The last time the team from Athens University’s Department of History and Archaeology found itself in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where it was conducting excavations, was November 2013. The jihadi fighters of the so-called Islamic State had not yet encroached on this territory east of the River Tigris. Under the guidance of Konstantinos Kopanias, assistant professor in eastern Mediterranean archaeology, the research was concentrated mainly on Tell Nader, a site where finds dating as far back as the fifth millennium BC have been unearthed. An officer of the Greek Police (ELAS) was among the students participating in that mission.
Orfeas-Konstantinos Sotiriou worked beside Kopanias for 35 days at Tell Nader and also at Tell Baqrta, some 30 kilometers south of Erbil.
“We catalogued all of the findings and, in cooperation with a Kurdish archaeologist, handed them over to the museum,” Sotiriou tells Kathimerini.
Three years after that mission, he is expecting to travel back to northern Iraq with Kopanias in order to photograph and document all of the artifacts held by the Erbil Civilization Museum.
“This is a significant initiative by our country for safeguarding world cultural heritage,” Sotiriou says of the mission, which is being conducted under the auspices of UNESCO and the Greek ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs.
Sotiriou is the only officer on the Greek force with a degree in archaeology serving in the Department of Antiquities Theft (after a stint with the passport service), while he is also in his second year of a postgraduate degree in prehistoric archaeology at Athens University. His professional interest is focused on the Middle East because of the wealth of antiquities found there, as well as on the research conducted by Kopanias.
The Greek police officer’s specialization in this field may prove significant as concerns among the international law enforcement community and the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation in particular are growing in regard to the illegal smuggling of antiquities from Syria and Iraq. These concerns were also expressed recently during a conference at the Acropolis Museum with representatives from Interpol, Greek and American customs officials, US prosecutors, Greek police officers and the Greek Ministry of Culture’s documentation department.
“This concerns the heritage of all mankind. This is why there is such a great deal of interest and awareness,” the Greek Police’s Antiquities Theft Department head, Costas Christologlou, tells Kathimerini.
Several meetings have been held over the past year between police officials and the Culture Ministry on this issue, but Christologlou stresses that there is no evidence to suggest any Greek involvement in the smuggling of antiquities from the Middle East.
“There have been no arrests, no suggestions or information that Greece constitutes a smuggling conduit,” he explains.
No one is yet in a position to assess the full extent of the damage wreaked by looters in areas that have come under ISIS control in Iraq and Syria, yet the US deputy assistant secretary for counter threat finance and sanctions at the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, Andrew Keller, told a conference at New York’s Metropolitan Museum in September that ISIS at the time had control of 5,000 archaeological sites in the region.
The same meeting heard of a raid conducted on the hideout of ISIS “finance minister” Abu Sayyaf, which discovered evidence proving the jihadists’ involvement in antiquities smuggling. Among the evidence were 11 receipts of sale dated from December 6, 2014 and March 26, 2015.
That meeting was also attended by Michael Danti, an American archaeologist at Boston University who specializes in the Middle East. In an e-mail to Kathimerini, Danti said that the routes used to smuggle antiquities out of the Middle East are similar to those used by refugees and migrants. He explains, however, that the routes used by antiquities smugglers predate the start of the war in Syria in 2011 and the refugee wave that followed.
Back in Athens, Sotiriou is currently involved with researching the Greek Police’s records in order to build profiles of Greek antiquities thieves and to ascertain their links to organized crime. So far he has studied 363 cases from the 1999-2004 period, which led to the seizure of more that 14,000 items. Nine in 10 of those objects were small (coins, figurines, vessels etc) that were easy to transport, while in some cases the objects were destined for sale abroad.
Of those arrested during that period, 22 percent were wealthy (some being restaurateurs, hoteliers and importers), while in 26 percent of the cases, officers also discovered illegal weapons during their searches for illegal antiquities.
“They would hide the relics in homes, storage sheds and cars, but I remember a case where coins were found behind an old water heater in a ceiling crawl space,” says Sotiriou.
The initial results of Sotiriou’s research were recently presented in Vienna, at the 10th International Congresses on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East. The analysis of past evidence will continue and, as Christologlou says, the findings could constitute a useful tool in future investigations and in the allocation of resources to the Greek Police’s Department of Antiquities Theft.