Incident at Bodrum Airport

On 19 August an Englishman was arrested when leaving Turkey in possession of 12 ancient coins. He had found the coins while snorkelling on holiday and was stopped by security at Bodrum Airport. On the face of it, the arrest looks to be a completely disproportionate response to a trivial infraction, punishing a naive holidaymaker for an innocent mistake in misappropriating a handful of old coins. But take a step back for a minute, reflect upon the broader context, and the Turkish action looks justifiable, commendable even.

Since 2014, the international community has been concerned about the terrorist group Daesh (Islamic State) profiting from the sale of looted and trafficked antiquities. Much of this material has passed from Syria into Turkey, and then on to Europe. From seizures made inside Turkey, it is known that the bulk comprises ancient coins. Many of these trafficked coins are likely being sold on eBay and other websites by traders based in the United Kingdom (England to be precise). In March 2015, for example, a Daily Mail investigation headlined ‘2000-year-old artefacts looted by ISIS from ancient sites in Iraq and Syria are being sold on EBAY’, with images of Syrian coins selling for between £57 and £90 each (though not actually looted by Daesh). Turkey is under international pressure to choke this Daesh income stream by stopping the trade passing through its territory. In these circumstances, an Englishman secretly moving ancient coins out of the country must be a viable suspect, one to be held pending further investigation. Maybe he is part of a larger trafficking ring operating out of England? Presumably he will be proved innocent, and the coins will be shown not to have originated in Syria, though taking Turkish coins is in itself an offence. But it is important to know that in the fight against terrorism the Turkish border authorities are doing their job, acting with competence and vigilance when the easy option would have been to confiscate the coins and wave the tourist through. In the United Kingdom, we would expect nothing less of our own border force. The man is now in custody in Turkey. Hopefully he will be released sometime soon. After all, it is not in Turkey’s interest to be frightening away innocent tourists. But we must remember, like most other countries of the world, Turkish public services have been hollowed out by austerity-driven budget cuts, and the release process might take longer than we would like.

Assuming he is innocent, and that Turkey has acted correctly in accordance with international expectations, is anybody to blame? There is endless talk in policy circles of reducing demand for ancient coins and other antiquities by raising public awareness of the issues and risks involved in their trade. But no one seems to have raised the arrested man’s awareness. Flight operators and holiday agencies do nothing to alert customers to the dangers of acquiring ancient coins and antiquities. There is nothing to be seen on the pages of in-flight magazines. Indeed, the opposite is sometimes the case. The British government has done nothing to warn holidaymakers. Where are the announcements in newspapers or on prime-time television? Where are the notices at airport departure desks? There has been much tough talk about the need to stop Daesh from profiting from the antiquities trade, but little concrete action. So rather than criticising Turkey for taking a strong stand against antiquities trafficking, we should look closer to home and ask what more can be done to prevent holidaymakers from breaking the law of foreign countries, and why the British government is not acting to stop its citizens from inadvertently committing illegal acts while abroad. English sellers of trafficked ancient coins must also share some of the blame as they have helped create the problem in the first place. Coins are only trafficked because people are there to buy and sell them. But by their actions they have also raised an atmosphere of scepticism and distrust in Turkey, so that a well-meaning tourist might be suspected of being part of something larger and more sinister than is actually the case. Shame on them.

Trafficking out of Syria

The civil war in Syria that started in 2011 is now in its sixth year. During that time, archaeological and other cultural sites including museums have been destructively looted of their saleable contents. It is widely believed that the looted artifacts have been moved illegally out of Syria for sale in Europe and North America. To date, however, there have been few if any verifiable reports of (post-2011) trafficked Syrian objects appearing there.

The scale of the destruction caused by looting and trafficking has been demonstrated by projects such as the American Schools of Oriental Research’s (ASOR) Cultural Heritage Initiatives and Oxford University’s Endangered Archaeology of the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA). These projects have used satellite imagery to identify looted sites, assign them to likely zones of combatant control, assess the extent and severity of damage caused to individual sites, and establish a tentative timeline. Jesse Casana, for example, has reported that since 2011, 23 per cent of all archaeological sites in Syria have been damaged by looting [1]. The bare statistics do not do full justice to the stark reality of the situation, however, hiding the fact exposed by satellite imagery that some important sites such as the Hellenistic-Roman towns of Apamea and Dura Europas have been largely obliterated by illegal digging. The problem is ongoing. In April 2016, the ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives project reported looting at the Roman sites of Bosra and Palmyra. Looting has occurred in territories controlled by all combatant factions, though has been more severe in territory controlled by Daesh.

