The Political Impact of ISIS’ Destruction of Antiques

While notorious for public beheadings, ISIS also attacks Syrian and Iraqi artifacts and ancient sites. ISIS follows a strict Salafi interpretation of Islam that prohibits worship of shrines, tombs, and idols, and this interpretation leads ISIS to destroy churches, mosques, and even artifacts and antiquities deemed idolatrous. In 2015, ISIS territories were situated next to several world heritage sites (Figure 1), many of which they destroyed. Irina Bokova, the head of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, refers to the destruction of antiques as “cultural cleansing”, and says that destroying artifacts “adds to the systematic destruction of heritage and the persecution of minorities that seeks to wipe out the cultural diversity that is the soul of the Iraqi people” (Hartmann 2015).

ISIS employs the brutal war tactic of publically destroying the culture of those who disagree with their ideals, including posting a photo showcasing the destruction of a religious site (Figure 2). ISIS is attempting to erase history. They are symbolically trying to disconnect their enemies from the past and the land, and they are trying to pave the way for a future in which the only history of Syria and Iraq is the history of ISIS.

ISIS’ attacks are demoralizing, horrific, and profitable. Selling and looting antiquities is ISIS’ second highest source of funding after oil, making the destruction of culture both a profitable escapade and a form of cultural warfare. In light of this news, in 2014 the U.S. sought to implement a bipartisan cultural protection czar to reduce the amount of smuggled antiques into the U.S. in order to curtail ISIS funding (Muñoz-Alonso 2014). Both the U.S. and Germany have started imposing laws that would catch smuggled artifacts at their respective borders.

In recent years, ISIS has lost 96% of its territories (Bendaoudi 2018). Still, the sites and antiques ISIS destroyed can never be truly rebuilt, which is why the impact of cultural warfare is so tragic. If the past is forgotten, those in the future can never look back to where they came from, and the connection to the land, the culture, and the people of the past could be lost. Governments and the UN must defend antiques and world historical sites from terror, and their importance must never be forgotten. For this reason, archaeology and the study of the past remain relevant and important subjects today.

Figure 1. ISIS territories in proximity to world heritage sites. Graphic by New York Times. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Nimrud is on the Tentative World Heritage List); Institute for the Study of War (control areas); Satellite image by Landsat via Google Earth

Figure 2. A photo by ISIS showcasing the destruction of a religious site. Photo by Hyperallergic

Works Cited:

 

Muñoz-Alonso, Lorena

2014  Could US Cultural Protection Czar Stop Rampant ISIS Looting? Electronic document, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/could-us-cultural-protection-czar-stop-rampant-isis-looting-173972, accessed November 9, 2018.

 

Hartmann, Margaret

2015  ISIS is Destroying Ancient Art in Iraq and Syria. Electronic document, http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2015/03/isis-destroys-ancient-art.html, accessed November 9, 2018.

 

Bendaoudi , Abdelillah

2018    After the “almost 100 percent” Defeat of ISIS, What about its Ideology? Electronic document, http://studies.aljazeera.net/en/reports/2018/05/100-percent-defeat-isis-ideology-180508042421376.html, accessed November 9, 2018.

 

Additional Content:

“How Antiques Have Been Weaponized in the Struggle to Preserve Culture”

How Antiquities Have Been Weaponized in the Struggle to Preserve Culture

“The Race to Save Syria’s Archaeological Treasures”

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/race-save-syrias-archaeological-treasures-180958097/

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Archaeology and the Ethical Dilemma

When most people think of an archaeological monument, the Great Pyramid of Giza, Stonehenge, and Machu Picchu are usually the most popular to come to mind. However, a new name should be added to the list. In Kenya’s Lake Turkana, archaeologists have recently been examining several pillar sites, including the Lothagam North Pillar Site. At the Lothagam site, the archaeological team have learned that the platform and pit below the pillared site had been built by a community for the use of a communal grave site. In excavating the grave site, the team found an estimated 580 people, spanning across multiple ages and generations. The site has awed the field of archaeology for it seems that community that built the monument constructed it as a means of uniting the people and an example of an egalitarian society, whereas in the past, it has been suggested that the construction of monuments was a way by upper class rulers to emphasize the hierarchy. (Daley) Yet, perhaps more importantly, it raises the question about the relevance of ethics in archaeology, specifically with the uncovering of human remains.


This ethical predicament stems from whether it is acceptable to exhume the dead from their burials when excavating a site and the implications surrounding the cultural context. In the past, archaeologists would commonly disrespect sites of human remains when searching for artifacts, and along the way, collected the skeletons and put them in museums. Because they were no sources of power actively trying to protect their history, many of these skeletons were taken from Native American burials during plundering, and the removal of a body from their places of burial ignorantly disregards the importance of the final resting place in many Native American  communities. (Alex) Now, more archaeologists are aware of the gravity of their actions, but the issue still arises for many teams whether it is ok to disturb if it is for the benefit of an scientific discovery. The American Anthropological Association has sought to mediate this problem by emphasizing “People and groups have a generic right to realize their capacity for culture, and to produce, reproduce and change the conditions and forms of their physical, personal and social existence, so long as such activities do not diminish the same capacities of others.” This response to the ethical dilemma puts clear stress on how while they do encourage the research into learning cultural past, they condemn it begins to affects the values and wishes of other cultures.

