As I am writing this, forces of ISIS are slowly advancing on the ancient historical site of Palmyra, near Tadmor in Syria. Archaeologists and cultural experts around the world have expressed their fear about what might happen, should the site fall into the hands of the Islamic state. However this is not the first time that the site has stood on the brink of possible destruction. Back in 2013, the site was under fire during clashes between the forces of Assad and the then prevalent Free Syrian Army. Before that, the site lay in the path of combined British and French forces as they launched an assault on the troops of the Vichy regime in July 1941. In light of recent history, it seemed appropriate to take a look at the various causes that have led to the destruction of archaeological sites.
|"I spotted on the plain a scene of the most astonishing ruins: there stood an innumerable amount of superb columns that continued in symmetrical rows as far as the eye could see, in a way similar to the avenues of our parks"- Comte de Volney, 1787|
The most well-known reason of the destruction of antiquities (and visual culture in general) is the fervour of religious zealots. Often adhering to radical fundamentalist beliefs, they perceive laws prohibiting depictions of gods in the most literal sense. Of course, the most recent example of this is the destruction wrought upon Nineveh by members of ISIS. This was characterised by their focus on the faces and feet of both humans and sphinxes. In accordance with Islamic teaching, an image which doesn’t have the feet to carry it and doesn’t have the face to breathe, see and speak loses its power. However, iconoclasm is not limited to Islam. During the Dutch reformation in 1566 Protestant followers went through Catholic churches and destroyed many statues, altarpieces and other votive objects. This event is known as the ‘Beeldenstorm’ (Storming of the statues) and coincided with similar bouts of Protestant iconoclasm raging throughout northern Europe in the 16th century.
Closer to ‘home’ (that is, the site of Horvat Kur) there was the damage caused to the mosaic at Hammath Tiberias in 2012. Ultra-orthodox Jews took a sledgehammer to the 1600-year-old floor and spray-painted slogans on the mosaic. While destruction of ‘blasphemous images’ is a common reason, in this case there was also another reason for the destruction of the floor.
|Only the enormous, empty alcoves remain as a testament to the grandeur of the Bamiyan Buddhas|
Despite obvious attempts to destroy depictions of men and animals at the Hammat Tiberias mosaic, the graffiti sprayed on the mosaic was noteworthy, in that it referenced the ultra-orthodox protests against the excavation of human remains by archaeologists. This is considered to be a violation of religious laws and protestors are known to go to considerable lengths to voice their discontent.
Under religious ‘activism’ we can also place the destruction of the 6th century Buddha statues at Bamiyan, Afghanistan in 2001. Statues that had already been ‘neutered’ in terms of their religious functioning were nonetheless blown up by members of the Taliban. They even announced the act beforehand. This suggests that it was not merely religious zeal that drove them, but also the international outrage and the effect this would have on their reputation. The statues were not just destroyed to display the piety of the Taliban, but also to show that they commanded power in the region. The destruction became the means to an end, rather than an end onto itself.
But it is not merely the religious who see archaeological sites as a soapbox to propagate their agenda. In December 2014, Greenpeace put up a huge banner just underneath one of the geoglyphs at the site at Nazca. While it remains unclear how much damage the environmental action group caused to the site, they did enter into a restricted area and caused international outrage over the potential risks that were taken merely to garner publicity. These risks were displayed more dramatically in January 2015, when local farmers destroyed a geoglyph of the Chimu civilisation in La Libertad, Peru. However, this destruction was deliberate and fuelled by altogether different reasons.
|Damage caused to the Hammath Tiberias synagogue mosaic in 2012|
Another common reason for the destruction of archaeological sites and antiquities is simply because people consider the archaeological site as problematically limiting for their own development. Sites are destroyed to make way for agriculture or project development, often on false grounds and under illegal circumstances. This was the case in La Libertad, where local farmers wanted the soil for irrigation and cultivation purposes. To them, the site was merely an obstacle that kept them from claiming and exploiting the soil. Sometimes, sites are even destroyed to be used as landfill, as was the case Belize in 2013. A contractor responsible for building a new road tore down a large section of the Mayan Noh Mul Temple building in order to use the crushed rock as landfill for the construction work, much to the dismay of the general populace. The responsible parties have since been prosecuted, but the damage done to the temple is irreparable.
Ignorance and carelessness:
Perhaps the most banal of reasons for the destruction of archaeological remains is the fact that people simply don’t understand what the significance of such sites is. This may be partly due to a lack of historical knowledge. The most publicised example in recent history is from 2013, when a Chinese blogger posted an image of graffiti left on a temple in Luxor. This sparked outrage in China and led to a public shaming of the 15-year-old who was responsible. Fortunately, in this case the damage done could be repaired.
The graffiti problem does however illustrate a larger issue: virtually every historic city or archaeological site has to deal with people wishing to proclaim to the world that they visited the site. A fine example from Israel is the cistern underneath the mesa fort at Massada, which is covered in graffiti of people from all over the world. People don’t appreciate plaster as particularly noteworthy or interesting, except maybe for use as a canvas.
However, there is another type of destruction that borders on ignorance: carelessness. The most striking example of this was the horrible ad hoc repairs done to the death mask of Tutankhamun during October of 2014. The repairs were done with household quality epoxy, which leaked down the mask and was then hastily removed, leaving visible scratches on the mask. Here the pressure to keep the museum’s flagship piece on display resulted in unnecessary damage, resulting in the opposite effect of what the carers had wanted, namely that the mask now had to be removed for extensive restoration.
Among carelessness should also be counted the collateral damage caused by military conflict. While Syria is an obvious recent example, this problem is not limited to the Middle-East. Border skirmishes between Thailand and Cambodia between 2008 and 2011 caused significant damage to the Hindu Preah Vihear temple complex. Most of the damage was caused by flying bullets and shrapnel.
|So many unanswerable questions...|
The most common reason for the destruction of archaeological sites is still ordinary tomb-raiding. This ranges from the highly organised crime as is common in Syria and Egypt, to the average person taking out their metal detector to sniff around at a local excavation in the hopes of finding a trinket or memento. Here it is not just the destruction of the site and the artefacts, but also of its stratigraphy and the subsequent information that archaeologists could have gained from that. Although destruction for other reasons is saddening, the destruction of a site’s information before archaeologists have been able to do so in a controlled environment, where the information can be documented and analysed is perhaps the biggest loss. It could be argued that this is in fact the loss of history itself.
With so many potential threats, it seems odd that archaeological sites are often poorly protected. But protection is expensive, just like many other aspect of the archaeological discipline. Most projects run on limited budgets and researchers would prefer to spend valuable money on improved analysis of the site, rather than a security guard. On top of that, most sites are in remote areas and lack facilities, which make it difficult to permanently guard them with anything more than fences. When long-term guards are available, it also depends on the stability of the country itself whether or not they are able to perform their duty. For example: looting picked up in Egypt after the Arab spring and the ongoing political unrest. With many police officers withdraw to deal with the upheaval in the cities, the tourism police responsible for site security soon found themselves outnumbered and even outgunned when well-armed, organised gangs of looters descended on more remote sites. Attempts to stop them could often result in minor skirmishes and fire fights.
Ultimately, it is the fact that sites are often large, remote and reliant on limited financial means that makes them easy targets for looting and destruction. Many sites also lie on valuable soil that is a prime target for those who could care less about culture and historical significance. In other cases, sites are simply in the firing line of military conflicts and civil unrest. All these factors make archaeological sites highly vulnerable and should form a permanent reminder that we have to take better care of our heritage.