Archaeology from Afar: Surveying the condition of Palmyra and Dura-Europos during the Syrian Civil War

Conor Murtagh

With parts of the world becoming more and more inaccessible every day...

...whether due to climate change, political turmoil or rising costs of travel and living, it is becoming increasingly difficult for non-funded archaeologists, hobbyists and historians to access ancient, historic and cultural heritage sites. Alongside this, the destruction of historic sites is on the rise, in war-torn countries like Syria, and at home (for me), recently with the Sycamore Gap incident, and more generally with historic buildings being demolished for housing and ‘development.’ So, what methods can we use to gather information on sites that we can’t personally visit, for whatever reason? In this article, I’ll be referring to two ancient cities in what is now Syria, both of which have been affected by the Civil War, but in different ways. These cities (whilst already being inhabited beforehand) flourished under the Seleucid Empire, which followed on from Alexander the Great’s Macedonian Empire. They were both eventually absorbed into the Roman Empire, and both were abandoned by the Romans in the Third Century AD. Fast forward ~1600/1700 years, the two sites have become hubs for archaeology and cultural heritage, both becoming UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Palmyra being so important to the Syrian people that it was featured on SYP (Syrian Pounds) banknote. In 2011, the Syrian Civil War began, mainly between Daesh (ISIS) and Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government (The Regime). During the War (which has died down but is still technically ongoing), many of Syria’s ancient sites (including Palmyra and Dura) were attacked by both sides. In the case of Palmyra, Daesh claimed the ancient temples were an affront to Allah, and so destroyed them (as was the case with the Temple of Bel.) Dura, on the other hand, has become an income source for Daesh, and was heavily looted, with the antiquities being sold all around the world, funding part of their side of the war. I made the mistake of being thirteen in the 2011, with parents who preferred a Spanish beach holiday, and so unfortunately couldn’t visit these amazing sites before the Civil War began. These sites, however, have me enamoured, despite never actually visiting them. So, how can I view, study and write about them? Let’s find out…
Archaeology from Afar: Surveying the condition of Palmyra and Dura-Europos during the Syrian Civil War
Palmyra and Queen Zenobia being featured on the 500 Syrian Pounds banknote (1998)

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Archaeology from Afar: Surveying the condition of Palmyra and Dura-Europos during the Syrian Civil War
Two satellite images from Google Earth, showing the extent of looting at Dura-Europos. (Taken from Baird, J., (2020) “The Ruination of Dura-Europos”, Theoretical Roman Archaeology Journal 3(1), 2. doi:

How we can find out more about these cities when we can't go to them?

