Destruction of Archaeological Sites in Palmyras

Conflict and warfare have always posed threats to buildings and sites that hold cultural significance. Examples range from the destruction of Tenochtitlán during the Spanish ‘conquest’ to current destruction of sites in the Middle East by the Islamic State. ISIS’s destruction of one site in particular, Palmyras in Syria, has recently made news. Palmyras was a city at the crossroads and major trading center between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia.

The Roman Theater’s intact facade in March 2016

Though records of the city go back for 3,800 years, the height of the city was under Roman occupation in the 3rd century A.D. Its mix of merchants from many cultures lead to Palmyras’ unique architecture and blend of Roman and Near Eastern styles (Romey). Palmyra was once of Syria’s most popular tourist location, until the outbreak of conflict in 2011 (Romey).

Satellite images showing the Roman theater (Dec. 26, 2016) before it was damaged

Satellite images of the Roman theater (Jan. 10 2017) after damage by ISIS militants

ISIS first captured Palmyra in May 2015, but were driven out by regime forces. They then retook the city on December 11, 2016 (Deeb). An ISIS leader announced in a radio broadcast on May 27, 2015 that the ruins in Palmyra would not be damaged (Almukhtar). However, as Syrian government forces moved closer to the city, the ISIS began to bulldoze and detonate structures such as the Roman Theater known as the Tetrapylon (2nd cen. AD), the Temple of Bel, which dated back to A.D. 32, and the Temple of Baalshamin. Before demolishing the theater they used it as a stage for executions and propaganda. 

In August 2015 they executed Khaled al-Asaad, the former director of the Palmyra museum, outside the museum next to the ruins (“Syrian archaeologist killed in Palmyra by IS militants”).

Khaled al-Asaad the archeologist who was killed by ISIS in 2015

al-Asaad was imprisoned for a month before his execution, during which time ISIS members interrogated him about the location of valuable artifacts. One of ISIS’s main sources of revenue is the sale of artifacts they have looted (Harkin). In addition to looting sites, it is clear that ISIS has been using the archaeological site as a literal stage to give them national attention and advertize their platforms.

The destruction of these sites has been called a “war crime” by the the UNESCO spokesperson (“Palmyra’s archaeological heritage under ISIS attack”). Palmyra was a crossroad of different cultures and religions, which is evident in the fusion of Roman, Greek, and Near Eastern architecture. It has a “spirit of… encounter and openness” (“Palmyra’s archaeological heritage under ISIS attack”). It is this spirit, which the historical site embodies, that makes it so anathematic to ISIS. By destroying the historical evidence of religious and cultural tolerance and killing people that share this knowledge like al-Asaad, ISIS hopes to destroy the future of tolerance in this area.

Work Cited:

Almukhtar, Sarah. “The Strategy Behind the Islamic State’s Destruction of Ancient Sites.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 01 July 2015. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.

Deeb, Sarah El. “ISIS Destroys Part of Palmyra’s Roman Theatre.” The Archaeology News Network. The Associated Press, 20 Jan. 2017. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.

Harkin, James. “The Race to Save Syria’s Archaeological Treasures.” Smithsonian Institution, 01 Mar. 2016. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.

“Palmyra’s Archaeological Heritage under ISIS Attack.” ARA News, 21 Jan. 2017. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.

Romey, Kristin. “Why Palmyra, Recently Liberated, Is a Historical Treasure.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 28 Mar. 2017. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.

“Syrian Archaeologist ‘killed in Palmyra’ by IS Militants.” BBC News. BBC, 19 Aug. 2015. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.


Further Reading:

Video showing more of Palmyra’s ruins before ISIS:

More on the destruction of the Temple of Baal:

More on the destruction of Palmyra:

List and descriptions of other sites ISIS has damaged or destroyed:

More on ISIS’ looting of antiquities to fuel the Iraq Insurgency:


Tollund Man: Peat Bogs Today and in the Iron Age

Tollund man, discovered in a bog in Denmark in 1950, is so well preserved that the two brothers who found him thought he was a recent murder victim. Based on carbon testing, he lived during the Iron age and died around 3-400 BC aged 30-40 years. After being hanged he was laid in the peat bog in a sheepskin cap, a belt, and a noose tied around his neck. Instead of decomposing, the peat moss killed bacteria and prevented the decomposition of the body.

Tollund Man’s Preserved Remains

Ever since Tollund man was found, both archeologists and the media have debated and posed questions about the manner of his death. Superficially, the circumstances of Tollund man’s death seems to correspond with a section of Tacitus’ later description of the Semnones, a germanic tribe. He wrote in the second century, that, “They hang traitors and renegades in trees, cowards, combat evaders (afraid to go to war) and unnaturally immoral people they lower into filthy swamps and cover them with branches”(“Why Did He Have to Die?”). However, Tacitus was writing about 400 years after Tollund man was left in the bog and Tollund man’s burial does not seem to line up with the burial of a criminal. Archeologists have pointed out that he was placed in the bog in a sleeping position. It is also likely that those who buried him closed his eyes and mouth after death. Because of this his death is often seen as a sacrifice to a god. Other bog bodies do not show the same special treatment that Tollund man’s does. The bodies of Kayhausen boy (500-100 B.C.) and Yde girl (54 B.C.-128 A.D.) may have had physical deformities that ultimately led to violent deaths. Yde girl’s hair was also shaved on one side a sign that she might have been an adulteress (French).

Tollund Man’s Preserved Head

Though Tollund man was likely put in the peat bog to be forgotten, either as a criminal or more likely as a sacrifice to the gods, it was this location that insured his preservation. Bogs are treasure troves for modern archeologist, and the artifacts recovered from them can often reveal information about people’s lives that would not otherwise survive. Bodies are not the only things found in peat bogs, archeologist and locals have also found jewelry, weaponry, battle armor, farming equipment, and even butter (French). In the peat surround the Tollund man two peat spades and a wooden walkway were also found (“The Bog Where the Tollund Man Was Discovered”). Reconstructed image of peat cutting during the Iron age, when Tollund Man would have lived. The existence of these artifacts also point to the important role that peat bogs also played for ancient cultures. It has been argued peat bogs, were seen as ‘gateways to the spiritual world’ as well as a source of fuels, as it is still seen today (French). All together the bog artifacts can indicate what peat bogs meant to Iron age cultures and can help unravel the continued questions that the Tollund man and other bog bodies pose.

Reconstructed image of peat-cutting during the Iron Age

French, Kristen C. “The Curious Case of the Bog Bodies – Issue 27: Dark Matter.” Nautilus. N.p., 06 Aug. 2015. Web. 02 Feb. 2017.
“Why Did He Have to Die?” The Tollund Man – Death. Silkeborg Museum and Amtscentret for Undervisning, 2004. Web. 02 Feb. 2017.
“The Bog Where the Tollund Man Was Discovered.” The Tollund Man – The Bog. Silkeborg Museum and Amtscentret for Undervisning, 2004. Web. 02 Feb. 2017.

Read More:
More on the Tollund Man:
Bog bodies and violence:
Bog bodies poetry and science: