notes on a Disappearing Past,” 145, 147.

[9] Casana and Panahipour, “Notes on a Disappearing Past,” 131-135.

Article © Christopher Jones 2015.

Conflict Archaeology Bibliography

November 25, 2015

Here is a bibliography of academic works related to conflict archaeology, cultural heritage protection during armed conflict, and the use of archaeological and historical arguments in armed conflict. This bibliography will be regularly updated and suggested additions are encouraged.

Archaeologies 4, No. 3 (December 2008). [Special Issue: Imperial Inspections: Archaeology, War and Violence].

Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology & Heritage Studies 1, No. 4 (2013) [Special Issue on Cultural Heritage in Conflict].

Near Eastern Archaeology 78, No. 3 (September 2015). [Special Issue: The Cultural Heritage Crisis in the Middle East].

Abu El-Haj, Nadia. Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Bajorga, Sabri, ed. Destruction of Islamic Heritage in the Kosovo War, 1998-1999. Pristina, Kosovo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kosovo, 2014.

Baram, Amatzia. Culture, History and Ideology in the Formation of Ba’thist Iraq, 1968-1989. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

Bernhardsson, Magnus T. Reclaiming a Plundered Past: Archaeology and Nation Building in Modern Iraq. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.

Bogdanos, Matthew. Thieves of Baghdad. New York: Bloomsbury, 2005.

Brodie, N. 2015. “Syria and Its Regional Neighbors: A Case of Cultural Property Protection Policy Failure?” International Journal of Cultural Property 22 (2-3): 317-335.

Casana, J., and M. Panahipour. “Satellite-Based Monitoring of Looting and Damage to Archaeological Sites in Syria.” Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology & Heritage Studies 2, No. 2 (2014): 128-151.

Chamberlain, K. War and Cultural Heritage: an analysis of the 1954 Convention for the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict and its two protocols. Leicester: Institute of Art and Law, 2004.

Cunliffe, Emma.  “Archaeological Site Damage in the Cycle of War and Peace: A Syrian Case Study.” Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology & Heritage Studies 3, No. 2 (2014): 229-247.

Cunliffe, Emma, Lostal, M., and Muhesin, N. “The Destruction of Cultural Property in the Syrian Conflict: Legal Implications and Obligations.” International Journal of Cultural Property. (upcoming 2016)

Curtis, Jon C. “Relations Between Archaeologists and the Military in the Case of Iraq.” Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 19 (2009): 2-8.

Danti, Michael. “Near Eastern Archaeology and the Arab Spring: Avoiding the Ostrich Effect.” Antiquity 88, No. 340 (June 2014): 639-643.

Davis, Eric. Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Drazewska, B. “The Human Dimension of the Protection of the Cultural Heritage from Destruction During Armed Conflicts.” International Journal of Cultural Property 22, No. 2-3 (2015): 205-228.

González-Ruibal, Alfredo, ed. Ethics and the Archaeology of Violence. New York: Springer, 2015.

Goode, James F. Negotiating for the Past: Archaeology, Nationalism, and Diplomacy in the Middle East, 1919-1941. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007.

Guidetti, M. and Perini, S. “Civil War and Cultural Heritage in Syria, 2011-2015.” Syrian Studies Association Bulletin 20, No. 1 (2015).

Hardy, Samuel Andrew. Interrogating Archaeological Ethics in Conflict Zones: Cultural Heritage Work in Cyprus. D.Phil diss. University of Sussex, 2010.

–. “Destruction, Theft and Rescue of Archaeological Artefacts in Cyprus, 1963-1974: From the Intercommunal Conflict until the Foreign Invasions.” In Nys, K and Jacobs, A, (Eds.). Cypriot material culture studies: From picrolite carving to proskynetaria. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Postgraduate Cypriot Archaeology Conference held in memory of Paul Åström, at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium) from 27th to 29th November 2008. Göteborg: Paul Åströms Förlag, 2012.

