The marvels of the ancient world and prehistory – cities, sites, landmarks, artifacts, artworks—are seriously at risk. How do we stop the ongoing loss and destruction of priceless sites and buildings, looting and theft of objects– the loss of world cultural heritage?
The problem’s been around for thousands of years: Alexander the Great, Nebuchadnezzar II the biblical king, Hannibal, Charlemagne, Napoleon, the Nazis, the Soviets and countless others sought to enlarge their power base, crush the will of others, and take whatever they could plunder as entitlements from vanquishing their opponents.
Scroll through the bad news to see (below) the good news — about some of the boldest technologies now being used — and how museums, universities, archeologists and the international courts are offering solutions.
Persepolis, whose ruins rest at the foot of Kuh-e Rahmat (Mountain of Mercy) in south-western Iran, is among the world’s greatest archaeological sites. After looting it of its treasure, Alexander burned the city to the ground in 330 BC.
Hammurabi’s ancient code of laws –– shaped in a stele that was broken in three parts, was looted as the spoils of war in the 12th century BC, then discovered in 1901 in the city of Susa, and shipped to the Louvre in Paris! Many more archeological finds in Susa ended up in France through a cooperative agreement.
The famed Quadriga (four horses) of San Marco arrived in Venice as “loot” from the conquest of Constantinople in 1204 (end of the 4th Crusade), then appropriated by Napoleon in 1797 to sit atop the Arc du Carrousel (in the Tuileries in Paris) and eventually returned to Venice in 1815 after his loss at Waterloo!
“Cultural cleansing is a war crime…” Irina Bokova (UNESCO)
Ancient cities, sites and religious monuments have been leveled, out of radical fervor or sheer malice –examples in recent years:
- Destruction of the two monumental 6th-century Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 during the Afghan Civil War. Here’s a 3D re-creation with light filled image
- Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra , a crossroads of cultures, virtually destroyed by ISIS fighters in 2015. Ancient wonders as the Temple of Bel, the Temple of Baal Shamin, the Arch of Triumph, and columns in the Valley of the Tombs were reduced to rubble; and ISIS beheaded the 82-year-old head of antiquities, Khalid al-As’ad for refusing to share the location of a sculpture.
An April 2016 photo essay by Bryan Denton in the New York Times shows the damage and destruction in Palmyra.
- Sites and cultural treasures in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria–Kabul, Mosul, Nineveh, Nimrud, Mosul, Raqqa, Aleppo — have been damaged or destroyed in several wars. See the ArtNet story
- Some 15,000 rare objects were looted or destroyed in Baghdad Iraq’s National Museum. About one-quarter were recovered from Lebanon, Jordan, and the U.S. when the museum reopened in 2015 .
- French Republic of Mali (West Africa) rare and valuable manuscripts in libraries were destroyed in an act of “libricide” and destruction of Muslim mausoleums by extremists at Timbuktu, Mali. UNESCO paid to repair the mausoleums, but the documents are gone.
Looting for profit has huge impacts worldwide. Armed conflicts give license to militias and radical sects such as ISIL (ISIS)to loot treasures as revenue for weapons. “[Syrian artifacts] are being looted straight from the ground,” said Dr. Al-Azm, professor at Shawnee State University (OH) and a former antiquities official in Syria. “They have never been seen. The only evidence we have of their existence is if someone happens to post a picture of them.” Other artifacts for sale come from Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. See the New York Times story. Looting and drug cartels also seem to work hand in glove.
Not-so-new problems–but ones that are accelerating in the 21st century – include poor management of sites, deterioration from climate change and overtourism, and lack of stewardship in places like Rome, the ancient trade city of Petra (Jordan) and Venice.
Climate change is threatening archeological and environmental sites in the Arctic. A study shows that “intensification of permafrost thaw and coastal erosion….are damaging and destroying a wide range of cultural and environmental archives around the Arctic.” Read the full report
Looters and destroyers don’t just live in the Middle East. They’re everywhere. The remains of the 13th- century Ancestral Pueblans in Arizona (the Anasazi) can now only be viewed with an official permit but it hasn’t stopped interlopers who want access. The Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde and cave dwellings at Bandelier National Monument both endured 150 years of looting.
