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American Schools of Oriental Research is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Near Eastern Archaeology. http://www.jstor.org American Schools of Oriental Research Satellite Imagery-Based Analysis of Archaeological Looting in Syria Author(s): Jesse Casana Source: Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 78, No. 3, Special Issue: The Cultural Heritage Crisis in the Middle East (September 2015), pp. 142-152 Published by: American Schools of Oriental Research Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5615/neareastarch.78.3.0142 Accessed: 21-10-2015 10:21 UTC Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at http://www.jstor.org/page/ info/about/policies/terms.jsp JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected]. This content downloaded from on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 10:21:14 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

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American Schools of Oriental Research is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Near Eastern Archaeology.


American Schools of Oriental Research

Satellite Imagery-Based Analysis of Archaeological Looting in Syria Author(s): Jesse Casana Source: Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 78, No. 3, Special Issue: The Cultural Heritage Crisis in

the Middle East (September 2015), pp. 142-152Published by: American Schools of Oriental ResearchStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5615/neareastarch.78.3.0142Accessed: 21-10-2015 10:21 UTC

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at http://www.jstor.org/page/ info/about/policies/terms.jsp

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected].

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Jesse Casana


The Bronze Age site of Mari on the Euphrates River in eastern Syria appearing in a satellite image from April 11, 2015. The upper mound of the site, surrounding the excavated palace of Zimri-Lim, has been severely looted in recent years. Imagery © Digital Globe 2015.

Satellite Imagery-Based Analysis of Archaeological

Looting in Syria

Since the start of the Syrian war in 2011, antiquities offi-cials, archaeologists, and cultural heritage professionals have struggled to assess the nature, severity, and scope

of damage to sites and monuments (e.g., Abdulkarim 2014). Individual episodes of direct, conflict-related damage, as in Aleppo’s Old City, have received significant media attention, while there have also been occasional reports of severe looting, as at the Roman city of Apamea (Trafficking Culture 2012). And of course, since late 2014 there have been a growing number of high-profile, intentional demolitions of historic and archaeological monuments, most notoriously by members of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) (Bott and Harmansah, this issue). Clearly, the cultural heritage of Syria and sur-rounding regions is being impacted in sometimes extreme ways through military activity, looting, and ideologically-motivated destruction. Yet assessing how widespread these various issues are, where they are most common, and what sites are being most commonly targeted remains difficult to determine (Danti, this issue).

Analysis of recent, high-resolution satellite imagery offers a powerful means to evaluate the extent of damage to archae-ological sites and can offer a cross-check against ground-based observations of damage by civilians, media, and often

politicized government reports (also see Parcak and Stone, this issue; Bjørgo et al. 2014; Wolfinbarger et al. 2014; Casana and Panahipour 2014; Contreas 2010; Contreas and Brodie 2010; Stone 2008). There have been some recent critiques of imagery-based analyses because of their inherent limitations in terms of spatial and temporal resolution (Wolfinbarger 2015), but in fact imagery can reveal some forms of dam-age much more effectively than any other means. Ground observations tend to focus almost exclusively on damage to historic buildings and standing monuments located in urban areas, because these are most evident, particularly to non-specialists, but rarely recognize looting, especially at remote archaeological sites. Satellite imagery on the other hand is exceptionally good at revealing looting, earthmoving, and construction, particularly outside of urban areas, but selcom will reveal damage to individual monuments or buildings. Most previous efforts using satellite imagery to assess dam-age to archaeological sites, including my own recent study (Casana and Panahipour 2014), have been constrained not by what imagery is unable to reveal, but rather by limited access to large quantities of sufficiently recent imagery. Im-agery served through Google Earth, Bing Maps, and other open-access web-mapping platforms can sometimes reveal

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Figure 1. Our damage assessment protocols leverage a large database of archaeological sites in Syria and surrounding regions (top), and stream imagery directly from Digital Globe’s Image Connect service (bottom) in order to facilitate monitoring and recording. Imagery © Digital Globe 2015.

heritage damage (e.g., Contreas and Brodie 2010), but these data are updated only infrequently, while purchasing com-mercially-acquired imagery for all of Syria would be exorbi-tantly expensive.

