Destruction of Archaeological Sites: A Story of Oppression, Greed, and Carelessness

Effective oppression often starts with the demoralization of the soon-to-be oppressed, and one of the most effective ways to accomplish this is to destroy archaeological sites. These sites often have meaning for the people who live near them, and their destruction has a significant impact on these people. For this reason, groups like the Taliban and ISIS (in recent years) have destroyed these kinds of sites to establish their control of the people in these areas.

One such site was the Arch of Triumph, an entrance to the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. ISIS destroyed this ancient site in late 2015, adding to a long list of many other archaeological sites they have destroyed. They also destroyed two temples at Palmyra months before the arch: the Temple of Baalshamin and a temple dedicated to Bel. The head of Syria’s Antiquities Department, Maamoun Abdulkarim, feels that this wanton destruction goes beyond the usual religious fervor associated with ISIS, as the Arch of Triumph is not necessarily of any religious importance. Regardless, it is still clear that ISIS is destroying these sites in order to establish their own dominance and demoralize the Syrian people. However, archaeological sites aren’t always destroyed to actively oppress people: they can fall victim to looters seeking wealth and to an utter lack of care for their importance.

Camel corps desert patrol – Palmyra, 1938

Ever since the start of the Iraq War in 2003, the site of the ancient city of Babylon has faced some serious damage. Looters have stolen cuneiform tablets and statues, selling them in illegal markets and on Ebay. Irrevocable damage was also done to the site by the United States military when it established Camp Alpha on the ruins from 2003 to 2004. Bulldozers and helicopters damaged buildings and artifacts around the site, and the US has taken no accountability for its actions. Even though Babylon has been suggested as a potential UNESCO World Heritage Site, archaeologists and the Iraqi State Board of Heritage and Antiquities are angry that more hasn’t been done to address these issues.

Visible destruction from looters at the Babylon site.

While archaeological sites are destroyed for a number of reasons, their destruction has similar effects. These sites are important symbols to the people who live near them, and their destruction can be viewed as a personal attack on those people and their cultural identity. With more than 7 billion people living on the planet today, visitors to archaeological sites outnumber the actual people who built those sites. The shear number of people guarantees inevitable damage, whether it come from groups like ISIS, looters, the US military, or any number of other potential threats. Regardless, if any of these sites are to survive, action must be taken to protect them.


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Related information:

Looting in South America of Mayan and Moche Artifacts and Sites

Destruction of Cultural Heritage – The Gobal Policy Forum




Pre-Industrialization Garbage Archaeology

Garbage is a term that evokes images of filth and grime. However, garbage is useful to archaeology. Recently, archaeologists have analyzed garbage in landfills to gain better insight into the way people think and to better understand cultures and their value systems. Landfills can be found all over the globe, but finding garbage from the distant past proves more difficult, as archaeologists must find sites where refuse is still intact. Fortunately, many of these kinds of sites have been identified.

Interestingly, some of the best preserved garbage from the past few centuries has been found in toilets. A team of archaeologists recently uncovered a number of privy pits in Philadelphia, PA, from the 18th century. One of these pits was dated to 1776, placing it and its contents at the beginning of the American Revolution both in location and time. It is more than likely that this pit was dug around the time when Benjamin and Mary Humphreys bought a house at its location on July 10th, 1776. This pit, labelled Feature 16, had an interesting array of refuse within. In one of the holes, items typical of a tavern were found, such as tankards, drinking glasses, bowls, and alcohol bottles, many of which had been patched or repaired. Using paper records, the archaeologists found that Mary Humphreys had been arrested in July of 1783 for running an illegal tavern. These two radically different pieces of evidence work together to tell a story of a Revolutionary-era woman and her “disorderly house.”

The remains of a punch bowl found in Feature 16. The ship depicted carried a message from Philadelphia to Great Britain to pressure Parliament into repealing the Stamp Act in 1765.

Recent archaeological studies in Pompeii have been focused on studying garbage to understand how ancient people disposed of their unwanted goods. Researchers found cracked dishware, dented metal-ware, and items with broken handles in an old farmhouse, and patched amphoras at a wine-bottling facility, which would suggest that these Romans did not throw things away and instead repaired and reused them until they were completely unusable. Archaeologists have also not been able to locate glass or ceramics on the streets of the ancient city, furthering this theory.

A street uncovered in the ruins of Pompeii

Analyzing garbage from before the Industrial Revolution reveals much about how people valued their belongings. After the Industrial Revolution, the concept of “disposable goods” arose. This is evident in what we throw away, from plastic wrap to half eaten meals. Garbage found from before this time reveals reveals artifacts that had been patched up and repaired numerous times until they were no longer usable. This reflects an entirely different mentality. What was thrown away had value, and was only discarded reluctantly after it had been well-worn. Histories gleaned from garbage are important, but understanding how people value their belongings is just as important to archaeology.



Punch Bowl


Further Reading:

Ancient Trash Collection