COVID-19 sparks increased antiquities looting in Turkey - the Independent

Treasure hunters are ransacking Turkey’s historical sites amid the coronavirus pandemic, as they take advantage of the prolonged absence of guards and wardens, the Independent said on Friday.

Several individuals have been captured carrying out illegal excavations using tools such as demolition hammers, dynamite and drills in archaeological sites over the last year as they searched golden historical artefacts in cities like Edirne, Iğdır, Kastamonu, it said.

Turkey recorded it’s first case of COVID-19 in March of last year and the government within weeks implemented a series of pandemic measures, with the tourism sector being among those hardest hit by the regulations.

The Independent pointed to the3,200-year-old Hittite Karabel relief, carved along the Karabel mountain pass in Kemalpasa in western Turkey, and the ancient cemetery in the Ercis district of southeastern Van province, which lasted for more than 5,000 years, as a few of the country’s historical sites have been ransacked.

“One of Turkey’s greatest archaeological problems has been the destruction caused by treasure hunting and the smuggling of artefacts abroad. Unattended areas during the pandemic introduced an opportunity for treasure hunters”, it cited Nezih Başgelen, the archaeologist and founder of Archaeology and Art Publication, as saying. 

Başgelen noted that the pandemic left many sites without formal and informal observers. 

“By the time incidents were reported to law enforcement and resolved, treasure hunters had already been working freely in the field for days without anyone’s knowledge,” he added.

The Turkish archaeologist maintains that the looting is not merely an effort to carry out illegal activities, but is triggered by economic hardship owing to the pandemic.

“In a time of economic difficulty, treasure hunting has become a glimmer of hope for some people. During the pandemic, ill-intentioned people wondered, ‘could I find anything to sell in the ancient walls, castles or historical sites,’’’ he said. “Some of those facing economic suffering dream of finding a treasure in the mountains and hills. Some people were spending the only money left in their pockets or selling their wife’s jewellery to buy metal detectors.”

Turkey is experiencing a rise in joblessness during a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic – daily cases have risen to a record 50,000 – double-digit inflation and after the lira slumped against the dollar, curbing spending power and increasing costs for companies.

Pointing out that “all cultural assets, stone monuments, tumuli, ancient sites and inscriptions across our country face the threat of treasure hunters and are in danger of destruction,’’ Başgelen said the country’s intellectuals, curators, archaeologists, art historians, architects, conservators and scientists had “paused all other work to act at once and come together with interested parties and the authorities in order to prevent this destruction.”