Through ASOR’s Syrian Heritage Initiative, a US Department of State-funded collaborative project that I co-direct (http://www.asor-syrianheritage.org/), our research team was granted access to a vast archive of imagery acquired by satellites oper-ated by Digital Globe, enabling us to see constantly updated imagery of most archaeological sites in Syria and surrounding regions. This remarkable resource radically improves the pos-sibilities for imagery-based analysis of looting and damage to archaeological sites because for the first time we are able to ana-lyze damage at an unlimited number of sites, across the entire region, in near real time. This paper presents interim results of our ongoing work to monitor site and monument damage re-motely, and while our research team is documenting many dif-ferent forms of damage, herein I focus on patterns of looting as

a unique form of damage that is often exacerbated during times of conflict and political instability.

MethodsThe first stage in our research was to create a comprehensive da-tabase of archaeological and cultural heritage sites in Syria. As part of a NASA-funded research project focusing on northern Syria and surrounding regions, my research team had already mapped all archaeological sites reported by 40 regional surveys and several atlas projects, producing a dataset of around 4,500 previously published sites (Casana 2014; Casana and Cothren 2013). In order to compensate for the highly uneven nature of past archaeological research in the region, we then set to the task of mapping systematically all sites and site-like features that appear on declassified 1960s-era CORONA satellite imag-ery. Due to a variety of factors, most archaeological sites in this region appear with great clarity on CORONA (Casana et al. 2012; Ur 2013), and to date, we have mapped close to 12,000

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sites and probable sites that are as-yet unpublished by archae-ologists. Since the beginning of the ASOR Cultural Heritage project, we added around 600 other features such as museums, libraries, and historic monuments, and have also been working to expand our database into southern Syria. While still a work in progress, our current site database is among the most com-prehensive of such lists for Syria and surrounding regions and serves as the foundation for our ongoing analysis of conflict-related damage.

Most of our damage assessments are made using Digital Globe’s web-based image service, Image Connect, which enables users to browse and download high-resolution images collected by both Wordview and GeoEye satellites from 2007 to the pres-ent. Digital Globe adds new imagery of Syria on a near-daily ba-sis, and the ASOR team has even been allowed to make tasking requests to obtain coverage of specific sites. While some parts of Syria still have no data collected in recent years, in most ar-eas that have seen conflict, imagery coverage is excellent, with

Figure 2. Dura Europos, eastern Syria, appearing on imagery from August 2011 and April 2015. In a closeup around the Palmyrene Gate, dozens of decades-old looting holes are visible (bottom left). Since 2014, the entire site has been severely looted with fresh looting holes clearly visible in the same area. Imagery © Digital Globe 2015.

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multiple images at sub-meter resolution collected over the past several years.

To facilitate our analysis, we developed a damage assess-ment protocol in which satellite imagery from Digital Globe is streamed directly into ArcGIS, the platform within which our site database operates, so that we are able to quickly record vis-ible damage in a manner that can be readily queried (fig. 1). Based on our pilot study (Casana and Panahipour 2014), we al-

ready had a fairly good understanding of the forms of damage we would likely be able to recognize in imagery, being primarily those related to looting, earthmoving, construction, creation of military garrisons, and direct damage from ordinance. For each site we analyze, we carefully compare pre-war imagery with the most recent image available, and then record all forms of damage that are visible in both pre- and post-war images, as well as when observations are made, by whom, and based on what images.

Figure 3a–b (above). A comparison of the frequency of looting as observed by our project, comparing all pre-war looting (likely encompassing several decades of activity) with all post-war looting taking place within the past four years.

