Destruction of cultural heritage as political protest

There has been a lot of press recently on the destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq in the past week or two.  ISIS has been destroying cultural heritage of many groups in Iraq, but in the past few weeks, the attack has taken a turn to the past. First, they released a video of militants smashing ancient artifacts in a museum, and now there are reports that the ancient city of Nimrud has been bulldozed.

The worldwide heritage community has reacted with shock and outrage, condemning the destruction as an attack on global human history.  I can only imagine how Iraqi’s feel, seeing their identity and history destroyed.

Honestly, I don’t know what to say.

These militants are using public heritage to make a statement.  It isn’t the statement I as an archaeologist want to hear, but it is effective.  People are talking about it.  Isn’t that what public property is for?

Here, my beliefs about public space come into conflict with my feelings as an archaeologist.  As an archaeologist, I truly believe that all of our knowledge about the past is vitally important for our identity and our future.  I feel like any loss of archaeological knowledge seriously damages our entire species.

However, I also believe that people have the right to use their heritage.  They should be able to take the important knowledge archaeology has provided and enhance and change their lives.  I firmly believe there is no ‘right’ way to use the archaeological record.

But does that mean you should be allowed to destroy it?

Of course archaeological material shouldn’t be destroyed.  But, I’ve gotta admit that it’s a pretty effective form of protest.  I have sat up and taken notice.  I am desperately interested in why these militants have felt the need to destroy what to me is an important aspect of our shared past.  Does that make it a valid use of cultural heritage?

How do we police the use of cultural heritage?  Does destruction cross some line when it’s archaeological?  What if they had destroyed modern statues – such as when statues of Saddam Hussein were destroyed?  What if they had bulldozed a modern building?  Would the outrage be the same?  Should it be the same?

In point of fact, militants have been destroying modern cultural sites for months, and while I’ve seen some media coverage, it hasn’t had half the outrage and response that destruction of ancient sites have had.  Why is the destruction of ancient culture a potential war crime, while the destruction of Shia holy sites and Sufi shrines has passed with hardly a mention?

Of course, politics further complicate the issue:

Destruction of archaeology happens all the time.  Important sites and artifacts are destroyed frequently.  Politics have such a vital role to play in how the archaeological community and how the world at large responds.  If part of Nimrud had been bulldozed by a large international corporation, would we still be upset?  There definitely would not be as much media coverage…

Who gets to decide what is an appropriate use of cultural sites?

Further Reading

Honestly, the news coverage since the propaganda video of militants smashing artifacts has been huge.  The video has gone viral (Buzzfeed).  Effective propaganda, no?

Lots of news coverage of the Mosul museum: NY Times, CBCAl-Jazeera America

This blog post at Gates of Nineveh from July 2014 describes the destruction of various shrines and religious sites by ISIS.  GoN also assesses the damage wrought by militants at the Mosul museum.

UNESCO’s statement on destruction of Nimrud

Many news outlets have covered the destruction of Nimrud: Guardian, CNN (also has video of militants smashing artifacts at museum in Mosul), NY Times,

Might the artifacts smashed in Mosul have been faked?

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