Insurgency or civil war creates a governance vacuum that allows individuals or professional looting operations to turn archaeological sites into lunar landscapes and smuggle objects out of the country with relative ease. A growing body of evidence indicates that looting and illegal antiquities trade are becoming more common as the Syrian conflict rages on. More importantly, there are indications that smuggled antiquities provide an important source of revenue for some of the many rival factions controlling large swaths of the country.
If prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, then war must be the second oldest employer and looting a logical third. Before regular standing armies, looting used to be a legitimate way to compensate soldiers for their services. In general, looting happens because, in times of war, the normal rules of conduct within society are temporarily suspended. Nowadays, the annual revenue of the global illegal antiquities trade is estimated at € 1 to 3 billion ($ 2 to 4 billion). While, frequently locals engage in illegal excavations to cope with economic hardships, it is the middlemen who walks away with the majority of the profit.
In recent memory, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan provide ample evidence that illegal antiquities trade, together with drug-trafficking, is a viable way for rebel forces to fund their activities. The looting of the Baghdad museum in 2003, shortly after US forces took control of the city, is sometimes called one of the biggest cultural disasters since the Second World War. Eyewitness reports point out that certain looters knew exactly which items they were looking for and even spotted some European looking gentlemen selecting the best pieces. This indicates that at least some of the looting was part of an internationally organized operation.
The antiquities are often trafficked through the same networks as drug and arms. Matthew Bogdanos, a colonel in the US Marine Corps who wrote the book “Thieves of Baghdad” about the illegal antiquities trade during the war in Iraq stated that “in 2005, every single weapons shipment that we seized, whether from terrorists or insurgents, also contained antiquities”. The trajectory these objects are moved through is complex and difficult to trace. They are dug up by locals or professionals, smuggled out of the country and passed through a series of dealers and subsequently “laundered” by antiquities dealers by forging provenance documentation. They are often legitimized because of their acquisition by museums or large collections who put them on display.
Syria makes up a large part of the Fertile Crescent and has a rich heritage spanning thousands of years and encompasses the origins of agriculture, urban life and writing to Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Abbasid and Ottoman eras. Aside from Aleppo and Damascus, which are amongst the longest continuously occupied cities in the world, the country is littered with unexcavated ruin mounds. While the civil war already took the lives of more than 100,000 Syrians (the UN has stopped publishing official casualty numbers as they have proven to be difficult to verify), the country’s heritage is also suffering. All of the most iconic sites, such as the Crac des Chevaliers, the Ummayad Mosque and Suq in Aleppo and the ancient cities of Palmyra and Apamea have been damaged to some extent.
Because of their high visibility, it has mostly been the devastation of immovable cultural heritage that has reached the news. While these buildings will be able to be restored, a large portion of the antiquities smuggled out of the countries could prove to be irretrievable. In the absence of proper security, organized looting groups -sometimes exceeding 100 people- can go about their business undisturbed and employ the local population or intimidate them into compliance.
While security on the ground cannot be guaranteed, the sheer scale of some of these excavations has meant they haven’t gone unnoticed by tech-savvy scholars. Dr Ignacio Arce, Director of the Spanish Archaeological Mission to Jordan, compared pictures from Google earth of the Hellenistic city of Apamea of 20th July 2011, and then on 4th April 2012. The previously green farmland surrounding the ancient buildings has been replaced by an ever-expanding lunar landscape. The scale indicates looting of industrial proportions. While some believe they have been carried out by professional organizations, illicit antiquities blogger, Paul Bradford however points out that the digging seems to correspond with modern property boundaries, indicating it might be undertaken by the locals themselves.
Objects from these digs are now circulating on the global antiquities market and often find their way into the legal circuit. On V-coins, an antiques trade website specialized in numismatics, Syrian and Apamean coins are being offered, without proper biographical information of the object whatsoever. The Syrian directorate-general of antiquities has complained about the looting of repositories of archaeological artifacts in Raqqa. At the Syrian-Lebanese border they also reported the interception of a range of illegal artifacts ranging from pillar capitals, funerary statues as well as mosaics.
Even the reputable auction house Sotheby’s is auctioning questionable artifacts. One auction of interest featured two carved stone pillar capitals from Raqqa dating to the 8th century. They recently went under the hammer for a whopping €374 845.132, exceeding by far the € 70-95,000 estimate. Another auction featured an ‘exceedingly rare’ 11th century Hebrew synagogue carving from Jobar, Damascus. Both items are offered without proper information regarding the nature of their aquisition and, not surprisingly come from hotbeds of the civil war. Jobar was one of the Damascene suburbs subject to the chemical attacks of 2013 and is home to a 2,000 year old Synagogue which was recently destroyed by government controlled troops.
In the posh Zavel neighbourhood in Brussels two antiquarians were willing to address the issue. While both storekeepers emphasized they would never engage in any illegal purchases, one indicated he had been approached by individuals with wares of questionable origins. The other stated he had never been approached with any offers of that nature. Both shops where located in the same street at a distance of about 100 metres.
Returning to the example of Iraq, after the looting of the national museum of Baghdad, Donald Rumsfeld simply riposted “stuff happens”. The cynicism of his comment is unwarranted, not simply because the loss of a country’s heritage is regrettable but that it is intimately entwined with the funding of insurgent forces. There are indications that both rebel groups as well as Assad’s government is involved in trafficking to fund their operations, which could end up prolonging the conflict. Many also see tourism as one of Syria’s best chances at post-conflict development.
The bottom line is that if there is a demand, there will always be looting, especially in the absence of a stable government. This leads us to question whether the collecting of antiquities should be legitimate at all. The intimate relationship between the traffic of illicit antiquities and the financing of para-military organizations debunks the myth of the benevolent collector who merely safeguards precious artifacts from unstable regions. Prominent archaeologist, Colin Renfrew therefore argues that “the only good collector is an ex-collector.”