Figure 4 (below). The Roman/Early Islamic site of Resafa, near modern Raqqa, with extensive looting, which took place progressively over many years prior to the current war. Since 2012, we can see little evidence of new looting at the site. December 18, 2014 imagery © Digital Globe 2015.

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Because this process takes some time to complete, we began our assessments on 700 “priority” sites, which are all those that have been excavated, appear in major synthetic studies (Ak-

kermans and Schwartz 2003; Burns 2009), or are among Syria’s key historic monu-ments and museums. We then moved on to assess a random sample of 700 other sites known primarily from survey publications, designed to provide a geographic sam-ple from across all regions of Syria. While they are not gen-erally known outside of spe-cialist literature, the fact that these sites have been surveyed means we can at least usually determine their date. Because some areas of the country have seen very limited ar-chaeological research, we also incorporated numerous other sites known only from our imagery-based mapping. A significant number of sites cannot be assessed either due to a lack of sufficiently recent imagery or because they are simply not visible on imagery, such as those submerged be-low reservoirs or completely covered by modern buildings. The analysis presented herein is based on a sample of 1,289 sites for which we have been able to assess some form of damage, either pre- or post-war, enabling us to begin to identify broader patterns in the severity, scope, and tim-ing of damage.

Severity of Pre- and Post-War LootingLooting is generally difficult to see when standing on a site; however, on a high-reso-lution satellite image, looting holes often appear with great clarity, and unless they are ploughed over, can remain visible for decades. While at densely vegetated sites or at sites covered by modern buildings looting holes are

difficult or impossible to see in imagery, at the vast majority of sites in Syria, which form expansive mounds with modest vegetation cover, looting is quite easily detectable. Fresh loot-

Figure 5a (above). Map illustrating all 1,289 sites included in the current analysis overlaid on areas of factional control within Syria as of early 2015, as mapped by the Strategic Needs Analysis Project (SNAP 2015).

Figure 5b (below). Map illustrating incidence of war-related looting within areas of factional control, with severely looted sites labeled.

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ing holes typically appear as dark, amorphous sub-rounded features, 1–3m in diameter, usually adjacent to a lighter ring or pile of up-cast soil. Older looting holes typically erode into more of a bathtub-like de-pression in the ground, while the oldest holes may be vis-ible only as a differently col-ored stain in the soil. A good example comes from the primarily Roman/late Ro-man site of Dura Europos on the Syrian Euphrates (fig. 2). A long history of pre-war looting extending back several decades is visible in a 2011 image of the site, but in 2013–2014, the site was severely damaged by looting, with thousands of new holes visible across the entire site.

The severity of looting we are able to document varies widely, with Dura Europos among a handful of sites at the extreme end of the con-tinuum, but quantifying these differences is a complex prob-lem (Stone 2008; Bjørgo et al. 2014). Some researchers have attempted to manually count each visible pit, while others have sought to calculate the total looted area of sites. At the scale we are working, we opted for a simpler method in which looting is classified as “minor,” “moderate,” or “severe.”

The scope and severity of war-related looting in Syria is best understood in reference to that which took place prior to the war. Of the 966 sites for which we have been able to make assessments of pre-war looting, 227 (25%) show evi-dence of looting (fig. 3a; 18% minor, 5% moderate, and 2% severe). In some instances, as at the primarily Roman-Early Islamic site of Resafa, just south of modern Raqqa, eroded looting holes visible today were present on the site and appear much the same way in 2000, the year of the earliest available high-resolution satellite imagery (fig. 4). The long-term visibility of looting holes at Resafa, Dura Europos, and many

other sites suggests that the record of pre-war looting we have documented likely encompasses several decades of activity.

