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Performing destruction: cultural heritage, looting and ISIS

Katherine Kinkopf, Ph.D. student, anthropology | November 9, 2015

If you use Twitter or Facebook, you’ve likely seen hundreds of news articles, reports, videos, and blog posts on the violent destruction of cultural heritage that has intensified in Syria during the past few months. As an archaeologist, my news-feeds are always a-buzz with the latest updates on all things archaeology — but it’s not what you might think: last month a federal grand jury in Fresno indicted a California doctor who looted more than 30,000 archaeological artifacts from Death Valley National Parks and other nearby federal lands. This illegal and unethical treatment of the Native Californian material past by a respected local doctor didn’t make national news, but is a serious crime against Indigenous sovereignty and human rights and the history and archaeology of California.

still from "Monuments Men"

In “The Monuments Men,” an Allied team attempts to save artworks from the Nazis.

Some of the earliest recorded instances of grave robbing, temple destruction, and looting are recorded in the Hamurabi Code (Law 25), which is a well-known ancient Babylonian text. As an archaeologist, I am well aware of the ubiquity of looting. And thanks to mainstream movies like “The Monuments Men” (2014) and the Canadian Broadcast Company (CBC) documentary “Robbing the Cradle of Civilization” (2003), the general public is also more aware of archaeological and art looting.

I’m currently writing up a research project I worked on, which focused on looting activity at al-Widay near the ancient city of Kerma (in Northern Sudan). My research looks at looting as a human behavior contextualized by political atmosphere, religious ideology, and economic landscape. Sociologists and political sciences have stipulated that looting is a product of systemic poverty, the breakdown of law enforcement, and regional political crises.

Rather than writing off looting as “bad behavior,” I tried to look at looting as a human activity with temporal depth, in addition to considering it a politically, socially, and culturally meaningful process. And, I try to look at this through human remains recovered from a site that has been disturbed at multiple and irregular intervals over the past four thousand years.

Since May 2015, when militant members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took control of the UNESCO World Heritage site Palmyra, most of the articles crowding my newsfeed focus on the destruction of archaeological remains and human lives by ISIS militant groups.

Temple of Bel

The Roman-era Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria was demolished by ISIS. (Zeledi via Wikimedia Commons)

If you haven’t been following the violence at Palmyra, I’m referring specifically to the demolition of the Temple of Bel and the Temple of Baal Shamin, as well as the execution of Khaled al-As’ad, the retired Antiquities Director for Palmyra, and last month the destruction of the Triumphal, or Victory, Arch at the ancient site.

I’d like to clearly state that the violent behavior of the militant ISIS group occupying Palmyra is abhorrent — most people agree on this. But, I’m left wondering about the disparity in news coverage between ISIS-military destruction and domestic looting at archaeological sites.

Why is the news coverage of destruction at Palmyra more comprehensive than the coverage on illegal and unethical looting in the United States? I propose it’s because it is in the interests of the Islamophobic and anti-Muslim media agenda to fully illustrate the iniquities of ISIS.

A recent Washington Post article features the work of Jesse Casana (an archaeologist from Dartmouth), which shows that over a quarter of the archaeological sites they sampled in Syria were looted over an extended period of time before the start of Syrian War, in other words ISIS militants aren’t the only destroyers of archaeological sites in Syria. When major news channels frame the archaeology and history of Syria as communal (globally owned and relevant), it becomes easy to use ISIS-related destruction of cultural heritage as a metaphor for the larger political tensions between the United States government and the Islamic State.

Instead of contributing to this narrative, I want to challenge people to help prevent looting and destruction at archaeological sites at home and abroad. Don’t buy artifacts or archaeological materials online. Most of these are unethically obtained and contribute to the antiquities market, which fuels looting. Don’t watch the videos of destruction circulated by ISIS; these videos only seek to re-enact the violence they depict.

We should make efforts to preserve archaeological and cultural heritage sites — but not merely the grand monuments in a war zone. We should take this type of violence against shared history and culture seriously in all of its guises, at all scales.

In short, looting and the destruction of architecture (and the murder of human lives in the process) aren’t new; it’s been going on for thousands of years. I bring this up not to affirm this behavior or normalize it, but rather to place it within a larger historical context.

Looting isn’t rare. But what sets the destructive behavior in Syria apart from the more commonplace looting is the intention that it be re-performed on venues like YouTube and mainstream media channels, which circulate the videos produced by ISIS and in doing so promote violence, prejudice, and fear.

Comments to “Performing destruction: cultural heritage, looting and ISIS

  1. “Why is the news coverage of destruction at Palmyra more comprehensive than the coverage on illegal and unethical looting in the United States? I propose it’s because it is in the interests of the Islamaphobic and anti-Muslim media agenda to fully illustrate the iniquities of ISIS.”

    That is a rather paranoid thesis. The true reasons are simpler and far less sinister:

    1. Looting is different from wanton destruction. Looting is deplorable and destructive, but the very act of stealing is an acknowledgment that the artifacts being taken have value. What ISIS did is even worse: Driven by willful, nihilistic malevolence, they simply obliterated artifacts (and people).

    2. In the US, looting is forbidden and punished by the state; with ISIS, the destruction of undesirable people and things is championed and celebrated (in video, for the world to see!) by the state.

    3. Domestic looters aren’t a geopolitical threat; ISIS is.

    In short, to equate isolated acts of looting in the US to the large-scale depradations of the murderous death cult of ISIS would be moral relativism at its most egregious.

  2. I think your article is mostly wrong-headed. Of course I agree we should be condemning all looting and destruction. But the outcry against ISIS’ destruction is perfectly justified without reference to anything else. It is hateful nihilism pure and simple, part of a cultural rage. The general public outrage in Europe and the USA has nothing to do with the putative “Islamophobia” you cite within western culture. It is justifiable horror at the actual crime being committed, and the word “desecration” ought to be used by those of us who value the continuity of all human cultural heritage.

    Donna’s desire to preserve perspective about the “big picture” is a cop-out. The big picture actually is that the hate within ISIS will manifest itself murderously on a huge scale, killing real people wherever and whenever it can, whereas the greed behind other “grave-robbing”-style looting is not personal, but amoral profiteering, without murderous intent. If one doesn’t appreciate the enrichment of our planet’s culture through preservation of such artifacts, one doesn’t have respect for the “big picture” about human life, which very much includes culture. It is not our reaction which adds fuel to the fire, it is the commission of these horrendous acts.

    By the way, I get almost as angry over the erasure of Hatshepsut’s memory, the burning of the library at Alexandria, and the blowing up of the Parthenon, no matter how culturally understandable, incidental or accidental those tragedies might have been.

    Your categorization of the conflict in which the Palmyra destruction was committed as “political tensions between the United States and the Islamic State” will be seen by any decent person as completely bankrupt morally in its abhorrent relativism. Your best point is that we should direct our indignation as well to the “minor” looting all over the world that so far governments have been relatively powerless to stifle. But the context rather supports judgment that ISIS’ behavior is particularly despicable.

  3. Well said … many videos and pictures are shown on our social media. One thing I do not succumb to is watching it … that is exactly what they want. I know the majority, not thinking of the “big picture” does watch it and it adds fuel to the fire. On a personal front, I do get very upset when “we” put artifacts above the human life….

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