A sampling of cultural heritage playing cards. CREDIT: Department of Defense

BY JENNA JARDINE In the halls of the NYU Anthropology building, Rita Wright, a professor of archaeology, points to a poster displaying a deck of Department of Defense cultural heritage playing cards. The playing cards were developed by archaeologist Laurie Rush to raise awareness about archaeological preservation among American troops during the Iraq war. The poster serves as a reminder of a effort within the archaeological community to combat one of war’s forgotten losses—human history.

Wright points to a card with a picture of archaeological remains in Samarra, Iraq. The UNESCO World Heritage City was the site of a major battle in 2004. The card’s information was not able to convince commanders to save Samarra from destruction during the battle. Wright hung the poster on the third floor of the Rufus D. Smith Hall of Anthropology, just outside of her office, believing in the importance of its message.

“It is a wonderful way to raise awareness about preservation,” Wright said. Like others in her department, Wright stressed that the effort is working to preserve not just Iraqi history, but human history.

Called the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia and the Near East have been a crossroads of cultures and peoples throughout history. Here, circa 4000 B.C.E, the first cities are developed, a unified system of writing takes form, and agriculture begins to grow. Now known as Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel, the region is home to 31 World Heritage sites listed by UNESCO, miniscule in comparison to the countless archaeological excavations, cultural hot-spots, and ancient material remains scattered through the region. Fast forward to today, and you are in a region plagued by conflict. The latest threat to this ancient land is the Islamic State. The terrorist organization has destroyed more than lives, it has looted, defaced and leveled ancient sites across large stretches of  Syria and North-Western Iraq.

Beginning in Syria with sites like Palmyra, once an oasis for travelers on the Silk Road it is now a ruin. ISIS fighters rigged the city’s nearly 2,000-year-old Temple of Baalshamin with explosives in Aug. 2016, reducing it to rubble. In Iraq at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hatra, once an independent kingdom comprised of both Greek and Roman influences, ISIS fighters took sledgehammers to ancient sculptures and riddled them with bullets in April 2015.

Surprisingly, it is here, where most news focuses on the overwhelming level of destruction and violence, that an archaeological renaissance is taking place. Destruction of ancient sites steeped in world heritage has offended and motivated the archaeological community to act. The British Museum re-upped its Emergency Heritage Management program to facilitate the preservation and reconstruction of ancient sites, during and after the current conflict. The Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme offers in-depth and specialized training to Iraqi heritage professionals to record destruction during the conflict, prevent accidental and reasoned destruction, and rebuild when the region is once again at peace.

“We wanted to do something positive and constructive in the face of the appalling destruction that has been going on,” the program’s director Jonathan Tubb said in a press release.

During the U.S. backed wars in Iraq in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the British Museum worked with Iraqi heritage professionals to preserve culturally significant sites from accidental or rationalized destruction by American forces. Most notably, the use of the ancient city of Babylon as a U.S. military headquarters in 2008. British Museum curator John Curtis spoke against the occupation at the time, saying trenches dug without professional consultation had caused irreversible damage to archaeological materials in the area.

“It contaminates the record of Babylon for the next generation of archaeologists,” Curtis told Agence France-Presse in 2008. “I don’t think it’s malicious, it comes from ignorance.”

To combat this ignorance, the museum’s new offensive into the Iraqi archaeological landscape will focus on equipping Iraqi archaeologists with the tools and skills needed to deal with the aftermath of war’s destruction in all its forms.

“By preparing our Iraqi colleagues for the day when sites are returned to their control, we are confident that they will know how to systematically record what has been destroyed and employ state-of-the-art technology to allow for reconstruction,” Tubb said.

In 2015 the training program began recruiting Iraqi professionals to participate in a six-month course. The first three months of the inaugural course were spent at the British Museum in London. Here, experienced archaeologists gave trainees a theoretical understanding of archaeological preservation and reconstruction, as well as basic technical skills. The group then traveled to Iraq, working in the field at archaeological excavation, preservation, and reconstruction sites in the secure regions of Kurdistan and south Basra. The training focuses on techniques such as rescue archaeology, emergency retrieval strategies, forensic collection and documentation methodologies, and principles of conservation and restoration, all in hopes of being able to preserve as much of the area’s rich world history as possible.

“The training is very useful and beneficial for us,” Halkawt Qadir Omer, a current trainee told AFP in Feb. 2017. “Now we have contact with the British Museum to change the direction of history and archaeology.”

Threats to this history are ever present in the war-torn regions of Iraq and Syria. The Iraqi active offensive to take back Mosul from the Islamic State, has been an important battlefield for archaeologists. Program participants were the first to enter the Mosul Museum and assess the damage after it was recovered in March.

“Once the city is liberated, there will be an enormous plan of reconstruction,” Sebastien Rey, a lead archeologist in the program said in a press release.

From the Roman armies of the second century C.E. to the crusaders in the 1100s, destroying a people’s material culture has long served as a means of depriving people of their history in order to control them. The purposeful destruction by ISIS forces follows this same pattern, often calling on religion by destroying Christian sites and influences of pagan Greeks and Romans. Rationalized destruction done by fighting forces may not share this malicious reasoning, but the niaiveté causes the same damage to cultural history. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova called on the International Criminal Court to investigate the destruction, deeming it a war crime.

“Nothing is safe from the cultural cleansing underway in the country: it targets human lives, minorities, and is marked by the systematic destruction of humanity’s ancient heritage,” Bokova said in a statement. “There is absolutely no political or religious justification for the destruction of humanity’s cultural heritage.”

The current destruction is even more damning when it is understood not just as the history of one people, but of all people. As the cradle of civilization, a crossroads for traders, missionaries, and empires for thousands of years, these sites hold the cultural history of the world. Former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon echoed Bokova’s outrage saying he was “deeply disturbed” in a statement.

“The deliberate destruction of our common cultural heritage constitutes a war crime and represents an attack on humanity as a whole,” Ki-moon said.