Saturday, December 13, 2014

Mapping the damage to Syrian Archaeological sites

by Salman Hameed

From Science: This map is based on satellite data and shows locates sites of damage

The civil war in Syria and surrounding areas is also taking its toll on archeological sites. Last week's issue of Science has an article that used satellite imagery to assess some of the damage. And it is not just ISIS that is responsible for the damage - though they are the ones intentionally going after Shia, Christian or Yazidi sites. But the most extensive damage is simply through the actions of the military:
The Islamic State group has emerged as a particular threat, making concerted efforts to destroy the sacred sites of groups it views as heretical. The group has publicized its intentional destruction of dozens of sacred sites online or in its glossy magazine, Dabiq. “A soldier of the Islamic state clarifies to the people the obligation to demolish the tombs,” states one caption in a recent issue that includes images of exploding shrines. 
“It is all very choreographed,” Danti says. He adds that the biggest spike in destruction took place in May, with nearly 20 sites demolished, followed by a half-dozen or so incidents each month thereafter. Almost half of the destroyed sites are associated with Shia Muslims, while the remainder are places sacred to Sufis, a mystical branch of Islam, as well as Christians and Yazidis, an ancient ethnic group centered in northern Iraq. More than 15% are statues and buildings predating Islam; images on the Internet, for example, show a yellow front loader toppling and pulverizing two massive black stone lions dating to the 9th century B.C.E. in the Islamic State provisional capital of Raqqa in northern Syria. 
But researchers say that even more damage to archaeologically important sites stems from military action by all parties in the conflict, including the Syrian government and perhaps Iraqi and U.S. forces. “There is a lot of damage from military garrisoning,” says Jesse Casana, an archaeologist at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, who is part of the ASOR team and has been closely examining dozens of Syrian sites. Tells, remnants of ancient settlements that dot the Syrian and Iraqi landscape, offer high ground for military units, which wreak havoc with heavy equipment as they fortify the sites. Archaeologists also fear that the warring forces are heavily mining strategic tells, creating a daunting threat for future excavators. 
In October, Kurds captured Tell Shair, a site near the hotly contested Syrian town of Kobane. Images taken by the victors showed that the ousted Islamic State group fighters had dug trenches 2 to 3 meters deep on the mound, devastating the upper layers of the millennia-old settlement. The images also showed signs of bomb craters, possibly from U.S. raids—in the first half of October alone, the U.S. military reported conducting more than 135 airstrikes in the area. A Defense Department advisory group provides data to the U.S. military on important cultural heritage monuments so it can limit bomb damage. But whether such protection extends to smaller sites such as Tell Shair is unclear, several U.S. archaeologists say.

Here is a map of the site of an ancient Roman city and the holes dug by looters are apparent:

From Science: This is a December 2012 image of Apamea in Syria and the inset shows the holed dug in by the looters
Casana is also using satellite photos to track another major source of damage: looting. At the important classical city of Apamea outside Hama in western Syria, for example, areas largely undisturbed in images from 2011 are pocked with large holes in 2012—holes big enough to suggest that they were dug by heavy machinery such as backhoes rather than shovels. Looting has since spread across the site in what looks like a “very organized fashion,” Casana says. The Syrian government built a major military garrison, complete with bunkers and artillery emplacements, at the site of the former tourist restaurant at Apamea. “This strongly implicates the military as complicit or participating in looting,” Casana adds. At another tell nearby, the looting holes are located within a few meters of military tents. 
Classical sites like Apamea and Bosra, an ancient city in southern Syria that has also suffered significant damage, are more prone to looting than older sites because their artifacts are more sought-after on the international market. Archaeologists have observed a massive expansion in looting between August 2013 and April 2014 at Dura-Europos, a sprawling Roman-era city on the Euphrates in Syria. But Bronze Age cities like Ebla in the west—damaged by a Syrian government military garrison—and Mari, which is under the Islamic State group's control, are not immune. “There are rumors that armed groups are undertaking the work,” ASOR's Branting says about Mari. Other reports suggest that the Islamic State group is profiting from the business, possibly by exacting a tax as well as by overseeing looting operations. But Danti adds that most looting appears to be the work of desperate Syrians attempting to survive in a devastated economy.
I guess this is another price of war. You can read the full article here (you may need subscription to access it).

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