There are wanton acts of destruction by thrillseekers. An egregious example was videotaped by Scout leaders who toppled a 170-million-year-old rock formation in a Utah state park and then high-fived and cheered about it. (See the video)
When we lose objects and sites, we lose the way back – the context– to the rich material culture that helps us understand peoples, religions and cultures.
You’ve seen and heard enough! What can we do?
“The documentation of cultural heritage in areas affected by conflict or natural disasters, including through the use of new digital technologies, is a critical step to preserve the memory of our past and mitigate the risk of possible damage or loss of precious cultural assets.”
Francesco Bandarin, Assistant Director-General for Culture, UNESCO
Technologies that detect, protect and recover
An impressive array of technologies is now in place–satellite imaging, LiDAR(light detection and ranging), laser photography, and 3-d digital imaging are being used to record sites, or locate hidden, camouflaged sites and below-ground assets; to map actual looting of sites for valuables ; develop highly detailed image banks, using both laser conventional and 3-d imaging Here’s a few examples:
NASA satellite imaging (430 miles up) in 2015 confirmed the presence of extensive mounds, ramparts and trenches of the so-called Steppe Geoglyphs in oil-rich Kazakhstan (2015), first spotted by archeology enthusiast Dmitri Dey on Google Earth some years before, and likely from the period of the nomadic Mahandzhar prehistoric culture (7,000-5,000 BC). Satellite and drone imaging are invaluable to identify and plan protection of sites that predate civilized societies. These findings led to archeological excavations with finds from the Neolithic period. National Geographic News
Pioneering space archaeologist Dr. Sarah H. Parcak, an Egyptologist, and founder of the Laboratory for Global Observation, at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, is using satellite imagery to discover sites and document looting. As a winner of the 2016 Ted Prize she got $1 million to fulfill her wish — “find and protect the world’s hidden heritage.” She is creating “an online interactive citizen science platform” that allows anyone with a computer to look at sites by location (not on a map to prevent looting). Watch Sarah’s TED talk. She’s sharing her data with experts to do additional research and alerts to looting. She and her team have “ found potential new pyramids and looting at 267 sites in Egypt with more than 250,000 looting pits. At that rate, she said, all of Egypt’s sites would be damaged by 2040.” Smithsonian article
LiDAR , the airborne laser scanning technology, reveals landscapes with high-precision elevation maps. It was notably used in 2013 over Cambodia to survey three areas: Angkor (better known as Angkor Wat) and two adjacent areas. Researchers led by Dr. Damian Evans, used LiDAR (light detection and ranging) to “unearth” large, previously undetected urban areas that once surrounded the temples. While thought of as a worship site, Angkor revealed itself to be a city with urban grids and roads, comparable in size to Sydney or Los Angeles. Guardian article
Detailed 3-D laser imaging of sites and structures is a strategic element of conservation planning: having a comprehensive, detailed set of images – “just in case” –for restoring and reconstructing places that are destroyed by disasters and war.
The ruins of ancient Babylon (Iraq) –possibly Iraq’s most famous archeological site – were laser-scanned in 2010 under the aegis of the World Monuments Fund and Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. Two German photographers in flak jackets captured the images in a four-day trip: the Ishtar Wall (some 2600 years old) and the remains of the Nabu-sha-Khare Temple The Babylon project was prescient, because “ you never know, there might be a problem in the future.”
In fact, Babylon suffered extensive damage during the 2003 invasion of Iraq in Saddam Hussein’s era, by US and Polish forces who used the ancient city as a depot and filled sandbags with ancient rubble. The site is 83 km south of Baghdad and was later bypassed by ISIS (the Islamic State).
In other places, ISIS managed to loot and destroy multiple, famed sites and artistic holdings in Iraq and Syria, including Nimrud and Hatra, the ancient city of Nineveh (outskirts of Mosul)
Groups are making 3-D digital records as a multi-purpose tool: Two pioneering groups in particular, are taking deep dives into creating digital records of endangered ancient sites.
