The human toll of the conflict in Syria and Iraq is clear enough from news reports of the exodus of refugees. The artistic toll, by contrast, is perceived more dimly, through comparative satellite images of territory held by ISIS.
An exhibit at the American Association for the Advancement of Science—“Ancient History/Modern Destruction: Using Science and Technology to Study Cultural Heritage Loss”—relates the largely untold story of scholars and technical experts who are trying, against the geopolitical odds, to save ancient structures and items of historical importance from the ravages of war and zealotry.
While artistic treasures are at risk in almost any wartime situation—and while attempts have been made to protect them under international law over the years—attacking cultural legacies is a particularly important goal for ISIS. As the exhibit notes, one of the first things the group did when it took over Mosul, Iraq, was to destroy all traces of the large complex that was believed to be the tomb of Jonah, the Biblical figure who was swallowed by a large fish.
Where the fighting is too intense, or the controlling authorities too brutal to engage with, technology has taken on a growing importance. Satellites can estimate the amount of looting by tracking the size of dirt piles. Drones, flying much lower, can provide even higher-resolution images, such as those of the now-pockmarked landscape of an Early Bronze Age cemetery site in Jordan known as a repository of ceramic pitchers.
In one of the cleverest innovations, artworks, including three-dimensional pieces, can now be scanned and thus recreated at a later date if they are destroyed.
Other times, lower-tech solutions can play a role. The exhibit tells of efforts to safeguard mosaics at one museum in Syria that involved covering them with water-soluble glue and polyethylene fiber, then fortified by sandbags. Apparently, such measures helped them survive an air assault by forces loyal to president Bashar al-Assad. Such techniques are being taught as “emergency measures” to local officials and volunteers.
The biggest gut-punch in the exhibit comes from the story of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria. Since May 2015, according to the exhibit, ISIS has destroyed temples and “tower tombs” in the previously well-preserved site, as well as beheading people in an ancient amphitheater and blowing up architectural columns while their enemies were lashed to them. In one particularly chilling pair of satellite images, a large structure at the center of the site has been erased to nothing.
Good luck to the scholars and technologists participating in the protection effort. You’ll need it.
At the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1200 New York Ave., N.W. Monday to Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.