Sunday 23 August 2015

ISIL looting and Destruction at Palmyra?

UNESCO has an important function, does some good work and costs a lot of money. So perhaps when they want to make a point they could do so using real evidence. There are a series of articles going round at the moment in which they are quoted saying again we should stop the illicit antiquities trade. Yes, let's do it. Let's do it instead of just talking about it over and over. But let us not make up stories about it. UNESCO was caught out by Sam Hardy and myself a while back claiming a stela sold on the London market was an ISIL loot when it was not. They claimed there had been a misunderstanding and they'd been misquoted.... You'd think they'd be more careful about the way they are quoted by journalists the next time.

Here's two pictures they've come up with, being used to show that ISIL is doing bad things at Palmyra (Karin Laub and Albert Aji, 'Islamic State is systematically destroying heritage sites, says UNESCO chief', Associated Press ):

"This satellite image provided by UNESCO shows the Northern Necropolis at Palmyra, Syria intact on October 10, 2009". I'm not entirely sure about 'intact' with a dirt-track race circuit over one third of it, but....

"This October 26, 2014, satellite image provided by UNESCO shows levees and roads dug across the Northern Necropolis at Palmyra, Syria. IS fighters overran the historic town in May 2015". [Spotted the sleight-of-hand yet?]

The bottom photo seems to show holes dug all over the right side of the frame. 'Ah, looting'  I presume we are expected to surmise. Except it is not recent looting. And it's nothing to do with ISIL. Look at the date the second photo was taken.

UNESCO's second photo looks like the latest version on Google Earth, but it is not, look at the position of the cars on the road. But the road and other features are there. But that Google earth shot was taken  on 20th February 2014, when Palmyra/Tadmore were in government hands (you can see the prison intact to the right). That road and vehicle park were made by the Syrian Army, not ISIL. At its east end is the main gate of a large rectangular enclosure which I'd say is an army base. Interestingly if you look at the Google Earth shots close up, you can see how the banks (probably intended to serve as shelter if a convoy was attacked from the side) have been made by scraping surface soil up from outside the road - and the bulldozing mostly goes around upstanding earthworks instead of levelling them. The road appears on a photo of October 26, 2014 here which mentions the 2013 military occupation at the site when "the construction of defensive earthworks, roads, and temporary structures reportedly escalated".

What about those holes though? Superimposing the images, it can be seen that all (or at least all the ones I looked at and I stared at it long enough) of the 'holes' in the UNESCO photo are on the Google Earth one  from three months earlier. But then, although the latter are much less 'contrasty' they are present (all present?) on the earlier photos supplied by Google Earth i.e., 31st Dec 2004, 27 Aug 2006, 8th Sep 2010 [the latest on which the road had not been built], and 20th Feb 2014 plus the UNESCO satphoto of Oct 10, 2009). Also, while some of the dark spots in those photos are holes and depressions (shadows), the bulk seem not to be. They look like loose earth, but these could equally be patches of vegetation or something growing on damper soil.

In fact, all this stuff was discussed (in the context of much, much more) in the report 'Ancient History, Modern Destruction: Assessing the Current Status of Syria’s World Heritage Sites Using High-Resolution Satellite Imagery' published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science on 18th September 2014. This uses photos of the area of 10th Oct 2009 [no road] and 8th March 2014 by which time the road had been finished.

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