The Institute for Digital Archaeology, founded by Executive Director Roger Michel, and housed at Oxford University, is creating a permanent, open-access archive of humanity’s history – known as the Million Image Database— by equipping volunteers with 3-D cameras to visit and document cultural sites throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The data bank allows for immersive visualization of sites, ancient cities, ruins and artworks – and makes possible 3-D printing for restoration or reconstruction of lost structures and artifacts.
Individuals and institutions can contribute images through social media or by mail! The goal? a Google Earth for heritage.
IDA is widely known for the full-scale replica it created of the Triumphal Arch in Palmyra –once one of the most vital trading centers in the ancient world, with links to India, China and Persia—virtually destroyed by the Islamic State. The Arch has been exhibited in a dozen major world cities, with a kickoff in London in 2015, at the G7 Summit in Florence, and most recently in Bern, Switzerland, for the 70th anniversary of the Swiss Commission for UNESCO.
CyArk, based in Oakland, Calif., was founded by Mosul-born Iraqi-American engineer Ben Kacyra, whose passion for preservation, and love of ancient Assyrian sites such as Nimrud and Nineveh, led him to establish this nonprofit to do 3-D digital preservation of sites in Syria and Iraq, and expand into neighboring countries.
LiDAR scans collect billions of datapoints that can be used to produce accurate engineering drawings and maps that address damage, destruction or disaster situations. Data sets are sent to Iron Mountain’s secure facility in Pennsylvania (USA).
Check out the project database for over 200 sites on all 7 continents where CyArk has done data capture: from Carthage (Tunisia) to Antarctica, Historic New Orleans to Chankillo (the earliest astronomical observatory in the Americas), Teotíhuacan to Pompeii
Steps to preserve cultural heritage and traditions
Endangered ancient and prehistoric sites, landscapes, and assets exist all over the world. There will never be enough rangers or cadres of volunteers to protect prehistoric sites , ancient cities and valued objects from looting and destruction.
But there are intrepid preservationists, NGOs and governments that stand up for cultural patrimony – the Earth’s “cultural commons” – places and human-made sites that are indispensable to our sense of who we are and where we come from.
Laws and Protections
UNESCO’s World Heritage Program shines a bright light on the most valuable, endangered and fragile places around the world where early cities, sites, and material cultural are threatened. The 1972 World Heritage Convention links together in a single document the concepts of nature conservation and the preservation of cultural properties, and preserve a balance between them. Read the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. Each country that signs the convention makes a pledge – to conserve the World Heritage Sites on its territory and also to protect its national heritage. The World Heritage Sites are determined through a review process; sites are nominated and added every year. Search the list of sites. The World Heritage Fund is a mechanism to assist in their protection or restoration. Check out the 54 most endangered sites.
The idea that malicious cultural cleansing (destruction) of sites and historic buildings is a war crime has resonance in the Europe and US, but much more difficult to implement through courts in affected nations. The International Criminal Court in The Hague stepped up for an unprecedented case against a radical Islamic militant brought to trial for the 2012 destruction of historic mausoleums built over the tombs of Muslim holy men—called the “heart of Mali’s culture” — and the “libricide”of rare and valuable manuscripts in Mali’s northern city of Timbuktu. The radical Islamic cleric pleaded guilty and was sentenced in September 2016 to 9 years in prison. This is an important case: Notes the New York Times: “the court’s first prosecution of cultural heritage as a war crime.” In 2017 the ICC further established that the defendant was responsible for $3.2 million in reparations. The prosecutor used graphics from a new digital platform designed by the New York firm Situ Research supported by grant money from the MacArthur Foundation and the Geneva-based Oak Foundation. Read the Guardian story
Preserving Byzantine Heritage: A Charter for the Protection of the Byzantine Heritage Monuments was signed in late 2018 by more than 20 countries that hold material culture and materials from the Byzantine Empire, which spanned three continents during its 11-century reign. The charter aims to protect, study and record the holdings. Turkey and Macedonia (also known as FYYROM) have yet to sign the charter.
The Pont d’Arc, Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche region of France possesses the earliest known and best preserved figures of animals, human handprints, and images, estimated to be some 35,000 years old, created by our ancestors. In 2014 the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO designated the Pont d’Arc as a cultural site worthy of special protection.
