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Human-headed winged bulls guarding a door in Dur-Sharrukin.

All is not lost in ISIS’s attempt to smash the past

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Amy Gazin-Schwartz  / The Conversation

The archaeological and historical communities are deeply dismayed about ISIS destroying archaeological sites and materials in the last few weeks.

We have seen pictures of ISIS smashing statues and artifacts in the Mosul museum. ISIS soldiers have reportedly destroyed buildings at the ancient Assyrian cities Ninevah and Nimrud in Iraq.

ISIS is also believed to be selling Assyrian and other antiquities on the illegal international antiquities market.

As an archaeologist, I find all of these actions reprehensible and sad. They damage the historical heritage of all of us, and of people in Syria and Iraq in particular. That is no small thing.

But archaeologists are not surprised by ISIS’s acts of destruction.

mages broadcast around the world show the sickening destruction of ancient monuments by ISIS

Images broadcast around the world show the sickening destruction of ancient monuments by ISIS

Long history of destroying antiquities

ISIS’s actions are part of a long history of people destroying ancient sites for political, economic, or religious purposes.

The Assyrians looted and destroyed Babylon in 700 BC; medieval Christians in England toppled and broke up some of the ancient “pagan” standing stones at Avebury; Spanish conquistadors melted down gold artifacts, including the solid gold “gardens,” of the Inca.

Modern conflict has not respected antiquities. The 5,000-year-old cities of Ur and Uruk were heavily damaged by the first and second Gulf Wars.

Despite warnings from archaeologists, ancient artifacts were stolen (or looted) from the Baghdad Museum even while Baghdad was under American control. These are recent examples of the way all participants in conflict do not respect the “value” of antiquities. Just this week, some of these artifacts were  returned to Iraq  after recovery by US Customs agents.

Medieval Christians destroyed many pagan temples and monuments. Here Bishop Absalon topples the god Svantevit at Arkona in 1169 proving that it was just an idol

Medieval Christians destroyed many pagan temples and monuments. Here Bishop Absalon topples the god Svantevit at Arkona in 1169 proving that it was just an idol, by Laurits Tuxen .

The economy and even archaeologists are culpable

Looting for profit is a continuous threat to archaeological sites worldwide, not just in ISIS-controlled areas. Poverty and instability have made people turn to digging up antiquities to sell on the international antiquities market. Collectors who purchase antiquities are also implicated in the destruction of ancient sites.

Archaeological sites are often destroyed in the course of economic development .

Archaeologists themselves have also been responsible for the removal of antiquities from their places of origin. Museums around the world are full of antiquities from ancient sites in the Middle East, Africa, Australia, North and South America that were stolen, traded, or excavated by archaeologists and explorers.

The first image that appears in Google search for “Assyrian archaeology” is a photograph of Lawrence of Arabia and archaeologist Leonard Wooley holding a sculpted plaque from the  Assyrian city of Karkamish in 1913 .

Archaeological research has been conducted at sites in Iraq and Syria, and at Assyrian sites in particular, for nearly 200 years. Materials recovered from those sites were taken to Europe and the United States. They have been studied in great detail, and are in the collections of many major museums, including the British Museum, the Louvre in Paris, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Many tombs and archaeological sites have been disturbed and damaged in order to sell relics to museums. British soldiers with skulls excavated at the ancient Greek site of Amphipolis, 1916.

Many tombs and archaeological sites have been disturbed and damaged in order to sell relics to museums. British soldiers with skulls excavated at the ancient Greek site of Amphipolis, 1916. ( Wikimedia Commons )

All is not lost

Archaeological research now employs new kinds of tools.

Developments in archaeological methods and thinking mean that new research, including new excavations, can reveal additional insights. For example,  the research undertaken by archaeologists  at the McDonald Institute of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge has used satellite imaging to locate different types of settlements. These include provincial centers tied to the major cities and the settlements inhabited by common farmers, even roads and irrigation systems. Excavations by John McInnes recovered cuneiform tablets that seem to be in a previously unknown language.

Archaeologists regularly work in “ruined” sites, and excavations by their very nature destroy sites; the important difference is we collect detailed information in the course of that destruction.

LiDAR scanning is a new technology that is leading to the discovery of many new archaeological sites.  Here scans of three New England towns revealed networks of old stone walls, building foundations, old roads, and other features.

LiDAR scanning is a new technology that is leading to the discovery of many new archaeological sites.  Here scans of three New England towns revealed networks of old stone walls, building foundations, old roads, and other features.

But the existence of so many artifacts, images, sculptures, and monuments in museum collections means that all is not lost in terms of preserving the past. We can continue to study ancient remains. We can even recover materials from the sites destroyed by ISIS, if conflicts end and archaeologists can again work in those areas.

Even now, archaeologists are  attempting to document  what has been damaged, and what has been stolen, in an effort to aid recovering those materials.

ISIS intends for us to be outraged by their actions. It is possible that by replaying images of the destruction of antiquities we are participants in ISIS’s propaganda.

None of this is meant to excuse ISIS actions in looting and attempting to obliterate the ancient past. The question is one of perspective. If our outrage only serves to bolster ISIS’s self-image as the destroyer of the West, perhaps a better response would be to focus on those things – human lives – that cannot be replicated or recovered.

Featured image: Human-headed winged bulls guarding a door in Dur-Sharrukin.  Poulpy/CC BY-SA

The article ‘ All is not lost in ISIS’s attempt to smash the past’ was originally published on The Conversation and has republished under a Creative Commons license.

Comments

It is heartbreaking and such a terrible loss to history and future generations to see the purposeful destruction of ancient cities and artifacts from the past. It truly amazes me to see things that were built by the hands of people from the past that have survived for thousands of years. Therefore, the destruction of these precious relics by the hands of people with their own agenda is repugnant and reprehensible. I wish that more efforts were being made to save these antiquities so that future generations can learn about their own heritage and other various cultures throughout history.

I understand what you are saying. Statements such as these:

"medieval Christians in England toppled and broke up some of the ancient “pagan” standing stones at Avebury; Spanish conquistadors melted down gold artifacts, including the solid gold “gardens,” of the Inca."

Are actually supposed to read "Muslims toppled and broke up some of the ancient “pagan” standing stones at Avebury; Muslim conquistadors melted down gold artifacts, including the solid gold “gardens,” of the Inca." But somehow, most likely accidentally, it reads "Christians" and "Spanish".

Good research on part Ron. Perhaps you could explain to us how Muslims destroyed Native American burial sites and the Library of Alexandria in Egypt around 300 BC.

Yes, all is not lost, but what has been lost is irreplaceable and will never be built again.

Islam is a replacement ideology whose followers destroy that which they do not understand or agree with.

Time for a wake up call. This may happen in Europe where the Muslim population is skyrocketing and they have more heritage to lose than North America.

I wish the US government would offer secure storage space to museums and other intellectual institutions here - the personnel can just pack everything up and bring it over where it can be safe. Then when things have been settled, they can safely go back with their items and reconstruct their institutions.

The only plus side to those jackasses black marketing items is those items are potentially recoverable. Bashed into bits or melted down is not.

The destruction that ISIS is doing to those antiquities is unconscionable. But I agree with the sentiment of the article. Western Civilization doesn’t have a good track record of caring for our past either. Just look at the damage done to the area that we now call Troy by Heinrich Schliemann. He bascially bulldozed through several layers of city, destroying thousands of years of ruins, including the very ruins of the time period he was looking for in the first place.

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