One of at least 18 Odyssey mosaics reported stolen from northeastern Syria in early 2013. This is a detail of Odysseus tied to his mast, resisting the sirens. Despite reports, conflicting information originally places this mosaic in Tunisia, not Syria. Image Source: Past Horizons.
Since 2011, reports have circulated that Syria's classical heritage is being ruined or plundered by the conflict in that country. When war began, there were some 78 formal archaeological digs in the country. Then the conflict between the population and the government, followed by the Islamic State, led to an obliteration of Syria's precious past. Islamic State militants, like the Taliban, abhor graven images, although they are still willing to sell the stolen artifacts which they don't destroy. They are not alone on that black market.
Full mosaic: Odysseus and the Sirens at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia (2nd century AD). Image Source: Wiki.
On 2 September 2014, the New York Times reported that the Islamic State has set up a nasty sideline selling Syrian archaeological artifacts:
We have recently returned from southern Turkey, where we were training Syrian activists and museum staff preservationists to document and protect their country’s cultural heritage. That heritage includes remains from the ancient Mesopotamian, Assyrian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic periods, along with some of the earliest examples of writing and some of the best examples of Hellenistic, Roman and Christian mosaics.
In extensive conversations with those working and living in areas currently under ISIS control, we learned that ISIS is indeed involved in the illicit antiquities trade, but in a way that is more complex and insidious than we expected. ...
ISIS permits local inhabitants to dig at these sites in exchange for a percentage of the monetary value of any finds.
The group’s rationale for this levy is the Islamic khums tax, according to which Muslims are required to pay the state treasury a percentage of the value of any goods or treasure recovered from the ground. ISIS claims to be the legitimate recipient of such proceeds.
The amount levied for the khums varies by region and the type of object recovered. In ISIS-controlled areas at the periphery of Aleppo Province in Syria, the khums is 20 percent. In the Raqqa region, the levy can reach up to 50 percent or even higher if the finds are from the Islamic period (beginning in the early-to-mid-seventh century) or made of precious metals like gold.
The scale of looting varies considerably under this system, and much is left to the discretion of local ISIS leaders. For a few areas, such as the ancient sites along the Euphrates River, ISIS leaders have encouraged digging by semiprofessional field crews. These teams are often from Iraq and are applying and profiting from their experience looting ancient sites there. They operate with a “license” from ISIS, and an ISIS representative is assigned to oversee their work to ensure the proper use of heavy machinery and to verify accurate payment of the khums.
To control history, especially to squander or erase it, is to control the future. There are some 10,000 archaeological sites scattered across the country. All are now vulnerable.In addition to the looting, ISIS seems to be encouraging the clandestine export of archaeological finds, which is primarily centered on the border crossing from Syria into Turkey near Tel Abyad, an ISIS stronghold. There is reason to suspect that ISIS has approved and encourages the transborder antiquities trade.