In contrast, of the 945 sites for which we have been able to as-sess war-related looting dam-age occurring from 2012–2015, we have documented looting at 202 sites or 22% (fig. 3b; 17% minor, 3% moderate, and 2% severe looting). While similar in proportion to the record of pre-war looting, all war-related looting has taken place in just 3–4 years, and thus represents an increase in the frequency of looting by nearly an order of magni-tude. Ninety-nine of the 202 sites looted since the war be-gan were also looted prior to the war, but the remaining 101 sites represent a consid-erable expansion in looting onto previously pristine sites. Moreover, the rate of looting has been rapidly increasing over the past four years, with images from 2014–2015 being far more likely to reveal loot-ing than images from 2013 or earlier. Given that there are likely 15,000 or more major archaeological sites in Syria, our data suggest that more than 3,000 of these have been looted since the war began. This represents a truly un-precedented expansion in looting activity and thus a dire threat to the region’s ar-chaeological heritage.

By far the most common type of looting that is vis-ible to us is minor looting, evidenced by fewer than 15 looting holes. While this type of looting was common prior to the start of the war, it was illegal in Syria, but the breakdown of civil authority appears to have brought the activity out of the shadows. In many cases, small-scale loot-ing is likely being undertaken

by people who are desperately in need of food and other supplies. An even greater concern for many archaeologists, however, are

the more severe cases of looting, many of which could only have

Figure 6 (above). Tell es-Sinn, a major Roman/late Roman site on the Euphrates River in far eastern Syria has been severely looted within the past two years,

during the period when it was within the area controlled by ISIS/ISIL. November 11, 2014 imagery © Digital Globe 2015.

Figure 7 (below). Tell Bi’a, near modern Raqqa. While best known as the Bronze Age city of Tuttul, a long history of looting focused almost exclusively on the small Roman/late Roman part of the site. In 2014, large parts of the previously looted areas of the site were removed en mass, perhaps in order to be sorted off-site.

January 9, 2015 imagery © Digital Globe 2015.

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Figure 8. The major Roman/late Roman city of Apamea in western Syria was severely looted during 2012-2013, contemporary with the military occupation of the site by Syrian regime forces. Imagery © Digital Globe 2015.

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been undertaken by organized teams of laborers, most likely us-ing heavy machinery. The cases of severe looting that predate the war, as at Resafa (fig. 4), Medinet al-Far, and Danova for example, are all sites where looting took place progressively over a period of decades. Throughout the Middle East, particular sites become known to local residents as places likely to yield valuable finds, and this leads to continued digging at the same sites, finds from which serve to reinforce the mythology about the richness of those sites. A much more troubling trend that is new to Syria since the start of the war is extreme looting episodes in which major sites are systematically destroyed in short periods of time by small armies of looters. The only parallel to the scale and sophistication of these organized looting operations is found in southern Iraq during the worst years of the war there in the mid-2000's (Stone 2008).

Geographic Patterns in LootingThe geographic distribution of war-related looting is one of the most illuminating of our results to date. Recent media coverage

and some academic discussion has claimed that, alongside their many other deplorable acts, ISIS is currently issuing permits to loot archaeological sites with the goal of taking a percentage of finds (Al-Azm et al. 2014; Loveluck 2015). To date, the only evi-dence to support these claims are a few receipts with supposed ISIS stamps giving authority to individuals to loot particular sites, but in the highly politicized world of propaganda that sur-rounds the entire war, we should remain skeptical of their au-thenticity. Even if it does prove to be the case that ISIS is di-rectly sanctioning and profiting from looting, we do not know whether this practice would work to encourage more looting, or perversely, to discourage prospective looters for fear of reprisals from ISIS authorities.

Our data are now able to show quantitatively how looting is patterned in terms of factional control within Syria (fig. 5a–b). To perform this analysis we rely on maps from the Strategic Needs Analysis Project (SNAP 2015), an organization that produces de-tailed data regarding a wide range of humanitarian issues within

Figure 9. Tell Jifar, a small mound 2km to the east of Apamea, had a long history of looting prior to the war, but was severely looted in a more extreme manner contemporary with the occupation of the site by Syrian regime military forces. Imagery © Google Earth and Digital Globe 2015.