The French learned a bitter lesson from Lascaux, another famous site of cave art with tourist interaction at the site that proved disastrous. Lascaux’s wall paintings were “infected” by bacteria carried on tourists’ feet, and increased humidity from respiration.
In a daring act of conservation, the French sealed the Pont d’Arc after allowing filmmaker Werner Herzog to produce a 3-D film (see the trailer) and then created the beautiful Chauvet Cave, a completely immersive replica museum — a $55-million project open to the public– that recreates the original cave and its contents as an immersive experience, with meticulously painted images by artisans using the 3-d cave photography. Learn more from our Green News Update story.
Turquoise Mountain Project
Decades of civil unrest left the old city of Kabul, Afghanistan, in ruins. Historically, it had been in a key position on the Silk Road from Europe to China, and a vibrant center of artistic culture that integrated all forms of arts and crafts. An exhibition at the Sackler Museum, in Washington DC in 2016-17, highlighted the exceptional talent and commitment of a new generation to preserve arts and culture.
The British non-governmental organization Turquoise Mountain, founded in 2006 at the request of HRH The Prince of Wales and the President of Afghanistan, has transformed the Murad Khani district of Old Kabul from slum conditions into a vibrant cultural and economic center.
“Turquoise Mountain’s aim is to preserve and regenerate historic areas and communities with a rich cultural heritage and to revive traditional crafts, to create jobs, skills and a renewed sense of pride.” Step inside the classrooms of Turquoise Mountain with this 360-degree experience
The organization has renovated some 150 historic buildings, opened a primary school and a medical clinic that has treated 120,000 patients; and rebuilt necessary infrastructure. It has founded Afghanistan’s premier institution for vocational training in the art, trained over 6,000 artisans, and graduated hundreds of talented artisans. Dedicated to creating a new generation of Afghan artisans in woodwork, calligraphy, ceramics, jewelry design, and other crafts, Turquoise Mountain is reviving the nation’s proud cultural legacy. And they’ve moved on to projects in Myanmar, Saudia Arabia and Jordan. You can check out all of their exhibitions, including several currently on view.
Now there’s training to establish a new generation of Afghan artisans who are calligraphers, woodworkers, ceramists, jewelry designers and more
The importance of museum collections
A half-dozen museums in Europe, the US and Iraq contain extensive and breathtaking examples of Middle East cultural heritage dating to ancient art from Mesopotamia (Iraq), Iran, the Levant, Assyrian reliefs, treasure from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, the Oxus Treasure, Phoenician ivories and cuneiform tablets, as well as friezes, and large-scale architectural constructions.
Many are the result of archeological excavations conducted in the 19th century by French, British, German and US scholars and archeologists. A rough estimate would be one million or more pieces , both from excavations, as well as gifts from private collectors.
Most institutions are engaged in ongoing research, active teaching programs, and exhibitions of selections from the permanent holdings, as well as study rooms with access to objects for scholars.
We can discuss – and argue – about the removal of so much cultural heritage from in situ and the implications for people of all backgrounds who want access to their cultural heritage.
Today, in light of the past 20 years, with wars in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, North Africa, and countless acts of terrorism by the Islamic State (Isis), we need to review long-held opinions. Where once the French or Germans were considered interlopers removing precious artifacts, today the holdings in these public institutions are safe from destruction by radical terrorists and irrational acts of destruction. The bigger question going forward is access for all — through online databases, 3-D constructions, online and interactive exhibitions, classroom experiences and curricula integrating heritage and cultural history.
Resources to learn more:
The priceless history of the Middle East, Spain, and North Africa seen through the lens of world museums. Here are your entry points to explore the astonishing cultural heritage that has been preserved — and is being studied, displayed and loaned to other institutions — in these world institutions:
Museumsinsel [Museum Island, multiple museums]Berlin was reflected in its recognition by UNESCO as a place of World Cultural Heritage in 1999.
