We’re just beginning to grasp the toll of the Islamic State’s archaeological looting in Syria

The Islamic State surrendered its last scrap of territory, in Baghouz, Syria, this past March.

While some argue that celebrations of IS’s demise are premature, there’s no question that the terrorist group left a trail of destruction in its wake.

Many lives were lost, of course. But a looming issue is the group’s legacy of looting.

During IS’s seemingly unstoppable rise, looted artifacts were said to be a significant source of income for the group. Value estimates ranged from a few million to several billion dollars.

One of the issues in media reports about the looting is that no one had a firm grasp of just how much was at stake. The dollar figures amounted to guesswork.

We still don’t know exactly what’s missing. But no one had identified the value, using empirical data and systematic calculations, of the artifacts that were known to exist in these archaeological sites. Until now.

With two Near Eastern archaeologists and two art market researchers on our team, we recently published a paper in the International Journal of Cultural Property that offers the first attempt to quantify the market value of artifacts at the level of a site.

The excavated objects’ total value was larger than we had expected. We found that just a small portion of a site can yield thousands of objects, adding up to millions of dollars.

An archaeological gold mine

For the study, we examined two sites from different time periods that housed two different types of settlements. The first, Dura Europos, was a Roman garrison town on the Euphrates with a multi-ethnic population. Four years ago, when satellite images revealed that Syria’s archaeological sites were being looted on a massive scale, the shots from Dura Europos showed a Swiss-cheese landscape of pits.

The second town we studied, Tell Bi’a, in northern Syria, was a major Bronze Age capital in the second millennium B.C.

In the early decades of the 20th century, archaeologists excavated roughly 40% of Dura Europos. About 10% of Tell Bi’a was studied in the 1980s and 1990s. Records at these two sites list over 13,000 objects, excluding coins.

Using a machine learning model, we compared archaeological records and sales records of over 40,000 antiquities from auction houses, galleries and dealers to predict what these objects would sell for. The goal was to match objects observed for sale on the art market with similar objects documented in excavation records.

Based on our model, the total estimated value of all artifacts, not including coins, excavated from Dura Europos to date is US$18 million. At Tell Bi’a, the estimate is $4 million. This range is partly explained by the different sizes of the two cities and the area that was excavated. It’s also explained by market interest: Greek and Roman artifacts, which comprise the large majority of objects found at Dura Europos, fetch higher prices at auction than Bronze Age items, which make up the majority of artifacts at Tell Bi’a.

It’s important to keep in mind that these dollar figures represent just slices of two sites. The most comprehensive database of Syrian archaeological sites, assembled by archaeologist Jesse Casana and collaborators at Dartmouth College, has identified roughly 15,000 major sites in the country. Data examined by Casana’s team suggest that 3,000 of those sites experienced some looting from the start of the Syrian Civil War in April 2011 to mid-2015.