–. “Using Open-Source Data to Identify Participation in the Illicit Antiquities Trade: A Case Study on the Cypriot Civil War.” European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research 20, No. 4 (December 2014): 459-474.

Howard, R., Prohov, J. and Elliott, M. Digging in and Trafficking Out: How the Destruction of Cultural Heritage Funds Terrorism. CTC Sentinel, Combating Terrorism Center (February 2015): 14-18.

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Rothfield, Lawrence, ed. Antiquities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection After the Iraq War. Lanham, Maryland: AltaMira Press, 2008.

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The Endless War

November 18, 2015

What does winning look like?

A few weeks ago on this site I wrote about cultural conceptions of war and how Western strategy and political discourse concerning military conflict are deeply rooted in specifically Western conceptions of what war is. Wars in the Western tradition begin with declarations, are decided on the battlefield between combatants, and end with peace treaties. More generally, the West conceives of war as an aberration, something outside the norm, a violent interregnum between periods of peace that has a well-defined beginning and an end.

A few days ago 132 people were killed in horrific terrorist attacks in Paris. They day before 43 people were killed by a car bomb in Beirut. Twelve days earlier 224 people were killed when a Russian airline was blown up over the Sinai. Paris. Beirut. Ankara. Cairo. Tunis. Nairobi. Boston. Mumbai. London. Amman. Islamabad. Bali. Mombasa. Riyadh. Casablanca. Madrid. New York. Fourteen years after George W. Bush launched what he called the Global War on Terror, thirteen years after Al-Qaida lost their base in Afghanistan, six years after they were largely driven from Iraq, there seems to be no end in sight.

What is our exit strategy? What is our end goal? Are our policies towards the Middle East a recipe for endless foreign wars? What does winning look like?

Do we still expect a surrender moment?

Do we still expect a surrender moment? (source)

These are all questions nearly everyone in the West has asked over the past twelve years, but I think it is important to recognize that they spring from a particularly Western cultural conception of war. We expect this war to end. In the West victory means the guns falling silent on the Western Front. It means Lee and Grant at Appomattox, V-E Day in Potsdam, MacArthur signing papers on the USS Missouri, General Schwarzkopf meeting Iraqi generals in a tent in the desert. Victory has a time and place when the guns fall silent and the enemy agrees to cease to resist.

And yet now it seems that they never do.

ISIS and Al-Qaida (the differences between them are disagreements over tactics, not ideology) have a very different cultural conception of war.

In a review of the philosophy of Jihadist political theorist Sayyid Qutb as part of his 2001 book Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner [translated and abridged here], Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri argued that Qutb’s great contribution was to show that the fundamental issue at stake was whether legitimate authority is derived from God or from men. The will of God as revealed through the Qur’an and the Sharia was for all the world to become Muslim and live according to God’s will. Qutb’s views were deeply rooted in his conception of monotheism and the essential unity of God. God is perfection and truth, and divine revelation in the Qur’an and Sharia are therefore also perfect and true. God is one, so the Ummah must also be one.

The struggle, therefore, was between the forces of Islam and everything else. According to Zawahiri, the duty of the believer is to continue to violently struggle “until Almighty God inherits the earth and those who live on it.” [p. 13]

Sayyid Qutb in prison in Egypt. He was executed on the orders of Gamel Abdel Nasser in 1966 during a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Sayyid Qutb on trial in Egypt. He was executed on the orders of Gamel Abdel Nasser in 1966 during a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. (source)

What this was to look like in practice is illustrated by the 2005 strategic document “The Seven Phases of the Base” penned by Saif al-Adel. He detailed plans to draw the United States into a war in the Middle East in response to a massive terrorist attack, develop the resulting conflict into a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam, bring about the collapse of secular Arab governments, declare a caliphate by 2016, and move into a final showdown with the West to establish the Caliphate’s dominance.

