Syria and Iraq antiquities threatened

Hard to read the reports from Syria about the destruction of archaeological sites in the chaos of the war there. No one seems to know what to do. No one seems to have any power to stop ISIS from blowing up mosques, churches and shrines. Prehistoric sites, Roman and Byzantine mosaics. Nothing is out of danger. One casualty of war is the bureaucratic structure of protecting remnants the past, many of which are unique. This happens everywhere with every conflict. What makes the Syrian conflict even more tragic is the way that the ISIS harvests resources (including antiquities) and sells them to raise the money they need to power their war machine.

The past is a powerful part of the way modern political movements (violent, barbaric or legal and “democratic”) build and maintain their positions of power in today’s society. One way to do this is to destroy referents to other pasts of other leaders and peoples who offered (successful) alternatives to living life well. Another way is for modern pretenders to power to build links to particulars parts of a past and tap into the energy and heritage nostalgia. Think Italian fascists and the Romans. For ISIS the drive is to attack idols and anything that lives outside of their thin vision of reality.

The past is political. Always has been and always will be. The current destruction in Syria is just one, very public, very appalling example of this. At SFSU, our MA students spend time working through the connections of the past and modern politics. Interested in these issues? Join them. Have a look on our website to find out more about our M.A. in Anthropology or email us:

Link: Antiquities lost, casualties of war (

Here are some authoritative publications about the antiquities market and the looting of archaeological sites:

  • Brodie, N., and Bowman Proulx, B. 2013. Museum malpractice as corporate crime? The case of the J. Paul Getty Museum. Journal of Crime and Justice 37(3): 399-421.
  • Renfrew, C. 2000. Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology. London: Duckworth.
  • Watson, P. 2007. The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities - from Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Geatest MuseumsI. New York: Public Affairs.

Visit this superb site for a long list of other publications:

Trafficking Culture: Reseaching the Global Traffic in Looted Cultural Objects.