Thursday, 19 April 2018

Destruction at the Ancient Site of Mari in Syria

Mary Shepperson writes in the Guardian (Thu 19 Apr 2018) of 'Destruction at the ancient site of Mari in Syria':
' The ancient city was one of the first archaeological sites to be occupied by Islamic State. Now new photos are revealing the fate of this important site as archaeologists continue to count the cultural cost of Isis
and so it goes on. Yet the actual evidence (highlighted by myself in this blog, and Sam Hardy elsewhere) is that the looting here did not begin under ISIL.
When Islamic State emerged, the part of Deir ez-Zor province in which [the already-looted PMB] Mari lies was one of the first areas to fall under its control in early 2014. Under IS, the site suffered an immediate explosion of looting; satellite images revealed the change from archaeological site to lunar landscape in a matter of months. More than 1,500 new looting pits were recorded at Mari between 2013 and 2015, likely representing the removal of a huge quantity of ancient objects, sold into the illegal antiquities market to fund Isis and its war. 
New looting pits identified at Mari between March and November 2014.
 Dense areas of disturbance can be in the central and northern areas of the site.
Photograph: Courtesy of the Mission Archéologique Française de Mari 
The damage was also caused by neglect:

Mari was home to an extraordinary palace. The earliest major structure dates to around 2500-2300 BC, and part of this early palace was restored and preserved at the site, providing a unique opportunity to walk through a third millennium BC Mesopotamian palace, standing almost to its roof beams. This palace area is now very badly damaged. Its protective roof was compromised by a sand storm in 2011 [which of course was in no way connected with ISIL], and the security situation at that time left it impossible to make repairs, but the recently released photos show that large parts of the palace’s 2m thick walls have now collapsed. Prof Pascal Butterlin, who directed excavations at the site up until 2010, believes such a level of destruction suggests that explosives, either ground based or more likely from air strikes, were probably involved, adding to the damage caused by looting for financial gain.
Butterlin gave a paper detailing the plight of Mari at the International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East conference in Munich two weeks ago, to general dismay.

The palace of Mari as  it was in 2008, with walls standing 5m high  under a protective roof (left),  and the
 palace as it appears in the new photos released by the Syrian  Directorate-General of Antiquities and
Museums, showing a pile of mudbrick rubble and the remains of the collapsed roof (right) .
Photograph: Mary Shepperson / Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums website 

The author points out that the later palace at Mari built in around 1800 BC by the Lim dynasty  has provided the most complete picture available of the life of a royal palace and the functioning of a Bronze Age city state. It is very important for the archives of (25 000)  cuneiform tablets of this period that its ruins contained, but these too seem likely (note: she offers no proof) to have been looted
The texts preserved on the tablets have left us the names of the rulers of Mari, provided a wealth of detail about the city and its people, and opened an exceptional window on the politics and diplomacy of the ancient Near East through the preservation of royal letters between the kings of Mari and the rulers of neighbouring kingdoms.   [...] It’s impossible to tell how much more of this history may have been hacked out of the ground by the IS-sponsored looters, written on tablets which were sold to fund the fighting.  
Of course cunieformists will point out that because the isolated objects that they study are addressed sources (made specifically to contain information transmitted to the viewer/handler) 'the names of the rulers of Mari' and the textual aspects of that 'wealth of detail about the city and its people', are still available to those who study the looted items in the copious private artefact hoard of Arthur Avarice the property developer and artefact collector. The question is should ethical academics be stooping to handle such items in the first place?

Shepperson ends:
Given the wonders of the palace of Mari and the importance of this site, it’s disappointing that the destruction of the palace and the plundering of the site in search of tablets and other saleable objects hasn’t received more attention. The first explanation is that cultural destruction in the Middle East has been so widespread in recent years that it’s ceased to be news-worthy in all but the most extreme cases, which is a depressing thought. A second disadvantage Mari has over more high-profile sites, such as Palmyra, is that its buildings were made of mud, and not the classical stonework which produces photogenic ruins and screams its artistic worth to a general audience. Nevertheless, Mari deserves to be considered as a loss on the same scale as any of the more celebrated sites to have suffered during the Isis conflict. 

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