Pergamon Museum : Highlights: The massive architectural reconstructions of the colorful Ishtar Gate, incorporates fragments from the gateway unearthed in Babylon in the early 1900s; and Processional Way of Babylon, dating from the time of Nebuchadnezzar II (6th century BCE); and earliest written documents known to humankind: cuneiform scripts on clay tablets from Uruk, dating from the late 4th millennium BCE. About the collections
The Vorderasiatisches Museum (Museum of the Ancient Near East): With over 600,000 objects, the Vorderasiatisches is the only museum specializing in the history and material culture of ancient Near Eastern civilizations in the German-speaking region and is one of the largest museums of its kind in the world. The extensive collections from archeological excavations in Iraq and Syria (e.g. Assur, Babylon, Uruk; Tell Halaf, Habuba Kabira),
The Museum für Islamische Kunst (Museum of Islamic Art) boasts one of the most outstanding collections of Islamic art outside the Islamic world. Brings together masterpieces of the decorative arts and archaeological artefacts created by Muslim peoples and the Christian and Jewish groups living with and among them, dating from the 7th to the 19th century.
Monumental architectural works, some preserved in their entirety, without parallel in any other museum of its kind: the intricately decorated stone façade of the caliph’s palace of Mshatta (Jordan, ca. 740) and the famous Aleppo Room with its brightly painted wood panelling (Syria, 1600).
The British Museum: Department of the Middle East covers the ancient and contemporary civilizations and cultures of the Middle East from the Neolithic period until the present. Approximately 330,000 objects in the collection of the Department of the Middle East. A representative selection of around 4,500 objects, including the most important pieces, is on display. Search the collections
Wide range of archaeological material and ancient art from Mesopotamia (Iraq); Iran; the Levant (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel); Anatolia (Turkey); Arabia; Central Asia and the Caucasus. Highlights of the collection include Assyrian reliefs, treasure from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, the Oxus Treasure, Phoenician ivories and the library of cuneiform tablets from Nineveh.
The Islamic collection includes archaeological assemblages from Iraq, Iran and Egypt as well as collections of inlaid metalwork from medieval Iran, Syria and Egypt and Iznik ceramics from Turkey.
The Louvre: Department of Near Eastern Antiquities stems from 19th-century excavations in western Asia by French diplomats and scholars The world’s first “Assyrian Museum” opened at the Louvre in 1847; annexed to the Department of Antique, it displayed 37 monumental bas-reliefs discovered by Paul-Emile Botta, the French consul in Mosul, at the site of Khorsabad.
Ancient Iranian civilizations represented in this department by works from excavations at Susa (a city founded around 4000 BC): reached its peak with the works of Darius and Xerxes, the great kings of the Persian Empire. In 1886, the first elements of the polychrome brick decoration of the Palace of Darius, The archaeological mission led by Jacques de Morgan discovered the Code of Hammurabi. Collection highlights online
Penn Museum, University of Pennsylvania: The museum has a long history of fieldwork in the Middle East, beginning with the late 19th century excavations at Nippur, early Mesopotamia’s pre-eminent religious center (Iraq). The Nippur excavations were the first American archaeological project in that part of the world. Since that time, the Museum has worked in nearly every country in the Middle East, with research including not only archaeological surveys and excavations, but also ethnographic studies.The Babylonian Section houses a collection of almost 30,000 clay tablets inscribed in Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform, making it one of the ten largest collections in the world.
NEW YORK CITY
The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art was formally established in 1956. The collection of Islamic art is considered the most comprehensive in the world, with more than 12,000 of the finest objects, dating from the seventh to the 20th century and reflecting the cultural and geographic sweep of historic Islamic civilization, which extends as far west as Spain, Morocco, and Senegal and as far east as India, Southeast Asia, and China.
The first ancient Near Eastern objects to enter The Met collection—Assyrian stone reliefs, cuneiform tablets, and stamp and cylinder seals—were acquired in the late 1800s. A separate Department of Near Eastern Art, comprising both the pre-Islamic and Islamic eras, was formed in 1932. Public programs
The National Museum was reopened in 2015, 12 years after the US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. Some 15,000 objects were looted or destroy; about one-quarter were returned from US, Jordan and elsewhere. National Geographic story