From the Sky: Perhaps one of the easiest and safest ways to view ancient sites is through a lens (that’s a few hundred metres above the Earth.) Satellite imagery is an extremely effective tool for gathering a snapshot of a site, or for seeing changes overtime. For the interested historian or hobbyist, satellite images are free – all you need to do is download a programme like Google Earth. The pictures shown here show the difference at Dura-Europos, from before the start of The War in 2011, and three years, in 2013 (Baird, 2020.) As can be seen, each small dark ‘dot’ (for lack of a better term) represents a looting hole, which has been dug to search for antiquities for Daesh to sell. Despite satellite imagery’s positives, there are some (quite obvious) drawbacks. The most glaring is that it is simply that, an image. It doesn’t give up-to-date information at a glance (unless you manage to view the images the same day they were taken, or if you’re somehow extremely wealthy and have your own satellite to take your own.) Satellite imagery, by design, gives a snapshot of what the site looks like on a certain day, which can eventually be used to create a timelapse. Satellites also only take top-down images since the camera is quite literally looking down from the sky. Due to this, a large amount of information may be missed or be blocked, for example inside buildings or sometimes even due to shadows. Going with the lack of information given by satellites, specifics by regarding the site can also be learnt. For example, at Dura-Europos, Daesh implemented a ‘tax’ on looted antiquities, as well as provided heavy machinery to be rented by potential looters. Satellite imagery, by itself, would be unable to obtain this information. On The Ground: Very much like spying, human intelligence is the best tool in a historian’s or archaeologist’s toolbelt. It is important to remember that people still live in warzones, going about a new ‘daily’ way of life, which may often put them at odds with, or under the influence of, the fighters on either side. It is also important to remember that these people are likely being exploited or may even have no other option to have any way of life, and so they should not be blamed or berated for engaging in ‘looting’ activities. Some archaeologists, historians or simply visitors to these sites, before they were made inaccessible, would’ve garnered support and fostered friendships with local residents, some of whom may become ‘informants.’ These informants, often at great personal and familial risk, then send information over to these friends and colleagues, which is often how we learn the specifics from sites – informants are how we learned of Dura’s 20% ‘Sales’ Tax, for example. Whilst human intelligence is key, there are also ethical concerns about using them, whether due to their exploited or displaced status; or due to asking them to put themselves at risk for reporting. A useful mechanism for those reporting to inform archaeologists and historians is through the use of social media. Social media has had an almost three-pronged impact in the Syrian Civil War. Firstly, as previously mentioned, it has allowed for those still in warzones, or those displaced to relative safety, to report on conditions or specifics regarding fighting, looting and human rights violations, amongst other issues. Secondly, social media has been used as a propaganda machine for both sides of the conflict. In Palmyra, for example, Daesh uploaded videos to YouTube, which were then shared around the world by media outlets, of their destruction of the Temple of Bel, Statuette ‘shelves’ and other historical landmarks. It is also worth mentioning that often, these videos are uploaded anonymously, giving a sense of protection to the uploader, as well as allowing “fake news” to spread. Thirdly, social media (particularly Facebook) has been used to facilitate the sale of looted antiquities. Entire groups, with thousands of members, were made to sell these items. Thankfully, the work of some groups like the ATHAR Project have been cataloguing these posts, which can then hopefully be used for evidence after the war, or to track where these antiquities ended up; so, they can be recovered. The dates that these items were posted online are also significant, as known objects can be tracked for looting to when it was shipped to the buyer. However, all of this requires immense manpower, often from volunteers or people passionate about conservation of cultural heritage; and unfortunately, items have and will slip through the cracks, not for lack of trying. Material and Archival evidence: The actual looted and destroyed objects themselves can help paint a picture of what has happened, especially if they’re “known” objects (i.e., objects previously excavated and stored onsite.) Tracking these objects through social media, human intelligence or some other different way can give a plethora of potential information – date when looted, places being looted in the city, and even what country they’ve been smuggled into (which can be found if they become for sale “legitimately” at auction houses and museums.) As is the case with many, if not all, historical research, archives are a great place to start. Whilst using these can’t (for obvious reasons) give an update on the current status or condition of the site, they can be used for knowing the conditions of the site pre-war, or for learning more about the buildings and features that make up the site – temples, The Agora or the Great Colonnade, to use Palmyra as an example. Archival evidence is often stored off-site, meaning this information is often readily available and safe from conflict, especially with more and more archives going digital. Finally, a relatively new way for ancient cities to be explored is through the use of 3D reconstructions. Using archival information, satellite imagery, scanning and other, smarter-than-I-am methods, whole cities can be reconstructed in various states of ruin. In 2016 and 2019, for example, researchers from the History of Material Culture of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IHMC RAS) conducted emergency scans and modelling of Palmyra, allowing for a 3D reconstruction of the City to be made, which can help to show the scale of destruction left behind by Daesh and Regime fighting.
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Using these methods, a study of Palmyra and Dura-Europos is able to be conducted, mainly focusing on the condition of the cities, as well as ensuring evidence for crimes committed is collated and will be available if arrests are made following the war. It is also important to remember that whilst archaeological and historical sites are important, the lives of those living in warzones should always take the highest importance. Sometimes, local resident have had to resort to looting themselves to be able to afford food and necessities, or because they were coerced or forced to do so by occupying forces. They should not be blamed for their situation, the blame should be placed on the forces causing them to have to resort to such methods. Hopefully this small guide has given some inspiration to conduct your own research, or maybe even try to develop your own ways of doing so that I haven’t mentioned here. Suggested further reading: Baird, J., (2020) “The Ruination of Dura-Europos”, Theoretical Roman Archaeology Journal 3 Tapete, D., and F. Cigna. 2019. “Detection of Archaeological Looting from Space: Methods, Achievements and Challenges.” Remote Sensing 11 (20):2389. doi:10.3390/rs11202389. Danti, Michael. 2015. “Ground-Based Observations of Cultural Heritage Incidents in Syria and Iraq.” Near Eastern Archaeology 78 A big thanks to Prof. Baird for her help and guidance, as well as Javier and Federica for their comments (and friendship) :)
Archaeology from Afar: Surveying the condition of Palmyra and Dura-Europos during the Syrian Civil War
The Mithraeum of Dura-Europos, safely in the Yale University Art Gallery
Archaeology from Afar: Surveying the condition of Palmyra and Dura-Europos during the Syrian Civil War

Conor Murtagh

Hi, I'm Conor, a classical studies student (3rd Year out of 4) at Birkbeck, University of London. I have a particular interest in Modern and Ancient War Crimes, Ancient and Modern Destruction/Looting, as well as Historic 'Uses' of Magic and Witchcraft. You'll either find me at work, uni, playing rugby or sitting on my couch surrounded by my 6 cats (5 of which have Greek/Roman deity names). I run a very small and kinda crap TikTok called ClassicsWithConor, as well as (eventually) creating a podcast to discuss ancient discussing anything ancient or mythological. I'm always down for a chat (not just about history things!) so reach out if you want to!
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