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Syria, as well as maps illustrating changing factional control on a village-by-village basis over time. Simply evaluating the total number of looted sites according to factional control as of early 2015, it does not appear that looting is more widespread in ISIS-held areas. As percentage of sites assessed, we see 21% of sites looted in ISIS areas and 16.5% in Syrian regime areas, compared with 28% and 27% in Kurdish and opposition-held areas respec-tively (Table 1). Of course, the timing of these looting events vis-à-vis shifting factional control is a critical question and one not easily answered given the spotty availability of imagery in many areas. Nonetheless, our data show quite compellingly that war-related looting is most frequent and most widespread in Kurd-ish and opposition-held areas, which are, perhaps unsurprisingly, also the regions with the weakest centralized authority.

On the other hand, ISIS areas show a much higher rate of mod-erate and severe looting as a total percentage of looted sites than other parts of Syria. A staggering 42% of looted sites in ISIS-held areas ia classified as severe or moderate looting, compared to 23% in Syrian regime areas, 14% in opposi-tion-held areas, and only 9% in Kurdish areas (Table 1). The extreme looting seen at sites like Dura Europos (fig. 2), Mari (banner), and Tell es-Sinn (fig. 6), all of which seem to have occurred since ISIS held those regions, could be evidence of state-sanctioned looting operations.

A handful of sites in ISIS areas show an unusual pat-tern of damage in which large portions of mounded sites are simply removed en mass, per-haps to be sorted off site. The clearest example of this prac-tice is at Tell Bi’a, a site well-known for its Bronze Age pa-latial architecture, located just outside of the ISIS stronghold in Raqqa (fig. 7). The site was sub-jected to a long history of looting in the decades prior to the war, primarily focused on the small Roman/late Roman occupation at the southwest corner of the mound. In 2014, new looting holes ap-peared on this part of the site, and then large parts of the site (ca. 2 ha.) were removed. We have documented similar instances of earth removal at six other sites, all in ISIS-held areas. Initially we thought these episodes may simply be the result of archaeological sites being used as construction fill or even fertilizer, but the close association of site removal at Tell Bi’a with those areas also targeted by looters suggests that it may be a new looting strategy, perhaps one designed to leave looters less exposed to intervention by au-thorities or to violence.

It is critical to understand that incidents of extreme, likely state-sanctioned looting are not unique to ISIS, but also ap-pear in Syrian regime-held areas, as at the massive Roman city of Apamea in western Syria (fig. 8). In this case, the looting of Apamea began in 2012 shortly after the site was invaded by Syrian forces, and continued through at least the fall of 2013 during the period when the site was occupied by a Syrian mili-tary garrison (Casana and Panahipour 2014). The initial and most extreme phase of looting at Apamea focused entirely on the government-administered heritage portion of the site, leav-ing privately held fields also within the walls of the ancient city virtually untouched. In subsequent months, looting holes gradually encroached onto the private fields nearby, but did so in an orderly manner, looting on a block-by-block basis within the Roman city grid. This later phase of looting, likely involving

heavy machinery and large numbers of laborers, took place as Syrian troops were garrisoned on the site just a few hundred meters away.

Two kilometers to the east, the small mound of Tell Jifar was similarly subjected to extreme looting while occupied by Syrian forces during this same timeframe, with massive looting holes located just meters outside of military tents (fig. 9). This site had seen a long history of looting prior to the war, dating back to at least 2007, but the size of looting holes increased dramatically with the start of the war, perhaps showing the difference between clandestine looting with hand tools versus sanctioned looting using heavy machinery. Numerous other small mounded sites that were occupied by Syrian forces during the intense fighting in

Figure 10. The Bronze Age city of Ebla (Tell Mardikh) was first occupied by a Syrian regime military garrison in 2012, but with the expansion of military activity of the site in 2013-2014, including the construction of numerous other garrisons, the lower

town was also subjected to severe looting. August 4, 2014 imagery © Digital Globe 2015.

