Friday 29 November 2013

Destruction of Heritage and Spikes of Violence in Iraq

A Melbourne academic is in Iraq helping to restore as much as possible of the country's ransacked cultural heritage resulting from the widespread destruction and looting of the archaeological sites of the country to fuel the global no-questions-asked market in dugup antiquities. He hopes to identify those sites damaged between 2003 and 2011, the years of the U-S-led occupation.
Ben Isakhan aims to create the world's first database of those damaged heritage sites and create a path to restore what can be restored. Dr Isakhan, working with a grant from the Australian Research Council, has enlisted a team of Iraqi and U-S specialists to conduct the sweeping, three-year project. The estimation is that there's about half-a-million archaeological sites across Iraq. [...] But Dr Isakhan is also pursuing another goal with his project, revealed in its title: Measuring the Destruction of Heritage and Spikes of Violence in Iraq. He and his team want to find if there is empirical evidence that can establish a clear link between the destruction of heritage sites and increases in the human toll in a conflict.
The idea seems to be to investigate the proposition that "failure to protect cultural heritage sites will lead to an escalation in violence", and if this is proven, to use the results to get nations to adopt policies and protocols that make sure that heritage sites are protected during times of conflict, because it's in everybody's best interests.  He cites the example of the renowned Islamic mosques and shrines hit by bombings during the occupation as certain groups hoped to benefit from turning Shiite Muslims against Sunni Muslims and vice versa.
In 2006, the bombing of the Shiites' revered Al-Askari mosque, a stunning, golden-domed mosque from the Abassid era, appeared to trigger an abrupt rise in killings. Deadly reprisal attacks on other religious, cultural and historic sites followed, and the trusted, independent Iraq Body Count lists soaring death tolls over the next two years. Research so far in Dr Isakhan's project shows, within the first 24 hours after the Al-Askari bombing, 35 mosques were targeted -- and so were Sunni citizens. The project will use the Iraq Body Count database in trying to prove the relationship between the targeting of the ethno-religious sites and ensuing spikes in violence. But even if the long-assumed connection can be proved, Dr Isakhan admits it will be hard to influence militias, sectarian groups and what he calls other bad guys.
There is however another interesting point made in the article: 

Isakhan suggests, once antiquities are taken from the ground, they instantly lose 90 per cent of their scientific value. And he says, to fully understand the loss, the short history of archaeological excavation in Iraq and the slow, painstaking pace of archaeological excavation must be understood. Dr Isakhan says everything archaeologists know about ancient Mesopotamia is based on probably less than half a million objects excavated over a century. And he suggests what takes archaeologists years to excavate scientifically, in pursuit of context, can take looters days to dig up in pursuit of items for the black market. "In the time since 2003 that the looting has gone on across Iraq, there would be many times more than those relics that we have that have been unsystematically taken out of the ground. Now that means that, if everything we know is based on less than half a million objects, and let's say two million objects have been taken out of the ground, then four times as much as we know about ancient Mesopotamia we know we don't know." 
Ron Sutton, 'Aussie leads project to measure Iraq's heritage destruction' World News Australia Radio 25 Nov 2013

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