Focus Raqqa 2.0: an Interview with Monique Arntz

Text by Raúl van Dijk Escoriza

The Raqqa Museum, holding holding a precious archaeological collection has suffered greatly during Syria’s bitter civil war. Having been plundered and partly destroyed by ISIS, an international project has been organized to reconstruct the museum’s inventory, aiding in the retrieval of lost and looted artefacts. Archaeologist Monique Arntz (University of Cambridge), has been appointed by the Centre for Global Heritage and Development, one of the co-organizers, to aid in this reconstruction project.

“The most important aim of this project is to help our colleagues in Raqqa and its citizens reclaim their heritage”, according to Arntz. Even though the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) reacted swiftly when hostilities broke out and evacuated the collections of many provincial museums to its headquarters in Damascus, it was not capable to fully evacuate the Raqqa Museum after the fall of the city in 2012. Both the museum and its external storage spaces were thoroughly damaged and looted and its artifacts were channelled into the illegal antiquities market. This was a terrible loss, as the museum was home to over 6000 artifacts from major excavations (including Tell Sabi Abyad, Tell Bi’a and Tell Zaidan), from the Neanderthals until Medieval Islamic times. Of objects kept and inventoried in the museum, about 65% or ca. 4000 objects remain stolen or destroyed.


Neolithic animal figurine (F04-017), dated to the middle of the 7th millennium BC. Courtesy of the Tell Sabi Abyad project.

Focus Raqqa 2.0 will virtually reconstruct the inventory of the looted museum in Raqqa into a bilingual database that will be made accessible through an online platform to all stakeholders in Syria and the world. A lot of painstaking work will be needed for this reconstruction, as the objects are listed in the datasets of the different excavations sites where they were found. However, Monique Arntz is up for this task: “For the last ten years I have been working with objects from the Tell Sabi Abyad site. Both my BA and Research MA thesis were centred around part of the figurine corpus found at the site, and in my current PhD research I focus on the entire dataset. By now I am quite familiar with both its materials and documentation.” Information on other excavations sites is to be found in the (digital) archives of the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft, Frankfurt University archives, Leiden University, and the Oriental institute in Chicago.

Monique Arntz

Archaeologist Monique Arntz. PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge

Bringing all this information together is just the beginning, “we still have to build the database in which all object information is integrated”, says Arntz. This database will be created in conjunction with SHAP (the Syrian Heritage Archives Project) with which Focus Raqqa 2.0 collaborates. Together with a small team in Raqqa, and two other archaeologists, Arntz will have to create an entry for each of the approximately 5500 pre-Islamic objects once housed in the museum (the Islamic objects have already been catalogued by SHAP). “Tell Sabi Abyad’s documentation has been fully digitized, which will save us a lot of work”, sources of the other excavations will have to be either digitized or manually introduced into the database. Arntz: “I will have to work with Adobe Photoshop to clean up some of the visual documentation to be able to deliver it in the best quality possible.”

Working with the objects the datasets contain is something she finds exhilarating: “I started studying at the age of 27. History, especially the history of the Ancient Near East, has always fascinated me, and after working for several years I finally decided to give the university a try. I chose Archaeology due to its practical, hands-on approach: field work is the greatest thing!  I owe a lot to Dr. Olivier Nieuwenhuyse, who I consider to be one of my best teachers. As my BA supervisor he helped me define my research interest in figurines, an interest I hold to this day.” The late Dr. Nieuwenhuyse was besides Arntz teacher also the initiator of the Focus Raqqa pilot project (2017-2018) and Focus Raqqa 2.0 project, “that is another reason why I am proud to be part of this project”.


Raqqa Museum before the capture and looting by ISIS in 2012

When finalised, Focus Raqqa 2.0 will provide vital information to prosecutors of illegal antiquities trafficking (Interpol, International Customs) to identify looted Raqqa Museum objects. The inventory will document Raqqa Museum's legal ownership of the stolen objects that were most probably guided into the international illegal antiquities trade. Whenever these objects will resurface, their documentation in the inventory will give Raqqa Museum the tool to claim them back. Professionals at the museum and local NGO’s will be able to revive and refurbish the museum with the objects missing, eventually contributing towards building a new collection and exhibition once the political situation permits it. Arntz: “through all the years I have been working with the objects of the Tell Sabi Abyad site, I have formed a strong bond with the Raqqa Museum. I find therefore incredibly important that I am able to help in the reconstruction of the museum and help the locals rediscover their heritage.”

Focus Raqqa 2.0 is made possible by a grant of the ALIPH foundation.