The phase strategy proposed by Adel undergirds another book titled The Management of Savagery, written by Muhammad Khalil al-Hakim under the pseudonym Abu Bakr Naji. By managing savagery Hakim means establishing a government to bring order to the chaos left behind by the collapse of the current nation-states in the Middle East. To bring about their collapse the use of violence and massacres is necessary. Key to the establishment of order is what Hakim calls “the polarization of the Ummah,” that is, “To transform societies into two opposing groups, igniting a violent battle between them whose end is either victory or martyrdom, whose emblem is either glorious war or humiliating peace. One of the two opposing groups is in Paradise and the other is in Hell.” [p. 11-20, 31, 46-47]

Therefore, in Al-Qaida’s formulation (and by extension ISIS as well) all life is a struggle for unity under one God. Violence is a tool used to bring about this unity through pushing people into picking a side, and later by destroying those who are outside the Ummah. Wars do not begin or end, rather, struggle is the normal state of being for true believers, the only ending is the final one, and violence is just a means to achieve this end.

The Challenge for Cultural Heritage Preservation

A major problem facing the preservation of cultural heritage during modern conflicts is that the framework of international law used to support such efforts assumes the Western conception of war.

  • UNESCO, the primary United Nations organization dedicated to protecting cultural heritage, can only work with the governments of its member states.
  • Laws declaring antiquities to be national property and thereby providing legal framework for the repatriation of artifacts assume the existence of states.
  • UNESCO’s own work in Syria has focused on laying the groundwork for postwar recovery. The goal is “restoring social cohesion, stability and sustainable development through the protection and safeguarding of cultural heritage,” which assumes that the war will end in some sort of political settlement which restores a unified Syrian state.

The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict is replete with the language of the Westphalian international system:

Article 4.1: “The High Contracting Parties undertake to respect cultural property situated within their own territory as well as within the territory of other High Contracting Parties by refraining from any use of the property and its immediate surroundings or of the appliances in use for its protection for purposes which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage in the event of armed conflict.

Article 4.3: “They shall refrain from requisitioning movable cultural property situated in the territory of another High Contracting Party.”

Article 5.1: “Any High Contracting Party in occupation of the whole or part of the territory of another High Contracting Party shall as far as possible support the competent national authorities of the occupied country in safeguarding and preserving its cultural property.”

Article 18.1: “Apart from the provisions which shall take effect in time of peace, the present Convention shall apply in the event of declared war or of any other armed conflict which may arise between two or more of the High Contracting Parties, even if the state of war is not recognized by, one or more of them.”

Article 28: “The High Contracting Parties undertake to take, within the framework of their ordinary criminal jurisdiction, all necessary steps to prosecute and impose penal or disciplinary sanctions upon those persons, of whatever nationality, who commit or order to be committed a breach of the present Convention.”

Irregular armed forces are only mentioned briefly and it is assumed they will be operating on behalf of a government in exile like the Free French in World War II:

Article 5.3: “Any High Contracting Party whose government is considered their legitimate government by members of a resistance movement, shall, if possible, draw their attention to the obligation to comply with those provisions of the Convention dealing with respect for cultural property.”

The conventions do make an awkward attempt to apply the treaty to persons who do not recognize the authority of their national government that signed the convention, by saying they are bound by it anyways as they are citizens of a state that signed the treaty:

Article 19.1: “In the event of an armed conflict not of an international character occurring within the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties, each party to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as, a minimum, the provisions of the present Convention which relate to respect for cultural property.”

The 1999 Second Protocol added to the 1954 Convention continued in the same vein:

Article 9.1: “Without prejudice to the provisions of Articles 4 and 5 of the Convention, a Party in occupation of the whole or part of the territory of another Party shall prohibit and prevent in relation to the occupied territory: a) any illicit export, other removal or transfer of ownership of cultural property; b) any archaeological excavation, save where this is strictly required to safeguard, record or preserve cultural property.”

