Our life?s work is gone

Archaeologists are trying to trace heritage stolen in Syria

No one expected Raqqa to fall.

Better late than never: a Leiden archaeologist joined two archaeologists from Syria in an attempt to identify finds looted by ISIS. “Other countries tried to save their digs but the Netherlands did nothing.”

“If you travel through northern Syria, you’ll see lots of little hills”, says Olivier Nieuwenhuijse. “People once lived there. If you dig there, you know you’ll find a settlement. Syria was an archaeological hotspot until 2010.”

The Leiden archaeologist and his colleagues spent decades working in northern Syria. Their finds were stored in a depot, while the really good items were sent on to the museum in Raqqa. “Clay tablets, coins, gold jewellery, anything made from precious metal, anything with text and exceptional prehistoric figurines. That museum was extremely valuable. But city fell in 2012 and ISIS looted the depot; no one knows where those items are now.

To find out, the Focus Raqqa project was launched. Nieuwenhuijse and two Syrian archaeologists, Khaled Hiatlih (33) and his wife Rasha Haqi (33), match photographs from archives owned by archaeologists who worked in the area to inventories sent from Syria. If the objects that were lost during the lootings turn up for sale in the art world, they can be identified and Syria can demand their return.

This pilot project is focusing on the most important five hundred objects. If it is a success, the archaeologists hope they will receive more funding to set up a more extensive project. “I think there are lots of items in circulation both in Syria and outside Syria”, says Nieuwenhuijse. “They’ll turn up eventually. I can believe that people would throw away a bag of bones, but a clay tablet can mean a hefty profit. The same goes for human figurines. Just recently, I saw one at an auction for 1,600 Euros. Thousands of clay tablets, prehistoric figurines and pieces of medieval Islamic earthenware are turning up on the market. Nobody will know that those objects come from Raqqa; even if the Syrian government are aware of them, they would have very little chance of seizing them because, although they have inventories, they don’t have any good pictures. The photographs are here, in Western archives. And we’re trying to match them up.”

Leiden is late to the party, says Hiatlih (33). He fled to the Netherlands three years ago. One of the first things he did after arriving was to look up Nieuwenhuijse. 

“I came to complain. Other countries tried to save their digs but the Netherlands did nothing. Germany launched the largest projects. France set up a training programme in Beirut. Italy is helping us make reconstructions. Even Canada and the Far East are doing their bit: in Japan, they’ve published a book listing the hundred best archaeological sites in Syria. In Syria, everyone has heard of Leiden and Leiden’s archaeologists. Just take 15 to 17 people, train them and set them to work on the projects.”

Nieuwenhuijse can explain why Leiden didn’t help sooner. “Dutch politicians are not good at maintaining institutional ties abroad. They focus on the short term and a new government might shut down an institute. Leiden’s branch in Damascus was closed down after ten years. “The premise should be: we’re staying in Syria. Besides, there’s financial side of things. Other countries simply have funds set aside to help – it’s the Land of Cockaigne from where we’re standing. We have to find our own funds for each project we do.”

No one expected Raqqa to fall, so the finds were not stored somewhere safe. “The Syrians basically thought they wouldn’t lose Raqqa. The Syrian Archaeological Agency evacuated other provincial museums as a precaution. All the items were wrapped up, loaded into lorries and taken to Damascus, where they are today. But they left Raqqa till last because they thought it wouldn’t be targeted. So when the town fell, they were too late, unfortunately. At first, the museum was alright. The Free Syrian Army set guards to make sure nothing happened to the museum. When ISIS arrived, five hundred of the best items were moved from the central storage depot to a bank. But then ISIS immediately robbed the bank.

They also looted the central warehouse that contained the other finds. Photographs show them looking through boxes for shiny stuff. Then they throw the boxes over the fence. They destroyed decades of research in a single afternoon. That really got to me. Afterwards, there was fighting in the town and the museum was bombed. We saw our life’s work go up in smoke.”

Anoushka Kloosterman

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Our life?s work is gone

Better late than never: a Leiden archaeologist joined two archaeologists from Syria in an …