There have been many seizures of trafficked Syrian objects in the neighbouring ‘transit’ countries of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, but nothing comparable in the ‘market’ countries of Western Europe and North America. Suspicions have been voiced that criminal entrepreneurs are warehousing material until such time as the trading environment is more conducive for onwards sale, or are trading it out of sight on the Dark Web. An alternative and simpler explanation is that trafficked material is being sold openly in Europe and North America, but is not being recognized for what it is. Expectations as to what types of object might be looted and trafficked have been conditioned by what is known of material moved out of Syria before 2011. Several examples of large, culturally and monetarily valuable pieces left Syria illegally and were recovered in the 1990s and 2000s. But these objects were moved out of Syria at a time of relative stability, and there is evidence of regime connivance that would have provided the necessary transport and allowed border controls and other legal obstacles to be bypassed [2]. Since 2011, this type of condoned or tolerated trade of large objects will have become increasingly untenable. Media reports from the border area of southern Turkey show instead the trafficking of coins, jewellery and other small objects that can be easily concealed and transported. Similarly, when on 16 May 2015, US Special Forces raided the Syrian compound of Abu Sayyaf, the head of Daesh’s administrative section for the supervision of excavation and trade of cultural objects, many of the cultural objects recovered in his possession were coins from Syria and Iraq, as well as electronic images of gold coins and jewellery.

Thus it is possible that the pattern of illegal trade post-2011 has shifted from small quantities of large, high-value objects to larger quantities of predominantly smaller, lower-value objects. The illegal excavation of large numbers of small, relatively low-value objects would be more damaging to archaeological sites than the illegal excavation of fewer, larger, high-value objects. This possible change in strategy is in accordance with the evidence of extensive digging that is captured on satellite imagery. Large numbers of small, low-value objects would still in aggregate generate appreciable profits for those involved in trafficking. But although it is reasonably easy to demonstrate the sale in Europe and North America of small objects that might have been found in Syria, it is harder to identify objects that really were without doubt found in Syria, and not in a neighbouring country. Thus it is difficult to confirm this suggested shift in trafficking strategy

Coins from mints of known location offer one possible way forward. In September 2015, Ute Wartenberg Kagan, who is executive director of the American Numismatic Society, presented a paper on Syrian coins at a meeting held at New York’s Metropolitan Museum to discuss the looting and trafficking of Syrian cultural objects. She suggested ‘the strong probability that a significant number of certain types of coins on today’s market likely originated in Syria’. She showed, for example, that the average number of radiate coins of Zenobia and her son Vabalathus struck during the year AD 272 appearing each year on the market after 2011 was nearly double the equivalent figure for the previous three decades.

Jack Nurpetlian has recently made publicly available the text of his February 2013 PhD thesis entitled Coinage in Late Hellenistic and Roman Syria: The Orontes Valley (1st Century – 3rd Century AD). In it he presents a comprehensive catalogue of all Roman provincial coins known to him by the end of June 2012 that were minted in the towns of the Orontes Valley between 64 BC and AD 253, including coins in private and museum collections and present on the market during his period of study. The catalogue provides invaluable baseline data for further study of the market in Syrian coins. Looking, for example, at silver tetradrachms minted in the town of Emesa (modern Homs) during the reigns of emperors Caracalla and Macrinus (AD 198 to AD 218). The catalogue records 112 tetradrachms in collections, with a further 116 on the market. The time span of the market study is not provided, but looks to have run from 2005 to 2012. So, on average, during the seven-year period ending in 2012, 17 new tetradrachms were appearing on the market each year. Since the catalogue was compiled, a further 91 examples have appeared on the market, or on average 23 new tetradrachms per year. This increase is smaller though broadly in line with those presented by Wartenberg Kagan. During the entire period in question (2005 to 2016), the lowest priced tetradrachm sold for $33 and the highest priced for a surprising $3,250, with a mean price of $263. Although the tetradrachms were minted in Emesa, they enjoyed a wide circulation, and there have been documented finds on sites throughout Syria, including 13 at Dura Europos, as well as some in Israel and Palestine. Thus the examples arriving on the market after 2012 could conceivably have come from anywhere in Syria, though a possible origin in Israel and Palestine where the looting and trafficking of ancient coins has also been a problem cannot be excluded.

The coin data do suggest the increasing arrival on the market of small objects moved out of Syria post-2011, and that they are going largely unrecognized – or at least unreported. It adds credence to the idea that other small objects of Syrian origin have been arriving on the market. If that is the case, then the presently established suppositions about the organization of trafficking will be mistaken, and there will be consequences for crime control policy and practical law enforcement. A low-volume trade of large, expensive objects presupposes the participation of a limited number of criminals, perhaps acting in long-term cooperation, and exercising a good degree of control over the organization and operation of trafficking. It would be vulnerable to targeted law enforcement aiming to disrupt trade by apprehending offenders. A higher-volume trade of smaller, cheaper objects would be harder to tackle. It would most likely be dispersed, involving a larger number of people, and more loosely organized. It would be flexible and opportunistic and able to survive the occasional removal of participating criminals. Furthermore, the small amounts of money involved in individual transactions would diminish the apparent seriousness of crimes and reduce the public interest requirement for committing adequate resources to their investigation and prosecution. Thus the case for and effectiveness of targeted law enforcement would both be weakened.

Crime control policy and its practical implementation need to be sensitive to the organization of the illegal trade they are intending to prevent. It is a matter of some urgency that the nature and organization of the post-2011 trade out of Syria should be properly characterized so that appropriate and effective countermeasures can be planned and implemented.


  1. Casana, Jesse, 2015. Satellite imagery-based analysis of archaeological looting in Syria, Near Eastern Archaeology 78(3): 142-52.
  2. Brodie, Neil, 2015. Syria and its regional neighbors: A case of cultural property protection policy failure? International Journal of Cultural Property 22: 317-35.