Saturday 29 November 2014

Syria and Iraq: Looting "not going on"?

 The International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art wants to brush away the suggestion that the German part of the no-questions-asked trade in dugup antiquities is in any way involved in funding ISIL. "Extremely unlikely" is how they phrase it. So they've just released a triumphant text 'No Evidence of Trade in Ancient Art Funding ISIS' (Basel, November 25, 2014). The argument is, to put it mildly, weak and based just on two 'sources', one post in a journalist's blog and one weekend newspaper article. That's it.

However if you want to deny something, you cannot just take two things which you say contradict the view and simply ignore all the reasons why people say something is happening.

It's particularly annoying that the dealers and collectors persist in maintaining a totally superficial approach to the whole issue when there are a lot of people making a lot of effort to produce better information, and more nuanced analyses on the basis of the slim information we can get from an illicit activity conducted by several secretive and dangerous groups in a country ripped apart by civil war. A lot of information can go missing under such situations. It's bad enough trying to understand criminal networks in countries at peace and the dealers obviously expect miracles.

I assume (but who knows, coineys eh?) that most people accept that the holes visible on satellite photos do indeed for the most part represent looting . Back in May I was looking over the Google Earth evidence for Syria (such as it was in May) and you could/can see holes which probably are not looting, and holes that are. Some of the latter predate the war, some predate ISIL. But some are very recent (and this is now being supplemented by the US Department of State ASOR (SHI) and others by newer and better photos). Not all the looting holes are in ISIL regions, and obviously not one group is responsible, the FSA and Nusra Front seem to have been involved. Over in Iraq (though I admit I've not personally had the time to look at it) probably you'd see the same. So the looting is going on. Let's take Dura Europos and Mari as the type sites (Apamea as I have shown elsewhere seems to be related to the period when it was Syrian government troops in control and is nothing to do with ISIL).

I think we can also assume that in the middle of a civil war and under the noses of ISIL in particular, nobody much is digging these holes for entertainment or find a few pretty clay idols to stick on the mantelpiece. Some of these holes require the removal of dozens of cubic metres of earth, and some are reported to have horizontal tunnels at the bottoms. In other cases, people on the ground report the use of earthmoving machines (I've not personally observed any traces of that on the satellite photos I've seen). And I think this is something the dealer (and mouthy young students in a hurry) Conflict Antiquities Deniers are missing out - there are observers on the ground. Our contact with them is limited (as is their freedom to visit and see all they'd like) but their testimony cannot simply be dismissed.

Neither can one simply dismiss the fact that some antiquities that have been seized and seen (and I refuse to believe that these are anything other than the tip of an iceberg, albeit of unknown size) at various times in recent years on the other side of the Lebanese and Turkish borders. I do not accept that just because a Russian journalist could not actually find a real smuggler and wanted to make a report so she got a pile of coins and faked it (inadvertently using two obvious fake coins to do it) negates the reports of the other journalists who do seem to have met real artefact smugglers and middlemen on the Turkish side. The smuggling of artefacts from Syria and Iraq did not start in 2011. The constant flow of freshly surfaced Tell Brak figurines for example (assuming they are real) shows that the smuggling routes out of the country were established well before the civil war started. Gliding up and down it on Google Earth suggests that the border between Syria and Turkey is for most of its length a pretty solid one (compared to that between Donbas and Russia) and getting contraband across it probably requires 'organization' with some 'friends' on both sides of the fence at crucial border crossings. Tell Abiab and Kilis are mentioned in journalists accounts (both mentioned by Al Azm here). Kilis is rather too far over to be in 'The Islamic State'.

The literature has tended to concentrate on the issue of the movement of objects to 'the west' (us) rather than 'out of Syria and Iraq'. There's a longish border with Jordan which does not seem to have attracted much attention, but if we are talking about smuggling, why is there nothing written about stuff moving southeast, out of Syria and sites in Iraq down towards the Persian Gulf? Out there you have Qatar, Bahrain, the market in Dubai, lots of rich people, some of whom will have a taste in 'ancient art' (well that's the "it's-not-just-us" collectors' story anyway). These regions certainly have 'all sorts' of links with group in Mesopotamia and Syria, yet nobody seems to be exploring beyond the Turkey-Lebanon links. Dubai is of course well known as an outpost through which all manner of ancient objects is then shipped to Europe and the States.
The scale of the looting is enormously distressing. We know how much destruction is being caused (Dura Europos looks to have been totally and systematically trashed from one end of the ancient city to the other). What we don't know is what is coming out of those holes. Forget all the crap about "billions of dollars", that's not true. Where we've seen looters in action, they do not take everything. In the same way as metal detectorists in the UK pick over what an ancient site contains pulling out what is 'collectable' or saleable, looting in Iraq (2003+) was marked by holes with scatters of discarded artefacts all around them.  A few stones and ceramic objects are surprisingly heavy if you have to carry them over rough ground, in the heat. A looter's not likely to take something 'on the off-chance' if he has to lug it for miles only for a middleman tell him he'll "take that, and that, the rest no, no market".  One hole may contain dozens of collectable items, another just a few - it depends what the diggers dig down through.

So looting is going on. Smuggling is going on.

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