In 1995, a team of archaeologists, led by current Near Eastern Language & Civilizations Department Chair Richard Zettler, discovered an Early Bronze Age tomb in Tell es-Sweyhat, Syria.
According to a recent warning issued by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — UNESCO — indicates that Syrian artifacts, including those found by Penn researchers at Tell es-Sweyhat, are missing or in danger of looting.
These objects include pots, jewelry, and 11 skulls which Zettler and his team found in the tomb, after a new irrigation system washed away the stone blocking the entrance. The artifacts were housed at a local museum in Raqqa. Many of the artifacts were stored in the houses of museum employees because the museum itself did not have enough storage space, Zettler said.
“It was the most stuff we ever turned over to the museum,” he added. Some of the broken pot shards and animal bones from the excavation can be found at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
An Al-Qaeda-related group captured an area near Tell es-Sweyhat approximately a year ago. At first, rebel groups claimed they would protect the museum in Raqqa, where the artifacts were stored, but later packed up the artifacts in the museum and moved them to an unknown place. Later, about five hundred objects were returned, but many more remain missing.
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“It’s just one of these new indignities to the Syrian people,” Jill Weber, a 2006 Penn alum who took part in the 1995 excavation when she was an anthropology doctoral student and one of Zettler’s advisees, said. “This stuff does belong to them. It’s their cultural heritage.”
The political turmoil caused by the civil war in Syria has driven many to desperate measures. Many artifacts in Syria are currently in danger because of rampant looting.
“If you are very poor and living out there, you are making a living however you can,” Zettler said.
Digging at excavation sites requires a special permit by the state. However, many people disregard this, rummaging through historical sites without proper knowledge of how to preserve ancient artifacts and structures.
“When people dig illegally now, they are usually digging through buildings and pulling things out,” anthropology professor Lauren Ristvet, who has been on excavations in other parts of Syria, said.
Since these people tend to care only for obtaining valuable objects, rather than preserving cultural heritage, what Ristvet described as a “honeycomb situation,” develops in the land. Ristvet described a landscape full of holes and disturbed objects and structures.
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Anthropology professor Salam Al Kuntar contributed to the creation of a “red list” issued by UNESCO telling experts what sorts of objects may resurface outside of Syria as stolen goods or are in danger of potential looting. Efforts to protect and recover artifacts include creating a database of excavation sites and objects in Syria, communicating with Syrian museum curators and anthropologists and analyzing photos and videos sent by activists — although some of the objects depicted turn out to be forgeries. The Penn Cultural Heritage Center is involved in this work to protect artifacts as well.
“People need to understand by turning a blind eye to looting that they are in fact encouraging it,” Weber said.
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