The trade in stolen antiquities from Syria funds all sides of the civil war that has engulfed the country. BuzzFeed News’ Mike Giglio traveled along its porous border with Turkey to meet the people involved in this black market, from grave robbers and excavators to middlemen and dealers. ... Four years into a conflict that has killed more than 200,000 and displaced millions, Syria’s immense history is being sold off on en masse as looters descend on ruins across the country. An untold number of people have joined Mohamed in a black market that helps to fund armed groups from ISIS to Western-backed rebels to the Syrian regime. Many of the newcomers have no interest other than making money, but Mohamed is enamored with the history of the ancient objects in which he trades. Known among his colleagues for having an expert eye, his phone buzzes endlessly as he receives photos via WhatsApp from sellers trying to catch his interest and fellow traders wanting advice. People ask him to come and “talk” with their artifacts. “Falso,” he says, his voice rising, when he sees a forgery. If he likes a piece, he calls it “fantastic.” ... “We have been living in a war for more than four years, and people will do anything to feed their kids,” said one middleman on the border, guilt-ridden over his role in bleeding Syria’s history. “I don’t care if the artifact is coming from [rebels] or from ISIS. I just want to sell it.” ... diggers around Syria work daily to pull them from the ground. The digs range from backyard affairs by heavy-handed amateurs to skilled excavations. ... The risks of traveling to Syria make the looting all but impossible to witness firsthand, leaving archaeologists with little more than satellite images that reveal a pockmarked landscape.
But the real problem was the large number of Byzantine shipwrecks that began to surface soon after the excavation began, in 2004. Dating from the fifth to the eleventh century, the shipwrecks illustrated a previously murky chapter in the history of shipbuilding and were exceptionally well preserved, having apparently been buried in sand during a series of natural disasters. ... From 2005 to 2013, workers with shovels and wheelbarrows extracted a total of thirty-seven shipwrecks. When the excavation reached what had been the bottom of the sea, the archeologists announced that they could finally cede part of the site to the engineers, after one last survey of the seabed—just a formality, really, to make sure they hadn’t missed anything. That’s when they found the remains of a Neolithic dwelling, dating from around 6000 B.C. It was previously unknown that anyone had lived on the site of the old city before around 1300 B.C. The excavators, attempting to avoid traces of Istanbul’s human history, had ended up finding an extra five thousand years of it. It took five years to excavate the Neolithic layer, which yielded up graves, huts, cultivated farmland, wooden tools, and some two thousand human footprints, miraculously preserved in a layer of silt-covered mud. In the Stone Age, the water level of the Bosporus was far lower than it is now; there’s a chance that the people who left those prints might have been able to walk from Anatolia to Europe. ... In 2013, at least two million people crossed the Bosporus daily, by bridge or ferry; the number of motor-vehicle crossings rose eleven hundred and eighty per cent between 1988 and 2012. ... Wood can absorb eight times its mass in water. If allowed to dry naturally, it cracks and warps beyond recognition.
Way back in A.D. 6, during the expansion of the Roman Empire along the Danube and into present-day Germany, the future emperor Tiberius reached this spot and established a winter encampment. Carnuntum, as the camp would be called, flourished under the protection of the legions and became a center of the amber trade. The army and townspeople lived apart, but in symbiotic amity. ... During its second-century prime, Carnuntum was a key Roman capital of a province that spanned the landmass of what is now Austria and much of the Balkans. The frontier town boasted a burgeoning population and a gladiator school whose size and scale was said to rival the Ludus Magnus, the great training center immediately to the east of the Colosseum in Rome. Toward the end of the glory days of the Roman realm, the emperor Marcus Aurelius held sway from Carnuntum and made war on Germanic tribes known as the Marcomanni. There, too, his 11-year-old son, Commodus, likely first witnessed the gladiatorial contests that would become his ruling passion. ... Though archaeologists have been digging and theorizing at the 1,600-acre site on and off since the 1850s, only remnants survive—a bath complex, a palace, a temple of Diana, the foundations of two amphitheaters (one capable of holding 13,000 spectators) and a monumental arch known as the Heidentor (Heathens’ Gate) that looms in battered splendor at the edge of town.
Thanks to sites around this city-state, including Holmul, archaeologists are now piecing together the story of the Snake kings. ... Holmul isn’t a big, famous site like nearby Tikal, and it was mostly ignored by archaeologists until 2000, when Francisco Estrada-Belli arrived. ... He wasn’t looking for anything fancy, such as Classic-era written tablets or ornate burials—just some insight into the roots of the Maya. One of the first things he found was a building a few miles from what appeared to be Holmul’s central cluster of pyramids. In it were the remnants of a mural portraying soldiers on a pilgrimage to a faraway place. ... Oddly, parts of the mural had been destroyed, apparently by the Maya themselves, as if they’d wanted to erase the history it depicted. Hoping to understand why, Estrada-Belli tunneled into several nearby pyramids. Ancient Mesoamericans built their pyramids in stages, one on top of the other, like Russian nesting dolls. When the people of Holmul added a new layer, they preserved the one beneath, which has allowed researchers to tunnel in and see previous structures almost exactly as they were left.
In the rugged Colorado Desert of California, there lies buried a treasure ship sailed there hundreds of years ago by either Viking or Spanish explorers. Some say this is legend; others insist it is fact. A few have even claimed to have seen the ship, its wooden remains poking through the sand like the skeleton of a prehistoric beast. ... The legend does seem, prima facie, bonkers: a craft loaded with untold riches, sailed by early-European explorers into a vast lake that once stretched over much of inland Southern California, then run aground, abandoned by its crew and covered over by centuries of sand and rock and creosote bush as that lake dried out…and now it lies a few feet below the surface, in sight of the chicken-wire fence at the back of the Desert Dunes motel, $58 a night and HBO in most rooms. ... there are believers who insist that, using recent advances in archaeology, the ship can be found.