 

In some ways, we have taken this declaration to heart. The establishment of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990 requires the permission of the local community in order for scientists to excavated remains on federal or tribal land. This is a big step in the right direction for achieving the respect Native Americans have been demanding regarding the treatment of their burials, but unfortunately, the law is not regularly enforced and many remains are still taken to museums or reburied.

 

So, how do we begin to further approach an ethical and safe solution for archaeologists? First, by adhering to the demands of Native American groups and other misrepresented cultures around the world when addressing their burial grounds. This also includes respecting their wishes in all research, including online, by not posting images of human bones in case it does belong to one of their people. (Class) Next, we encourage scientific development in excavation tools that will allow archaeologists to investigates, but disturb as little as possible.

 

In the Lothagam site, archaeologists have already found through the study of some the remains that the drying of Lake Turkana forced diverse groups of people to unite and work together. (Alex) This is important for outlining more of the area’s history, but again, it can only truly be successful should it be done responsibly and ethically. Thankfully, that is the case.

 

Further Readings:

Killgrove, Kristina.

2018 International Experts Refute ‘Alien’ Mummy Analysis, Question Ethics and Legality. Forbes, July 18, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2018/07/18/international-experts-refute-alien-mummy-analysis-question-ethics-and-legality/#32327dc93722

Strauss, Mark.

2016 When Is It Okay To Dig Up The Dead? National Geographic, April 7, 2016. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/04/160407-archaeology-religion-repatriation-bones-skeletons/

 

Reference List:

Daley, Jason.

2018 Their World Was Crumbling But These Ancient People Built a Lasting Memorial
Read. Smithsonian Magazine, August 22, 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/when-their-world-was-chaos-these-ancient-people-coped-building-monument-180970087/, accessed November 4, 2018.

Alex, Bridget

2018 When Is It Ok For Archaeologists To Dig Up the Dead? Discover Magazine Blog, September 7, 2018. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2018/09/07/when-is-it-ok-for-archaeologists-to-dig-up-the-dead/#.W9-pXS2ZP-Y, accessed November 4, 2018.

Image Sources:

Daley, Jason.

2018 Their World Was Crumbling But These Ancient People Built a Lasting Memorial
Read. Smithsonian Magazine, August 22, 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/when-their-world-was-chaos-these-ancient-people-coped-building-monument-180970087/, accessed November 4, 2018.

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How We Can Learn from the Fall of the Mayan Civilization

 

The fall of the Mayan civilization has puzzled scholars for years. At the Mayan’s peak, the civilization was made up by more than 19 million people. However, during the 8thor 9thcentury the Mayan civilization suddenly collapsed. In his book “Collapse,” Jared Diamond puts forth a theory about the sudden demise of the Mayan civilization. Diamond believes that a prolonged drought which was intensified by rapid deforestation led to the collapse of the once great Mayan civilization (Stromberg).Studying the collapse of the Mayan civilization can be beneficial for a multitude of reasons. We can determine the ways in which the Mayans exacerbated deforestation along with the effects which it had. In the book, “American Anthropologist,” Fisher and Feinman link past human activity to a range of environmental changes. Analysis of past human activity and its effects on the environmental are critical to evaluating contemporary environmental debates and policies. As seen in Figure 1, the decline of the Mayan population was closely tied to rapid deforestation coupled with the soil erosion. The Mayans burned and chopped down their forests in order to clear land for agriculture and also to acquire wood for the elaborate construction of their cities (Stromberg). Deforestation in Central American still remains extremely problematic today. In Honduras, it is estimated that up to 85% of timber which is cut down is done so illegally (Charlotte). Deforestation is a great threat to biodiversity, leading birds, animals and plants to lose their natural habitats. The world’s forests are one big carbon sink, storing and locking away carbon dioxide avoiding its immediate release into the atmosphere. When a tree dies all of the carbon that has been stored away is released back into the atmosphere. If the tree is cut down prematurely, the process is accelerated. Currently global loss of forests is contributing 12-15% of total greenhouse gas emissions (Charlotte). This information about the fall of the Mayan civilization becomes increasingly alarming when we look into what is currently going on in Brazil. Recently, a new President was elected in Brazil, Jair Bolsonar. Bolsonar’s environmental policies can be perceived as being a threat to human existence all together. As seen in Figure 2, deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon has been on a general downtrend. However, this may soon change. Bolsonar’s policies favor business over biodiversity and calls for pro-market ways of exploiting Brazil’s natural resources. Bolsonar also has promised to weaken the enforcement of environmental laws. It is extremely important to learn from the failures of past human societies and civilizations. It is thought that we have 12 years to prevent the dangerous destabilization of the Earth’s climate (The Guardian).  We have seen how deforestation led to the demise of the once great Mayan civilization. Hopefully we will use the information we have learned from the past to solve the deforestation problems which are still extremely prevalent today.

