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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.

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