Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Performing destruction: cultural heritage, looting and ISIS

By Katherine Kinkopf

still from "Monuments Men"

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"

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

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.