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War-Related Looting as Documented by Analysis Satellite Imagery*


Total Assessed

SitesSevere Looting

Moderate Looting

Minor Looting

Total Number

Total Percentage

Percentage of Heavy Looting

Syrian Regime 212 3 5 27 35 16.5% 22.9%

Islamic State/ISIL 383 18 17 47 82 21.4% 42.7%

Kurdish YPG 116 1 2 29 32 27.6% 9.4%

Opposition Forces 237 2 7 54 63 26.6% 14.3%

* Analyzed sites are broken down according to areas of factional control as of early 2015 (SNAP 2015). Note that sites which straddle or are very close to approximate borders are counted in both regions.


that area during 2012 and 2013 were also looted contemporary with their military occupation (Casana and Panahipour 2014; Bjørgo et al. 2014).

More recently, we see a similar pattern at the well-known Bronze Age capital of Ebla (modern Tell Mardikh) (Matthiae and Marchetti 2013; fig. 10). The site was militarized initially in fall of 2012 with the construction of a small garrison, probably taking advantage of the protection afforded by the remains of the Bronze Age city wall, now forming a 25-meter-high earthen wall that surrounds the site (Casana and Panahipour 2014). In 2013–2014, military activity was greatly expanded at the site, with the construction of numerous additional garrisons, and over this same timeframe, large parts of the unexcavated lower town were severely looted. The close association of military oc-cupation by Syrian regime forces with extreme looting at sites like Apamea, Ebla, and elsewhere in western Syria leaves little doubt that military forces are either directly involved in looting or at least complicit in enabling it to occur. Even if these looting episodes are not formally sanctioned by the Syrian regime, they continue to occur at an alarming rate throughout this region in particular, suggesting that at best, officials turn a blind eye to the illicit looting undertaken by field commanders.

Conclusions and Future DirectionsThe brief report presented here should highlight the critical role that satellite remote sensing can play in monitoring the looting of archaeological sites as well as other forms of damage, particularly in ongoing conflict zones where access to sites by heritage offi-cials or archaeologists is limited. While satellite imagery may not be able to reveal the destruction of an individual statue or damage on the inside of a museum, it offers an extraordinarily powerful means of assessing patterns of looting and damage at a regional scale. Detailed and careful analyses of the kind presented here

reveal insights about the frequency, scope, and severity of dam-age that would be impossible to gain through any other means.

As we move forward with our own monitoring efforts in Syria and surrounding regions that are being affected by the ongoing war, we have several key goals. Foremost, the issues we address are ever evolving, with new instances of looting and damage oc-curring on a daily basis, and thus we will continue our moni-toring efforts, expanding our sample, particularly into ISIS-held areas of northern Iraq, while also revisiting sites analyzed earlier. We are also exploring methods to better assess the chronology and type of site that is most commonly being targeted by looters, the timing of damage throughout the war’s history, as well as the association of damage with shifting factional control over time. Ultimately we hope that the information we are generating will be of value to heritage officials and archaeologists after the war in Syria has subsided, while also providing a model for remote sensing-based monitoring of archaeological sites in conflict situ-ations more broadly.

AcknowledgmentsThe research reported in this paper was undertaken primarily as part of a joint project between ASOR and the US Department of State, the Syrian Heritage Initiative. Thanks go to our govern-ment colleagues who have helped make this project possible, es-pecially John Russell and Andrew Cohen, as well as to my ASOR co-directors, Andrew Vaughn, Abdalrazzaq Moaz, Michael Dan-ti, and Scott Branting, and key staff members, LeeAnn Barnes Gordon and Tate Paulette. The satellite image analysis was un-dertaken by myself and a team from the University of Arkansas’ Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies, and I owe much to the organization’s director, Jackson Cothren, staff member Adam Barnes, and dedicated students Elise Jakoby Laugier, Mitra Pana-hipour, and Christopher Fletcher.

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