Friday 10 June 2022

"Stolen antiquities trade fuels conflict in Middle East" the "Evidence" from Tell Bia

A few comments relating to Umar A Farooq, 'Stolen antiquities trade fuels conflict in Middle East, report says' Middle East Eye 8 June 2022 

This text is about the US "report" that rediscovers the wheel and talks about looted artefacts and trafficking networks. Among the gems it contains:

"The IS group gained global prominence in 2014, after taking over large swathes of Iraq and Syria, and the group made headlines for the destruction of cultural, heritage, and historical sites. What didn't make the headlines, however, was that many of the artefacts contained at those sites were captured by the militant group to sell".
Didn't make the headlines, eh? Short memories in Washington? Anyway the MEE story continues...
"Satellite imagery obtained by The Docket found a number of sites which had been excavated in Iraq and Syria, including the archaeological site of Tell Bia in the Raqqa governorate of northern Syria". and there is a picture underneath with one of those slider things showing ... "Between March and October 2014, digging in multiple areas can be identified through satellite images of Tell Bia, Syria (Courtesy of Clooney Foundation for Justice)".
Hmmm... this satellite evidence obtained by this group can be seen in the bottom left corner to be nothing else than two common-or-garden Google Earth images. Hmmm. Then we turn to the actual place 35°57′27″N 39°2′51″E which is just three kilometres to the east of the centre of Al-Raqqa.

In 2013, Raqqa changed hands three times: it was first controlled by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, then it became the first provincial capital captured by the various factions of the Syrian opposition, and finally, in November 2013 control over the city was seized by ISIS, which made it the capital of their short-lived Caliphate. Farooq's report shows the situation in March and October 2014 as though they were in some way significant. Let's look at the other photos that google earth shows that were not selected for illustrating "ISIL looting".

Looking at the time-slices offered in Google Earth, the satellite photo of the site in Dec 2004 is disappointingly fuzzy, and that of April 2011 has most of the site covered by low cloud... but around the edges of you can see that the SW part of the site is already riddled with (what really can only be) looters' holes. This was just after the civil uprising but before the outbreak of the permanent armed conflict a few weeks afterwards. But it was well before ISIL. To my eye, those holes look to have been fairly recently dug in that photo, subsequent ones of 4/2022, 9/2012, 10/12, 1/2013, 2/2013, 2/2014 and 3/2014 look to be more or less the same, in fact an indication that this looting had stopped was the fact that in the series of winter shots in 2013 and 2014 there is greenery growing in the depressions. There are sporadic (but temporary) huts (or tents?) appearing in January and February 2013.

What I find surprising is that some time between March 2014 and September the same year (so in the period when ISIL had taken over) a big quarry (86m diameter up to 5 m deep) appeared in the SW corner of the site. This gradually expanded in stages up to September 2016 when its edges appear to be weathering. At least one of the destinations of this material can be seen on the same photos where at the same time as the quarry was being dug a large earth platform was being constructed as the base for two large compounds 390 m to the NE, and a further one to the west of it in a property that may be related. 

October 2014 raised earth platforms and a borrow pit (Google Earth)

There does seem to have been some looter holes on the edge of this quarry as it expanded, but these seem more likely to be private initiative than any kind of organised activity. There is however one area of intensive digging at the eastern edge of the quarry in an area 20x15m in the photo of Feb 2015. This has an odd appearance, and the photos suggest that the upper layer of soil has been cleared and forms piles along three sides (the other side is the quarry lip). This looks almost as if it is an exploration carried out by somebody trained in archaeological excavation. 

There was another quarry (80 x 56m about 3-4m deep) at the easternmost extremity of the site, it was not visible in photos of Feb 2013, but had expanded to its maximum size by Oct 2014. Interestingly, by Oct 2014, there was a rash of quite large looters' holes on the southern edge. Perhaps the workmen at the quarry-site were making use of the spare time and availability of digging equipment when the lorries carted off the earth to the building projects (possibly the area 370m to the SE?).

ISIL was driven out of Raqqa in June/July 2017 by which time many of the looters holes on Tell Bia  were looking very weathered. There had been some fresh but rather desultory looting in May that year in the centre and northern edge of the site, but again, this could have been private initiative.

What is utterly surprising is that no mention is made of what happened next. Throughout the years after 2013 there had been some kind of activity on the tell that involved temporary structures (huts or tents) going up in the centre and on the eastern side of the site. In one or two cases this seems to be related to some form of soil movement. Possibly at least some of this is military activity. There was also some encroachment onto the edge of the site. But while in Jan 2018 there had been nothing of the kind on the site, by July that year, the site was becoming covered by small huts. It seems likely that the site had become a camp for internally displaced refugees. At first they were relatively sparse and away from the areas of both unfilled old excavation trenches and the main areas of looting, by July 2020 the hilltop was becoming rather crowded. There was no clear indications of any digging between the houses.

The upshot of this is that the site chosen as a visual exemplar of "looting financing terrorism" and trying somehow to link this with the bogeyman ISIL falls flat when you check it out. The main looting here took place before April 2011, before the Civil War had broken out and the changes that the picture with the slider show are due to shifting sunlight and the appearance of vegetation in the depressions in the winter months. But then lawyers don't have to know anything much about aerial photo interpretation, I guess. But things like this really weaken the case they are trying to put forward.

 PS. It was only when I'd done all that I remembered that this site was discussed in Casana, Jesse and Laugier, Elise. (2017). Satellite imagery-based monitoring of archaeological site damage in the Syrian civil war. PLOS ONE. 12. e0188589. 10.1371/journal.pone.0188589. 

Update 10.06.2022
Since this was written, the "evidence" of this site has appeared on the Clooney Foundation website

Well, as anybody can check back with Google Earth, the bulk of the digging seen in this shot, whether in March or October had appeared well before March 2014... and there are currently no "red boxes" visible that I can see here. What changes are the size of the quarrying at both sides of the tell, but this is clearly utilising it as a source of building material rather than antiquities.  Pathetic. 

PS 13.06.2022: I do not know if they were there three days ago or not, but now you can just make out some red lines on the photo... hidden under the big white lettering of the caption!! They delimit the quarry/borrow pits, but to be fair, the adjacent looters' holes too. I think nothing shows the domination of the need for appearance over the needs of information than this (again, appalling layout). And if you look even more closely you can see they've drawn the "red box": 

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