On an Unpopular Opinion, or Break It So No One Buys It

The Islamic State tweeted video (not linked because I don’t approve of snuff films) of pieces from the Mosul Museum being shattered, smashed, destroyed.  My undergraduate education was capped off with research on an early Old Babylonian site that was looted and destroyed in the events surrounding the second Iraq War. I find this wanton destruction terribly heartbreaking.

Heartbreaking for the people of Iraq who love their country and its heritage deeply. For the art historians, archaeologists, curators, and conservators who have watched their work (and the basis for their work) be destroyed on Twitter (which, if they’re stodgy olds like me, has to add some salt to the wound). For scholars and students the world over. For the world. This is just depressing.

The pieces destroyed were either plaster casts (which is common in museums throughout the world; it takes a keen eye to spot the best fakes) or the real things, I’m not sure. I read somewhere that reproductions were smashed and the real artifacts were sold on the black market. If so, I have to give credit to the artisans in IS for being able to make such nice looking statues and plaques. It takes time, effort, and skill to create museum-worthy casts. A tip of the hat to their exhibition staff for working hard to create the objects wrecked in the Twitter propaganda piece. The cinematographer and editor need to work on their skills, though. IS has obviously not found their Riefenstahl. [\sarcasm]

What I am sure of (***unpopular opinion alert***) is that I’d rather see artifacts destroyed for propaganda purposes than chiseled off their bases, sold on the black market with forged or faked reports, and the revenue used to fund the IS war machine. Don’t get me wrong: I am not okay with the destruction of antiquities or the literal erasing of cultural heritage. It sucks, truly and absolutely sucks, to be able to identify the iconography, time period and medium of an artifact as it crashes to the ground or meets the business end of a circular saw. I am, however, more not okay with role that black market sales have in adding millions to fund this reign of terror. We have documents and artifacts detailing and illustrating the history of Iraq that can be used to perpetuate knowledge of the ancient Near East. We cannot revive the thousands of men, women, and children who have been murdered by the weapons, ammo and soldiers paid for by the coins, seals, tablets and statues snuck over the Jordanian, Syrian, and Turkish borders in the dark of night.

The grass is brown on both sides of the fence. It is a complete fantasy to believe that PR office-generated calls to action and urgent pleas for the madness to stop from museum directors, academics, or UNESCO will do anything to stem the tide of shards, fragments, and dust. Yes, ideally, I want cultural heritage resources to be untouched in times of war. But I’d rather have broken statues than a better-armed, better-fed, and better-funded group of under-educated, culturally ignorant cowboys playing smashy-smashy as they move from town to town to rape, pillage, and murder.


2 thoughts on “On an Unpopular Opinion, or Break It So No One Buys It

  1. Its a tough one but I see where you are coming from on this, I would also rather they didn’t get the funds from looting and selling the artefacts but as someone with an MA in archaeology it hurts inside to see them destroy our heritage irrevocably. 😦


    1. I was starting my undergraduate thesis on early Old Babylonian glyptics when Bush decided to play cowboy and forgot to have his generals tell their underlings to guard the museums and not use the ziggurat for target practice. I was planning on getting my PhD in the field then was all “You know, spending seven years on this degree, going tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and probably never getting a tenured post to study an active warzone maybe isn’t the smartest idea.” So I got my masters in information and library science and became an archivist instead. I can only hope that IS’s bulldozing skills and amateur archaeology is as good as their film work and that they’ve managed to miss a few things along the way.


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