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How Syrian archaeologists are using science to stop ISIS from looting ancient sites

The Islamic State terror group has been making millions from looting artifacts in Syria, but one group of archaeologists is secretly fighting back — with science.

The country is home to multiple UNESCO world heritage sites, and more than 4,500 surveyed archaeological areas. While many of them have been badly damaged or purposefully destroyed during Syria’s six-year conflict, Syrian cultural heritage faces yet another danger. ISIS and other groups have profited from looting artifacts at an industrial scale, and selling them on lucrative black markets.


There are international laws against buying looted items, and organizations such as the International Council of Museums have issued warnings and guides about what kinds of artifacts are most likely to be looted.

Yet trafficking remains widespread. Law enforcement agencies and anti-terrorism groups do their best to track down stolen items, but it’s often very difficult to tell when and where certain pieces were taken. Consequently, even large institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art have accidentally purchased looted items.

There have been a handful clandestine efforts to save the country’s cultural heritage, but the latest one involves forensic technology.

Smartwater is a traceable liquid that can be applied to any surface and is invisible except under ultraviolet light. It can can be adjusted to have a unique chemical signature that links to a database, which authorities can use to determine the original location of the object. In the past, it’s been used by American and European forensics experts to help fight crime.

Amr Al-Azm, a Syrian professor of Middle East history and Anthropology at Shawnee State University, led an effort to test polymer in conditions similar to those in Syria. He’s also the co-founder of The Day After, an activist organization that helped get Smartwater into Syria. There organization’s goal is to train local archaeologists and museum curators to use the traceable liquid, and subsequently cut down on the looting.