Thursday 16 October 2014

Syria, Who is Digging Up What Where?

It has become quite fashionable in the past few months to scrutinise the satellite coverage of Syria for evidence of damage to archaeological sites (see here). In the article by David Kohn ('ISIS’s Looting Campaign' The New Yorker October 14, 2014) he writes that satellite-photo-studying University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Katharyn Hanson has discovered:
"As fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) overrun the region, they have been digging up many archaeological sites and looting whatever they find [...][she] points to three Syrian sites, Apamea, Dura-Europos, and Raqqa, as places that have been particularly hard hit".
Apamea Dr Hansen, did you really say that? Apamea (As Suqaylabiyah, Hama Governorate), is outside the area shown on nearly all maps in the media depicting the area under ISIL control or even supporting ISIL. Something like 108 km beyond the area of ISIL control. Here's a BBC map from a couple of months ago as an example.

After BBC ('AP' Apamea, Raqqa and Dura to east)
The area is currently under government control. The Google earth overlays show that on 20th July 2011 the site was relatively intact, but by 4th April 2012 the site had been devastated by a dense cluster of looting holes. The later photos from the area on Google Earth do not seem to show a marked increase in the hole-digging, most of the damage which we know about from these photos took place in the window between the end of July 2011 and the end of March 2012, in other words, right at the beginning of the civil war . In this period, the area was not in the hands of ISIS - indeed ISIL itself did not exist until its formation from various other militant groups on 8th April 2013. So whichever militant group was in control of the area one year earlier, the looting here was nothing to do with ISIL. [UPDATE Casana and Panahipour 2014, 131 state that their research shows that the looting took place in a six week period between September 27th and November 4th 2012 when the site was occupied by Assad forces]

Dura Europos is a more clearcut example. The area came under rebel (FSA) control in late 2012 (the border town of Tel Abyad fell to FSA in September 2012 the border crossings with Iraq two months later). There are photos on the US Department of State site showing that on 28 June 2012 Dura Europos was relatively intact, the most prominent features were unfilled archaeologists' trenches. The photo of 28th September 2012 on Google Earth shows the same. At the moment there is a lack of clarity when the looting actually began. Eighteen months after those photos, by 02 April 2014 the whole site had been exhaustively plundered. Certainly the site is in the middle of the ISIL-held zone, though the precise chronology of the beginning of the looting is unclear - certainly it seems to be ongoing when the photo was taken. Several teams seem to be at work. One can however search the whole photo in vain for any signs of the use of mechanical equipment (excavators or bulldozers) which should be betrayed by the disposition of the spoil heaps. There is nothing here to suggest this has happened. 

One clue as to the possible timing of at least some of this looting comes from a video of nearby Mari, dated to November 2012 (so before the creation of ISIL)  which shows some of the damage and looting visible on the satellite photos published this year by the US Department of State. Yet photos on the same website show the site was relatively intact still 0n 07 September 2012. This gives a relatively narrow window when that looting took place and again it would be related to when the area was in the hands of the FSA and not ISIL. Is there any objective reason (eg cloud cover) why the US Department of State did not publish photos more closely-spaced in time which would allow this to be brought out more easily?

Raqqa (Ar-Raqqa) is also right in the middle of current ISIL activity. I do not have access to the satellite photos which Hanson may have been using. Neither is it clear to what site(s) she is referring. There are a number of tells up the Balkh river for example near the city, but very little evidence on Google Earth at least that there has been recent looting. In the environs of Ar Raqqa itself there are two tells, Tuttal (Tel Be'ida) and Tell Zeidan to the east of Raqqa. Of the former the latest photos (13th Feb 2013) show pitting of two kinds. One is horrible eroded unfilled archaeological trenches (who left the site in that state?) and there is an extensive pitted area to the west. The same pitting is however visible in fuzzy photos of 2004. At Tell Zeidan the photos are rather fuzzy and poorly-lit and while more unfilled excavation trenches are visible on the latest (28th Sept 2012) there is nothing there which screams "looting". 

It is quite disturbing that once again, in connection with military action by US allies, claims are being made about damage to cultural sites and cultural property by ISIL - yet when you start to look at the details behind the glib claims, they are rather sparse. Apamea cannot have been looted by "ISIL", neither geographically nor chronologically. It looks more like activity in some way connected with the FSA overunning the area temporarily. As for the rest, who is actually behind this looting at Dura is difficult to say, again is it the FSA which should be blamed for at least part of it? Certainly this would seem to be the case with Mari, just down the road. I personally have not seen the evidence of looting in the ISIL heartland at Raqqa (though would be happy to see the evidence presented online).  

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