Tuesday 4 August 2015

The "ISIL Excavation Videos"

There are some videos doing the rounds which were obtained "from an activist on the Turkey–Syria border"  which purport to show ISIL-run excavations in Deir Ezzor province in eastern Syria. These videos are the ones missing from the excellent Buzzfeed article by Mark Giglio discussed earlier. The films are said to show "the kind of illicit excavations that plague Syria today, as looters descend on historical sites across the country to dig up precious artefacts and sell them off to help fund a gruelling civil war". The date when they were made is unknown. Comments on the page include:
The dig is undertaken with a surprising level of professionalism, showing workers in well-dug excavation pits chiseling around artifacts with care and brushing them clean. The camera pauses on documents from a pre-war excavation sanctioned by the government that suggests the site is Dura-Europos, an important archaeological site that ISIS has looted extensively. 
The latter comment is incomprehensible to me as the page in question shows three embedded videos none of which show any "excavation documentation".

Having looked at the evidence, I do not think these three videos show what they purport.

What we see is a long rectangular trench dug along the slope of a scarp overlooking a broad river valley. Two other holes of similar size (?) are visible in the background. The bottom of the trench is flat, except for an upstanding berm. This looks like an eroded mudbrick wall or perhaps an upstanding robber-trench fill. There are stone artefacts on the base of the trench near it. In one video we see that in the taller wall are the characteristic tunnels of sand martens which shows this hole has been open some time. This is not any new looters' trench, it is an old eroded archaeological excavation in which people have been digging - there are two alcoves  dug in one long side and a short side.

A group of five young men in western style (takfir) clothing digging, although one has dusty trousers, they are very clean and of a similar age. These four are unlikely to have dug that hole unaided with the help of those little shovels and baskets.

The scenes we see are posed. This is clear in the middle of the three on the page which I think is the earlier of the three. First of all note how they take tools from a pile in the centre of the trench. These probably were taken from an excavation expedition's store - the three shovels are cheap and of the same type. Then men have been put to work on different tasks, note one looks at the camera towards the end of the second film as if to get directions. But in the top film (taken after the tools had been distributed) the men - dressed in the same clean clothes - are in different parts of the trench doing different things. The men are mimicking what they've seen archaeologists do - probably they are local villagers, maybe even took part in this excavation earlier.  The man in the foreground with the Ronaldo top however has no idea how to handle a shovel in this hard earth, and has no spoil bucket. The one in the sky-blue top with the brush in the middle video is not uncovering an artefact; he is brushing the loose spoil from adjacent (posed) exploration off the compacted surface underneath. While this is less reliable as 'proof' of anything, note that the youth with the hand mattock is digging in soil in the bottom of the trench which has hardened like concrete and not material which was exposed just a few hours earlier - another suggestion that this is an old trench used to pose an excavation.

In the top video, the two men digging in the alcove dug in the long wall seem in fact to be cleaning out loose soil which has slipped in from the spoil heap above. The guy with the red kefiya tied round his waist also seems to be digging in loose (slipped?) soil.

The third film, with the artefacts, may be of a different trench. Here a group of soil encrusted pottery vessels, some metal objects and what might be a coin (?) are exhibited, presumably pulled out of fossicking in the side of existing trenches. I think they have been brought together for the film, rather than necessarily being an indicator of what looters aim to get to sell.

To be clear, I am pretty sure this film shows young men acting out looting for the benefit of journalists or 'activists'. The satellite photos show that some open excavation trenches dug by pre-Civil-War expeditions on a number of sites in Syria (see my posts on this last year) have had random opportunistic holes dug in their sides and bases. I think that's whet we see here. The young men we see did not dig these holes in the side of the trench, they are acting out the digging that had been done earlier. The satellite photos however show a different type of looting going on / has been going on, with systematic blanket hole-digging right across whole areas of sites like Apamea and Dura Europos. These are organized looting projects, and it would be useful to have some better (closer range) drone surveillance of these holes.

UPDATE a few hours later
Mike Giglio has contacted me and stresses something which he did say earlier but perhaps does not come out so well in my post):
I can't say for sure whether it was an ISIS-sponsored dig or whether ISIS controlled that particular area at the time the videos were filmed. As to the documents you mentioned not seeing: there are about 15 videos in the cache I received, and I didn't publish them all. It's very possible that the workers in the video did not make the excavation pit themselves — I think the fact that they are on the site of a pre-war excavation, as both articles note, should make that clear to readers. Your post suggests that I am trying to posit otherwise in the article, but that's not the case.
I was aware that the journalist was being careful in the presentation of this material, but it is already being quoted by others less carefully, so I wanted to make it clear that we need to treat this "evidence" with the same circumspection as all the rest before this story took on a life of its own.

Later on that day I received a copy of the video with the papers, a sheet of a 2009 report by a civil engineer on the stability of the wall at Doura lies in the rubble in a building with the ripped-out pages of a book and graffiti on the walls. This looks like a devastated dig house or store-cum-office of a French-Syrian expedition.


Geoarch said...

Yes, it appears that this is staged. In addition to your extensive description of what is, or is not, taking place, I would add no dust pans and no dirt/sediment in the gufahs. The digging with a shovel is also questionable. Possible but unlikely given how deep they in the trench/architecture. No doubt that some of the individuals have excavation experience but don't really understand stratigraphy and/or context.

Paul Barford said...

The point is, isn't it that the videos are supposed to show how looters get the artefacts out of sites, the size of the hole was the surprise, as was the apparent systematic way the "looting" depicted was going on.

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