Article 9.2: “Any archaeological excavation of, alteration to, or change of use of, cultural property in occupied territory shall, unless circumstances do not permit, be carried out in close co-operation with the competent national authorities of the occupied territory.”

Article 15.2: “Each Party shall adopt such measures as may be necessary to establish as criminal offences under its domestic law the offences set forth in this Article and to make such offences punishable by appropriate penalties.”

Article 16.1: “Each Party shall take the necessary legislative measures to establish its jurisdiction over offences set forth in Article 15 in the following cases: a) when such an offence is committed in the territory of that State; b) when the alleged offender is a national of that State.”

Article 22.1: “This Protocol shall apply in the event of an armed conflict not of an international character, occurring within the territory of one of the Parties.”

Article 22.3: “Nothing in this Protocol shall be invoked for the purpose of affecting the sovereignty of a State or the responsibility of the government, by all legitimate means, to maintain or re-establish law and order in the State or to defend the national unity and territorial integrity of the State.”

Article 22.4: “Nothing in this Protocol shall prejudice the primary jurisdiction of a Party in whose territory an armed conflict not of an international character occurs over the violations set forth in Article 15.”

This past September I attended a conference at Wellesley College on the crisis of destruction in Iraq and Syria. At the conclusion of the conference Dr. Ed Silver spoke of the “frustrated impotence” of each speaker at our inability to do anything about the destruction of antiquities by ISIS.

I submit that some of this frustration may be due to our reliance on old paradigms designed within the context of an international system that is becoming less and less relevant in many parts of the world.

We need to consider new models for cultural heritage preservation that are not predicated on the continuation of the current Westphalian, United Nations-backed international system. We will need to consider unrecognized states, non-hierarchical power structures, open source insurgencies and systematic disruptions. Some of John Robb‘s work on networked resilient communities may be an interesting place to begin.

(Incidentally this is a debate to which scholars of pre-modern societies may have the most to contribute).

The Sykes-Picot imposed international system that has governed the Middle East since World War 1 is fading. Syria and Iraq will never again be the way they were, for twentieth century Arab nationalism is dead and gone. In the long term this sort of systematic instability may envelop the entire international system. Let us consider the future now, that we not be blindsided again.

Article © Christopher Jones 2015.

Of Rhinos and Temples: Some Ethical Considerations in Heritage Protection

October 20, 2015

Yesterday, the AFP reported that according to Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini, UNESCO’s General Conference has agreed to lend its support to the idea of deploying peacekeepers to protect archaeological sites from attacks in war zones.

This does not mean that a U.N. expeditionary force will be rolling into Palmyra next month, merely that UNESCO has endorsed taking the idea to the Security Council.

Franceschini has been pushing this idea since last spring, but it is still unclear exactly what type of force he has in mind. His statement yesterday calling for the U.N. to “immediately define the operational aspects of this international task force” leaves it an open question whether he envisions this force operating on its own or as a part of the mandate of a larger United Nations peacekeeping force.

Nevertheless, the news is sure to reignite a long-smoldering debate over just how far we are willing to go to protect cultural heritage sites from ISIS. Such a proposal justifiably triggers concerns about prioritizing inanimate sites over human refugees and whether ISIS will use the West’s outsized concern for ancient sites as compared to the people who live near them for propagandistic purposes.

Elsewhere in the world, this debate is not hypothetical. On Saturday The Guardian published an article profiling anti-poaching efforts in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Poverty and unemployment next door in Mozambique have caused poaching to skyrocket in recent years. To date this year 544 rhinoceroses have been killed by poachers in Kruger park. Their horns sell for $65,000 per kilogram on the black market in southeast Asia, where they are used to make traditional medicine. Rhinoceroses have been hunted to extinction in most of Africa, and Kruger Park is home to one of the largest remaining populations. Thousands of young men from neighboring towns grab their rifles and sneak across the border hoping for an instant ticket out of poverty.

