Letters From The Field

Have pen, will travel. Sending letters.

On grave robbers’ heels

A letter from Mesopotamia. In which is witnessed the disturbing looting of unexplored archaeological sites.

Somewhere in the East, October 2015


you know that autumn means excavation season, and as you are well aware from my latest latest letter I am indeed on site as I write this. Well, work this field campaign actually is already about to come to an end and we’re just sitting here sorting last things before finally leaving back home again. But in the meantime we thought it might be nice to just have a little excursion – a local friend of ours inviting us on a ride this afternoon to visit a couple of lesser known sites in the neighbourhood. And so we soon found ourselves in the back of our trusty excavation minibus, leaving the village behind, crawling over dusty roads and rocky paths – into the mountains.

The sun was standing still rather high in the sky, burning bright as we finally reached a small copse at the roadside. Yet the little shadow it provided was not our destination; instead we headed for a comparatively rubble mound, not peculiar distinctive from a distance, with another similar pile of debris not far from it. Yet upon closer inspection there were large pits noticeable in the centre and all around the edge. Carelessly grubbed, stones and rubble jumbled. Worked stones – as I recognised immediately, realising that we were actually looking right into a burial chamber. Probably Roman-Byzantine as I guessed judging by our location and the stonework which clearly was neither Prehistoric nor Islamic.


The visible limestone fragments showed a couple of ornaments, some kind of geometric frieze clearly visible. Yet everything was broken, torn apart, ransacked. Breaking edges still shining white clearly suggested that this rage could not have taken place too long ago. And yes, a rage it must have been: Looters, without a doubt. Apparently using heavy machinery. And apparently with some … doubtful success. Village rumours know of a sculpture allegedly discovered within this chaos. A sculpture whose whereabouts remain unknown. It is a shame. A shameful tragedy, I’m telling you. The burial chamber: destroyed. Its contents: discarded. The history of this place crushed for some questionable loot …


Quite a disturbing view, to be honest. But our excursion was not over yet. Our little trip did not end here. Our friend was keen to show us another place – just around the corner. Only another short ride, another dirt road – and we finally were stepping off the minibus on a dusty plain again, blinking into the bright sun. Behind sparse shrubbery, next to a dried-up concrete channel and some torn wire mesh fence, a motorway completed not long ago was holding out rather lonesome. On the other side of that fence the craggy face of darkened bedrock looked up between soil and sand. Cave-like holes – some opening like dark mouths, others half-buried and filled in – were telling of the history this place must have seen; leading into dim tombs, low chambers cut out of the rock. Small niches along the walls gave away their funeral nature – a well attested custom in the region for centuries, millennia even. Yet, while some of these tombs obviously were opened and cleared long ago, again we had to witness the blatant traces of more recent excavation activity. Not the planned, well-documented kind of excavations, but some unsystematic digging. No, wait … ‘unsystematic’ is not quite true as their *is* a system behind this: whoever was rifling here did so clearly targeting at the entries of more rock tombs. Side by side fresh shallow holes were lining up in front of us, not very deep – just enough to allow crawling inside the hewn caves. And sadly, there was proof that these chambers did not always were empty hollows. Fragments of a decorated architrave, potsherds, and even bones were lying around, pushed aside without care.


Casting a glance over the surrounding plain shockingly revealed of what scale and how organised the looting which took place here must have been. Everywhere pits and wholes and piles of excavated material were scarring the landscape around us …

From an archaeologist’s (actually, from any emphatic person’s, I guess) point of view all of this is very frustrating. I mean, yes – I know what you’re going to say and of course you’re right: looting is anything but a new phenomenon and the media are full of reports about such (and even worse) sights (and sites). In particular, the destruction and exploitation of conflict-torn Middle East’s rich archaeology is making upsetting headlines as of late. Historical sites blown into pieces by aniconistic extremists, antiquities looted to feed a never satisfied market. Frustrating, I’m telling you. Yet still better to act than to bide, right? So we did what we could to document this mess – collecting a couple of photos and coordinates to file a report with local authorities. Time to act, you know …


8 comments on “On grave robbers’ heels

  1. Pingback: On grave robbers’ heels | Don Michael Hudson

  2. elbrenzink
    March 4, 2016

    Sad to read this! I’m not a archaeologist just a enthusiast, all my knowledge is reduced to Indiana Jones’ movies and a few seasons of Digging For The Truth, being so archaeological artifacts jut make sense for me on the right hands( archaeologist hands) in the right place( archaeological sites and museum). Out of it, is a piece of History that I’m no allowed to know.😔

    • Jens
      March 6, 2016

      Thanks a lot for your kind comment, Ellen. I think one of the major issues (or misconceptions to put it that way) is that most people have only a vague idea of what archaeology actually really could do – it’s not so much about the great single object on a shelf or display, it’s more about the situation and context these are found in. This tells the real (hi-)story of a place. Pulling just an artsy object out of the ground without looking into and documenting the context is like ripping half a page from a book, keeping that while shredding all the other pages – the story’s lost forever …

      • elbrenzink
        March 7, 2016

        Lovely and enlightening analogy. Thanks Jens!

  3. IKS
    March 9, 2016

    To bad about the looting but nice picture

  4. kinseykoda
    March 9, 2016

    The first picture you took is very nice. I am regretful that this is a true story, but appreciate the reading of it all the same.

  5. Sibel
    June 17, 2016


    The link above roughly says “If you want to melt a very durable Horasan cement from 15th century, first pour vinegar/ acid (which acid?) /alcohol on it (it seems looting scientists have no consensus on that), than flame a lpg picnic tube on it.” It blew my mind some years ago, I informed every police department I could reach about that. When I read your letter above I wanted to check it again and yes, the link is still here, giving “safe” “logical” and “scientific” info for Turkish looters!

    • Jens
      June 17, 2016

      Wow. This is … shocking. Sadly, these guys seem to find ways and measures to continue their destructive trade. We’re trying to catch up, but it often resembles Heracles fighting the Hydra, I’m afraid.

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This entry was posted on March 2, 2016 by in Archaeology and tagged , , , .

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