One archaeologist is leading the race to preserve ancient treasures in digital formby Padraig Belton / September 11, 2015 / Leave a comment
Archaeologist Roger Michel is sprinting.
He is in a race against the Islamic State (IS), to preserve as many relics as he can which lie in the militants’ onward march—even if this is only their shapes and memory, using digital 3D cameras.
When the Syrian city of Palmyra fell on 21st May, the militants fell to destroying a first-Century remnant, the lion of al-Lāt—and strewing mines round the area’s Graeco-Roman antiquities. More recently, they beheaded the octogenarian archaeologist in charge of the site and its museum, Khaled al-Asaad, and destroyed the ancient Temple of Bel in the city.
Before Palymyra, it was Mosul, Nimrud and Hatra. Nimrud, with its 13th-century BC Assyrian sculptures, IS levelled with dynamite in March. Before that, they razed mosques in Mosul dedicated to the prophets Jonah and St George (who are common to Christianity and Islam), this time from the 13th-century AD. Hatra, capital of possibly the first Arab kingdom, they bulldozed after. Then the Assyrian capital Ashur. They loathe modernity, but they’re not too keen on antiquity either.
Smaller things IS is as likely as not to sell. Dura-Europos, a third-century BC Seleucid town on the Euphrates, has been savagely looted. Looting has enriched IS’s exchequer by tens of millions of dollars, estimates the Financial Action Task Force housed at the OECD’s Paris headquarters. The militant group even has its own ministry of antiquities to supervise it, the Diwan al-Rikaz, says Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, who has documented the Islamic State in detail on his website.
I spoke with Michel last month as he sat on a Heathrow runway, poised to fly to New York, fresh from meeting Unesco officials in Paris. He now will collaborate with the UN agency, he tells me, to deploy 3D cameras throughout their contacts in Iraq and Syria through the coming months.
The cameras are built to be easy to use, by local volunteers without technical training, and are durable so they can take a knocking in a war zone. They need a long-lasting readily rechargeable battery, since the next charge could be a way off, and a large stock of removable storage, since…