The Destruction of Cultural Heritage as a Continuous Cycle: How the Destruction in Palmyra Shows It’s More Than Just About Inciting Fear.

The historic city of Palmyra, declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco and celebrated as the “Pearl of the Desert”, once served as a place of refuge for many travelers who traveled on the ancient trade route, Silk Road. Containing several ancient temples and sporting numerous, impressive Roman-Greek architecture, Palmyra was a crossroad to many civilizations and an epicenter of trade and the arts, where Greek, Roman, Persian, and Islamic cultures converged together to form the city’s unique heritage.

Considered the “Pearl of the Desert”, Palmyra is home to more than 100,000 people and myriad historical edifices.

Today, Palmyra, 150 miles northeast of Damascus, is a perilous area occupied by the notorious militant Islamic group, ISIS. Since May of 2015, ISIS, also known as Daesh, clashed with Syrian forces and took control of the city. In a matter of months, they targeted many of Palmyra’s historical sites, pillaging precious artifacts and destroying famed ancient architecture. In the course of their plunder, the 1,800 year-old Roman Arch of Triumph and the nearly 2,000 year old Temple of Baalshamin were completely destroyed and looted. Because of the ruthlessness of the regime under ISIS, attempts by domestic and foreign intervention to preserve remaining artifacts and sites of historical value were futile; the once highly profitable tourism industry in Palmyra also became non-existent as the area turned into an active war-zone, debilitating the lives of many local residents who depended on tourism for survival.

The Temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra, Syria before its destruction in 2015.

ISIS’s behavior in destroying and desecrating many of Palmyra’s archaeological sites does not surprise most historians and experts of cultural anthropology. Palmyra, which embodies Persian, Greek, Roman, and Islamic cultures, is an example of a multicultural and heterogeneous Syrian society that does not resonate well with the monolithic-minded views of the Islamic organization.  However, with recent discoveries, experts believe the unwarranted desecration of Palmyra serve a greater purpose than merely inciting psychological fear. Recent raids conducted by Syrian Army on ISIS installations reveal spreadsheets listing taxes derived from selling antiquities to wealthy, foreign buyers. The ISIS-controlled government, issuing permits to potential looters, authorized the plunder of historical sites for objects of interest and value within their boundaries, which then were sold and taxed by the government. Between 2014 to 2015, large amounts of stolen artifacts were sold as antiquities to black markets and galleries throughout the whole world, netting the Islamic State with more than $200,000 in taxes. The money collected from artifact taxation funds many of ISIS’s ventures—including the expansion of the Islamic State’s boundaries and the future desecration and appropriation of other historical sites.

Stolen artifacts recovered from the Syrian compound of an ISIS official during a US special operations raid.

The growing demand of stolen artifacts worry both archaeologists and politicians alike, as oppressive regimes and terrorist groups destroy and ransack historical sites for artifacts to be auctioned off in black markets. In a constant cycle of destruction and despoiling, the insatiable desire and growing market for artifacts appropriated from historical sites, including Palmyra, contribute to the growth of extremist regimes and the ruthless destruction of invaluable archaeological sites.

Additional Reading:



Bilefsky, Dan. “ISIS Destroys Part of Roman Theater in Palmyra, Syria,” New York Times, January 20, 2017. Accessed October 28, 2017.

Van Bokkem, Rachel. “History in Ruins: Cultural Heritage Destruction around the World.” Perspectives on History, April 2017. Accessed 28, 2017.

Terracotta Army Archaeology: Understanding of Ancient Military and Production Strategies

In 1974, near the Chinese city of Xi’an in the Shaanxi Province, several local villagers made a tremendous archaeological discovery while digging a well: the Terracotta Army. These clay-based figures, standing in battle formations of thousands in three pits, are the lasting reminders of an ancient civilization more than two millennia old. Every warrior, life-size and sporting unique and distinct facial characteristics, was built to serve the notorious first emperor of China, Qin Xi Huang, in the afterlife. The Terracotta soldiers are organized into various militarized units—foot soldiers, archers, chariot battalions, and armored units.

The Terracotta Army is extremely important to modern archaeology for its insights into the ancient Chinese society of the Qin Dynasty. Much can be learned about the level of technological advancement and the infamous military of Qin Dynasty by studying the distinctive and notable formations of the warriors as well as the weapons and tools found alongside them.

The pits containing the Army provide myriad information regarding the military tactics and formations of units employed by Emperor Qin Xi Huang during his reign.

A chariot battalion from the Terracotta Army pits.

The presence of an agile and maneuverable vanguard containing chariots, infantry, and the cavalry preceding the main echelon of troops pointed to the idea that military strategists of the past were very much aware of the capricious conditions of the battlefield and relied on mobile units to quickly adapt. Furthermore, the diverse weaponry found with the figures allowed archaeologists to infer that each unit, armed with multiple weapons, evolved to play diverse support roles when necessary, filling in the weak and vulnerable spots of the army during ambushes or sieges.

The bronze weapons found with the Terracotta Army also resolved the quandary of whether or not the bronzesmiths of the time mass-produced or individually crafted weapons used by the army. Due to the nature of the size of the massive army and the uniformity of the weapons, it was assumed by many archaeologists that ancient China employed some form of an assembly line.

Arrowheads recovered from Terracotta Army pits.

However, with the help of an X-ray fluoresce spectrometer, archaeologists measured the chemical compositions of some tens of thousands of arrowheads collected from the pits, coming to the conclusion that weapons of the Qin Dynasty were created in multiple workshops individually and debunking the idea that Qin bronzesmiths employed mass-producing assembly lines.

By studying artifacts gathered from the Terracotta Army, modern archaeologists learned much regarding the military and the level of technological advancements of an ancient Chinese society. Through the careful study and the understanding of the Terracotta Army formations and the use of modern-day X-ray fluoresce spectrum imagery, archaeologists gained insights into the military tactics and production methods employed by ancient China under Emperor Qin Xi Huang..

Further Readings:


Jarus, Owen. “Terracotta Warriors: An Army for the Afterlife,” Live Science, November 28, 2016.

“Military Formation of Terracotta Army.” Travel China Guide.

Pinkowski, Jennifer. “Chinese terra cotta warriors had real, and very carefully made, weapons,” The Washington Post, November 26, 2012.