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ISIS/ISIL and destruction of Archaeological Heritage

The much publicized attempts to destroy a number of famous archaeological sites, structures and objects (including rare historic books) by ISIS/ISIL in recent weeks ( – adding now Dur-Sharrukin, built as the capital of Assyrian King Sargon II in the late 8th century BC – have led to much outrage, and even for calls for intervention to protect this heritage –

Two members of the Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies, Adam Smith and Sturt Manning, have written pieces in the past few days reflecting and commenting on this terrible destruction of human heritage that should be of concern and interest to all humanity, whatever country you live in.




Looking at history, recent to ancient, many an extremist group has tried to destroy structures, objects and images from the past (often but not always claiming a religious justification – the latter falling especially under the general category of iconoclasm, with the term itself telling us there is a rich history of such attempts to erase history – see, for example, the Wikipedia entry – and for those interested in a scholarly treatment, see Alain Besançon, The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm, Chicago University Press, 2001). When this occurs we, all, of course lose – testaments to humanity’s achievements, desires and existence are damaged or lost.

Our only real defense is to commit to remember all the harder. The only good news out of this tragedy? History often wins despite the many attempts to erase it. We end up studying fragments, ruins, traces, recreations – but we study and remember. Tourists flock to sites where other humans have tried to destroy to see and to be told what was lost. The destructive act, contrary the desire of the destroyers, often ends up enshrining the destroyed as important and worth attention. The closed mind ignorance of the iconoclast serves to remind everyone else to celebrate the richness and variety of human existence; to remember what others would wish us to forget.

Of course, it would be better to prevent the destruction in the first place. Time and entropy already challenge our ability to know the full human past. Education is key.


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March 2015
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