 

Additional Readings:

www.cropcycle.org/2011/07/25/deforestation-in-central-america/.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/31/the-guardian-view-on-brazils-new-president-a-global-danger

Figure 1. Population density, Deforestation and Soil Erosion for the Mayan Civilization

Source: https://ourworldindata.org/forests

Figure 2: Deforestation in Brazil

Source: https://rainforests.mongabay.com/amazon/deforestation_calculations.htm

Works Cited   

Charlotte. “Deforestation in Central America.” Crop Cycle,   www.cropcycle.org/2011/07/25/deforestation-in-central-america/.

Fisher, Christopher T, and Gary M Feinman. American Anthropologist .

Stromberg, Joseph. “Why Did the Mayan Civilization Collapse? A New Study Points to .   Deforestation and Climate Change.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 23 Aug.        2012,www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-did-the-mayan-civilization-    collapse-a-new-study-points-to-deforestation-and-climate-change-30863026/?no-ist.

“The Guardian View on Brazil’s New President: a Global Danger | Editorial.” The Guardian,          Guardian News and Media, 31 Oct. 2018, .            www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/31/the-guardian-view-on-brazils-new-        president-a-global-danger.

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LIDAR Survey Reveals New Information About the Maya Lowlands

For years, archaeologists have been using LIDAR to study ancient Maya sites. Recently, an analysis was released of a 2016 survey of the Maya lowlands. The survey, the largest ever done in the region, covered 2,144 square kilometers of land and uncovered a total of 61,480 ancient man-made structures (Canuto et. al 2018). Although the population density was clearly not homogenous – some areas were very rural while others were were far more urban – the researchers estimate an average population density of about 120 people per square kilometer, or about 7 to 11 million people total (Canuto et. al 2018).  According to Dr. Thomas Garrison, one of the archaeologists involved with analyzing the data, this discovery is revolutionary because it places population estimates in this region at several times more than was previously thought and reveals new information about the politics, economics, and agricultural practices of the area (St. Fleur 2018).

A map of the surveyed regions.

As one might expect, a significant amount of farmland was needed to produce food for such a large population, and this could be found right there in the lowlands (Canuto et. al 2018). According to archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli, “All of these hundreds of square kilometers of what we thought were unusable swamp were actually some of the most productive farmland” (St. Fleur 2018). The urban areas would have relied on the rural ones for importing food, since the LIDAR scans show that there was not enough farmland immediately surrounding most of them to support their populations. In fact, the many kilometers of roadways imply a high level of interconnectedness between much of the surveyed area, while the infrastructure layout and connectivity more generally reveals that there was likely large-scale planning done by a centralized power (Canuto et. al 2018).

Some of the LIDAR rendering, showing several houses and other structures.

This LIDAR survey reveals important information about the farming practices of the Maya as well as about the extensive infrastructure and organization of their societies. The intensive farming itself is not an isolated thing, since it is known that Mayan agricultural practices and urban expansion had significant impacts on the land (Stromberg 2012). But what is surprising is the location and extent of the land modification. This study will help archaeologists and historians better understand the Maya lowlands, and develop a better image of what their societies look like, and possibly even why they fell. Since our modern societies are facing increasing environmental crises (also partially from unsustainable farming practices) it is more important than ever to learn from the past to change the future.

 

Works Cited:

Canuto, Marcello et al.

 2018  Ancient Maya Lowland Complexity as Revealed by Airborne Laser Scanning of Northern Guatemala. Science Magazine, accessed 1 November 2018.

St. Fleur, Nicholas.

 2018  Hidden Kingdoms of the Ancient Maya Revealed in a 3D Laser Map. The New York Times, accessed 1 November 2018.

Stromberg, Joseph.

 2012  Why did the Mayan Civilization Collapse? A New Study Points to Deforestation and Climate Change. Smithsonian Magazine, accessed 3 November 2018.

Image Sources:

Estrada-Belli, Francisco.

 2018  The New York Times, September 27, 2018, https://static01.nyt.com/images/2018/10/02/science/28TB-MAYA/28TB-MAYA-jumbo-v2.jpg?quality=90&auto=webp , accessed 3 November 2018.

Canuto, Marcello et. al

 2018  Science Magazine, September 2018, http://science.sciencemag.org/content/sci/361/6409/eaau0137/F4.large.jpg , accessed 3 November 2018.

Further Reading:

“Drought and the Ancient Maya Civilization.” https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/abrupt-climate-change/Drought%20and%20the%20Ancient%20Maya%20Civilization

“Mayans Converted Wetland to Farmland.” https://www.nature.com/news/2010/101105/full/news.2010.587.html

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