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Leiden researchers robbed of Syrian artifacts

Archaeological finds collected over 25 years by Leiden University researchers in Syria may have been plundered, the University announces. 

Between dozens and hundreds of boxes of artifacts were taken in “a dramatic development for 25 years of Leiden research”, says Peter Akkermans, Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology.

The archaeological team has been busy with excavations on the Syrian site Tell Sabi Abyad since 1986. Their finds were stored in depots were stored in provincial capital Raqqa, in the North of Syria. Due to tensions during the civil war in the region, their research activities had to be abandoned in 2011.

 

Syria archaeology depot

A photograph of the excavation house near the Tell Sabi Abyad site. Image source: Universiteit Leiden

Artifacts found in the archeological dig included 6000-year-old pottery, art objects as well as animal and human remains. The Leiden team shared depots with English, American and German researchers.

Pottery from the dig. Image source: Leiden University

Pottery from the dig. Image source: Leiden University

Recently, the Syrian Archaeological Service sent out an announcement that armed men had plundered the repositories. The service was not able to specify what or how much was stolen.

None of the researchers know what the damage is, because they are unable to personally go to the site where the depots are located due to continuing tensions in the area. Professor Akkermans is very worried, though. “I cannot check the extent of the damage because due to all the violence the area is too dangerous to enter. It is occupied by fighters of the extremist Islamic organization ISIL.

“Sine December of last year, I have not been able to contact the Syrian guard of our depots.”

The site

The Tell Sabi Abyad site. Image source: Universiteit Leiden

Akkermans’ team was in Syria to gather information on the Late Neolithic (approx. 7000-5500 BC) and the Bronze Age (approx. 1300-1000 BC). The most precious and valuable finds, such as cuneiform tablets, from the dig were brought to the local museum in Raqqua. The state of these artifacts are unknown. Although the depots contained less valuable items, they were still important to the research, Akkermans says.

Approximately one-third of these finds had already served as a basis for a number of PhD dissertations, studies and many publications. But the rest was still untouched material that remained to be studied.

Another worry for Akkermans is what happened to the site Tell Sabi Abyad. According to the Syrian report, the armed men who had plundered the depots were seen stripping the soil with no supervision. “We now have to wait until the violence ends and things calm down. Only then will we be able to determine the extent of the damage.

A symposium on the Leiden research at the Syrian archaeological site will be held at Leiden Faculty of Archaeology on 15 March, where the paper archives including thousands of photographs and field drawings are located.

Researchers

The researchers have been active at the Syrian site for 25 years. Image source: Universiteit Leiden