Michael Danti spent years working an archeological dig at Tell-ea-Swehat, a fortified city in the Early Bronze Age located in Syria. His brother Kevin, a Humanities instructor at Culver Academies, would join him on occasion, as did students from Boston University, as they studied and recorded their findings on how climate change impacted such a successful settlement between 3000 and 2000 B.C.
The location was in the middle of the Syrian desert, where the temperatures would reach 115 degrees, yet this community continued to thrive for nearly 1,000 years, he said. While doing the dig, they discovered tombs filled with bones, mummified bodies, clay pots of food, and ceremonial items – also, scorpions, dung beetles, and camel spiders (which are not spiders at all).
Danti has worked on sites that started in the days of ancient Mesopotamia, then Alexander the Great, then the Greeks, and, finally, the Romans. He has been to Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. His working digs have been used by those governments as tourist attractions. If it sounds like an Indiana Jones movie, Danti said he already has the hat.
Everyone I know is trying to kill everyone else I know.
But that all changed in 2011 with advent of the Arab Spring. Suddenly, Danti had friends fighting friends, which is still the case seven years later. He is now a visiting associate professor at Colgate University and the academic director for the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) Cultural Heritage Initiative. And he is an investigator and academic director for the U.S. State Department. He helps trace stolen artifacts that are being sold to finance the efforts of ISIS, Al Queda, the Syrian regime, and even individual families just looking for a way to survive.
“Everyone I know is trying to kill everyone else I know,” Danti said during a class session Wednesday morning. He spoke to four classes and then made a special Global Studies Institute presentation that evening during his visit.
Most people are familiar with the news footage of ISIS destroying archeological and religious sites. What they don’t show, he said, is how the raiders ransack the site for coins, jewelry, stone tablets, books, statues, and other major finds to sell on the black market. He showed a statue that would have netted the looter $200 to $300, but it would probably net $25,000 on the black market. The fires simply hide the evidence of their looting the site.
He said there is whole network of sellers, many who are trained archeologists, spread throughout Europe, Russia, and China, that are finding buyers for these antiquities. Some of them do so willingly. Some do it because ISIS or Al Queda has threatened to kill their families if they don’t cooperate. The money is then funneled back to fund the terrorist groups’ activities.
Some of the artifacts have been recovered. Most of the raids occur in Europe, he said, although a recent bust happened in Memphis, Tennessee. Most of the items are simply mailed or express shipped.
Danti showed a series of satellite images covering the destruction looters cause. It showed the difference between three years of careful research versus just one week of looting. The looters brought in heavy machinery, he explained, so they could do the work quickly, but they also destroyed untold numbers of artifacts in the process.
It is the archeological version of the diamond and ivory black markets, he explained. While some of these items can fetch up to a million dollars from private collectors, they have little archeological value since they have been removed from their original site and not properly catalogued. All the stories that artifact could tell have been lost so “someone could put this piece on a shelf.”