Thursday 18 December 2014

Making Sense of the AAAS Analysis of Damage to Historical Sites in Syria

The four sites discussed here
The American Association for the Advancement of Science has carried out an analysis of high-resolution satellite images that documents the extent of the destruction of a number of sites in Syria (Kathy Wren, 'AAAS Analysis Shows Widespread Looting and Damage to Historical Sites in Syria', 17 December 2014). The report discusses however only six of the 12 sites that Syria has nominated as World Heritage Sites: Dura Europos, Ebla, Hama's Waterwheels, Mari, Raqqa, and Ugarit (they promise a forthcoming report which will analyse the additional six sites). A lot of the damage observed  appears to be the result of widespread looting which as Sam Hardy notes, is occurring within regime and rebel territories as well as under jihadist rule.The reviewed text however does not really make the effort to place the evidence of the satellite photos in any kind of historical context. For that the reader has to go to Sam Hardy's careful exegesis which I extract here ('Antiquities looting under regime, rebels and jihadists in Syria', December 18, 2014). I really think we should also be asking what is currently happening in Iraq at the same time as the events leaving the traces seen here.

Dura Europos, Deir ez-Zor province
This was the site with the most extensive looting identified in the AAAS report, and this has clearly been taking place on an industrial scale, with reports of teams 300-strong. The site was still relatively intact in late September 2012:
AAAS: Based on the imagery analysis, 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, the researchers report. Looting pits outside the city wall were less dense but still numerous; approximately 3,750 individual pits were observed. Images from 2 April 2014 show four vehicles among the ancient Roman ruins in close proximity to the looting, suggesting that the disturbances at the site may have been ongoing at that time, according to the report.
Sam Hardy comments:
The Islamic State took over Dura-Europos in September [2014]. In November [2014], the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), which operates in regime territory, said that looting at Dura-Europos had stopped. Considering the damage, if that’s true, it may be because the site has been mined out. So, it seems that 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).
Who, however, now has control of the artefacts taken from the site during this looting?

Mari, Deir ez-Zor province
Significant looting has also been documented at Mari (Tell Hariri). As Sam Hardy notes, this seems to have taken place under predominantly Islamist factional rule then probably also Islamic State rule. The 4 August 2011 image of Mari (here) shows no signs of looting. On 25 March 2014 (here), numerous pits are present at the site. By 11 November 2014 (here), these pits had been joined by over one thousand more.
AAAS: The Albu Kamal region, where Mari is located, came under the control of ISIS in June 2014.The looting appears to have ramped up during the last year. The researchers identified 165 visible pits dug between August 2011 and March 2014 (an average of 0.17 pits formed per day). Between 25 March and 11 November 2014, however, they identified 1,286 new pits, an average rate of 5.5 pits dug every day over the seven-month period.
Sam Hardy usefully expands on this:
On the 4th of August 2011, Mari remained unlooted; by the 25th of March 2014, a 500(?)-strong team of looters had dug 165 more holes (0.17 pits per day); by the 11th of November 2014, looters had dug another 1,286 holes (5.5 pits per day). (The satellite image data seem to suggest that either these huge teams plundered sites in incredibly intensive episodes or the reports of hundreds-strong workforces were inaccurate.) As Paul Barford observed, at least the earliest looting work was ‘very likely to be the work of the villagers whose houses are just nearby (and who may have worked on the sites when the archaeologists were digging here)’. That had already started by the 21st of December 2012, while the Abu Kamal/Albukamal region ‘came under the control of ISIS in June 2014‘. Between those dates, it was under the shared control of Jabhat al-Nusra-affiliated Islamist Kata’ib Junud al-Haq, Jabhat al-Nusra-aligned Islamist Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna, Free Syrian Army -affiliated Kata’ib Allahu Akbar, Free Syrian Army brigade Liwa Allahu Akbar, independent anti-regime brigade Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar, and independent Islamist brigade Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya, and it was seriously contested by the Islamic State from April until the end of June. There do not appear to be satellite images that would identify which authority oversaw the most looting. However, since there was comparatively little looting before the fight for Albukamal, it seems reasonable to assume that most of the looting happened after Islamic State conquest.

Ebla (Tell Mardikh) 
The date of the military fortification of this site and its looting (photo here) are unclear and at present it is still unknown whether this took place when under regime control and/or joint rebel-jihadist control
AAAS: The images in the analysis show looting pits, including 45 new holes observed between 18 August 2013 and 4 August 2014, as well as eroded walls, earthen berm fortifications, and heavy vehicle tracks. Military compounds have been constructed on the site, likely due to the fact that the site is elevated over the surrounding plain and provides a good view of the area.
Sam's expansion:
Ebla is in a territory that appears to have been under regime control until March-May 2014, when mixed rebel and jihadist forces took control of the area. It appears to have been militarised between the 18th of August 2013 and the 4th of August 2014. Within the same period, looters dug 45 new holes. So, it is not clear whether the looting occurred when it was under regime control, rebel-and-jihadist control, or both.
Sam comments that it is clear that Apamea suffered ‘stunning’ looting while the area, and indeed the site itself were under regime control.

The AAAS report found evidence of targeted destruction of monuments in the city of Raqqa, " the result of actions by ISIS," the report states. Sam Hardy notes that "there is evidence that Raqqa district has suffered significant looting too, for example in Dibsi Afnan. Apparently, at least at Tell Sheikh Hasan near Raqqa city, local community activity has ended the plunder".

The two other sites that the AAAS researchers analyzed — the historic waterwheels of Hama and the ancient site of Ugarit do not appear to have been damaged.


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