Professor Amr al-Azm, an archaeologist who fled Syria and currently works at Shawnee State University in Ohio, has spent the past 24 months painstakingly going through hundreds of Facebook groups on a mission to find hundreds of historical artifacts that have gone missing in Iraq and Syria.
The professor shared his depressing findings — which included artifact trafficking, looting missions, and stolen item requests — in a report with BBC News.
“What we’ve seen is an explosion of sites and users on Facebook. It’s transnational and Facebook is essentially allowing this to happen on its watch.”
Professor Amr al-Azm showed the BBC an example: an ancient sculpture that the owner, currently located in Syria, claimed came from the ancient site of Palmyra. The owner claimed that the sculpture was acquired after being previously looted and damaged by ISIS. He was looking to sell.
It is not just black market sales that are occurring on the popular social network. These groups are also posting plans and advice for looting excursions, with one group discussing the dangers of tomb collapse and another posting videos on makeshift pumps to keep excavation sites dry.
Requests are also made, like a desire for “Islamic-Era manuscripts” to suddenly be found and sent to Turkey.
Fortunately, researchers believe that 70 percent of all antiquities leaving Syria are fake. However, that still means 30 percent of items are genuine and being stolen and sold from their homelands.
Since the BBC’s report, Facebook has said that is has closed down 49 groups. However, many of the report’s researchers, like Katie Paul, are still stunned by how Facebook has changed the landscape of the black market.
“Now if you dig something up in your back yard and you don’t know a trafficker, you can hop on Facebook, share pictures of what you’ve found and connect with people who are willing to buy it.”
Paul added that the quick and easy communication has “accelerated” the process.
“It’s really opened our eyes to how accelerated these trafficking networks are.”
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural organization, known as UNESCO, has called the looting perpetrated by the Islamic State “industrial scale.” However, the report also notes that all sides have been guilty of looting at some point, including citizens who are desperate for money after a long and bitter civil war.
“What’s happening in Syria is dreadful,” laments the curator of the Middle East Department at the British Museum, Dr. St. John Simpson.
“It’s heartbreaking. Every site that is damaged is damaged forever,” Dr. Simpson said.
A longer report on the issue can be found at World Politics Review, with whom Professor Amr al-Azm also coordinated.