Why did you help found the MANTIS project initially?
My collaborators and I were convinced that many of the big, unanswered questions about antiquities looting and trafficking – What’s it all worth? What is being stolen? Where are things going? – could be better answered through systematic study of empirical data. We got started in 2015 when ISIS was making global headlines by looting and destroying archaeological materials, but our research questions have always extended beyond any single insurgent group.
What is the main point you would want our readers to take away from MANTIS’ conclusions in the article “A Site-Level Market Model of the Antiquities Trade”?
That there is a market for anything archaeological. We assessed just a portion of each site – about 10% of Tell Bi’a and 40% of Dura Europos – and estimated their overall market values at $3 million and $18 million, respectively. Syria has over a thousand archaeological sites. The potential revenue for black marketeers is enormous.
In the article, you study two sites in Syria. How and why did you choose Tell Bi’a and Dura Europos?
We selected Tell Bi’a and Dura Europos for three reasons. First, taken together, they span key periods of past inhabitation in the region: Bronze Age, Hellenistic, and Roman. Second, we needed sites that had comprehensive excavation records so that we could build our database of artifacts. Finally, we knew that both sites had been looted during the Syrian civil war, such that our monetary estimates were representative of the kinds of objects that may have been stolen and trafficked.
What was most surprising about your research?
How difficult it was! We had to figure out how to get the excavation data and online vendor records to “talk” to each other in the machine learning model. This was a novel approach, and it required a couple of years’ worth of experimentation, practice, and refinement before we were completely confident in the results. We were committed to the full process of systematic, experimental work, which included having our model checked and validated by several top-notch scholars of the antiquities market and through blind peer review. Passing their litmus test was our gold standard. Otherwise, what would be the point? The last thing we wanted was to offer up an estimate that would wither under scrutiny.