According to Mozambique’s former president, South African park rangers have killed nearly 500 Mozambican poachers in the past five years, including 82 in the first six months of 2015 alone. A spokesman for the South African National Parks Service called the numbers “highly overinflated” but declined to provide a more accurate figure. The already impoverished families of dead poachers are usually left destitute.

One way of assessing the ethics of this situation would be to simply weigh human lives against those of rhinoceroses. Add the obvious race and class issues (preserving the wildlife of Kruger Park is economically valuable for its ability to attract wealthy European and American tourists), and the deaths of poachers seems like a moral outrage.

Yet when one takes into consideration that these poachers are often members of organized criminal gangs which have usurped the authority of the police in some Mozambican border towns, the situation becomes much more complex. Few people (except the most ardent libertarians) would question the government’s authority to pass laws to protect endangered wildlife or archaeological sites. Few (except the most ardent pacifists and anarchists) would question the government’s right to use deadly force if necessary against armed criminals breaking the law.

A government’s authority is defined and maintained by its monopoly on the legitimate use of force within its borders. To put it bluntly, states kill. That’s what makes them states.

In this light it is no longer an issue of life for life but of protecting the credibility of the state – a state whose existence, despite its flaws, benefits most South Africans.

But mapping this paradigm onto international conflicts creates a whole new set of problems. A U.N. intervention force would not be deployed by any body elected by the people of Syria and cannot derive legitimacy from governmental authority in the same way as the South African police. Any such force would rely on foreign countries willing to donate troops to the effort. Issues of government legitimacy and the ethics of international law are beyond the scope of this article, but I raise this issue merely to point out that to the people on the ground a foreign military force intervening without support from a domestic political process looks a lot like an invasion. Blue helmets do not automatically confer international legitimacy, especially when they are sent by an organization largely dominated by the United States, Britain and France.

Currently much of the heritage conservation world is celebrating the arrest and indictment of Malian Islamist leader Ahmad al-Mahdi al-Faqi by the International Criminal Court for destroying tombs and medieval manuscripts in Timbuktu in 2012. This is the first time anyone has been brought before the ICC on charges of destroying protected cultural sites. Yet in Africa the ICC, which has never prosecuted a single non-African, is widely denounced as a neo-colonial tool used by European powers to control African governments.

All of this is to say that legal is not the same as moral and ethical, and any attempt to impose protection of ancient sites that does not take into account the local humanitarian situation is likely to be viewed as imperialistic and become counterproductive.

Enforcement-based approaches can work to eliminate transnational crime. The suppression of piracy off the coast of Somalia is a prime recent example where harsh jail sentences, armed ship guards, and sometimes brutal military actions changed the cost/benefit calculus of those contemplating piracy on shore. The risk of getting killed began to outweigh the promise of getting rich.

Such a response may well have been justified in the case of Somali piracy, where pirates routinely tortured and murdered crew members from ships they captured. But as with the rhino poachers in Mozambique, in Syria many people looting archaeological sites do so because they feel they have no other choice. They do it because it can bring some quick cash in a desperate situation, not because they wish to destroy their own history. And it is looting, not ISIS’ staged destructions, which has destroyed the greatest number of archaeological sites in Syria.

Unlike piracy, no human lives are directly at stake in the protection of archaeological sites or endangered rhinoceroses (an exception may be made for the case of industrialized looting used to fund ISIS). Therefore, while both are worthy of protection and legally the use of force is permissible to protect them, it is a moral imperative that any effort aimed at securing them also focus on the root causes that force people to turn to looting and poaching to survive.

Over a year ago, I wrote that “Ultimately, the only way to stop the destruction of Iraq and Syria’s cultural heritage is to stop the destruction of Iraq and Syria.” An initiative to protect cultural heritage sites as part of a peacekeeping mission or another larger effort to end the war in Syria should be encouraged. An effort to protect them while ignoring everything else in Syria is wrongheaded and will likely end in failure.

Article © Christopher Jones 2015.


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