Islamic State: how to save Syria's antiquities

One archaeologist is leading the race to preserve ancient treasures in digital form

September 11, 2015
One of the online images released by Islamic State militants on Aug. 25, 2015, shows the explosion and fuming smoke following the demolition of the temple of Baal Shamin in Syria's ancient city of Palmyra. © (Kyodo) ==Kyodo
One of the online images released by Islamic State militants on Aug. 25, 2015, shows the explosion and fuming smoke following the demolition of the temple of Baal Shamin in Syria's ancient city of Palmyra. © (Kyodo) ==Kyodo


Islamic State released images in August showing the demolition of the temple of Baal Shamin in Syria's ancient city of Palmyra. © Kyodo

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-Lt—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 internet connections may be rare and short.

Read more on IS and the past:

The men who are stealing Syria’s past

What the US knows about Islamic State’s money

Grieving for buildings

The cameras are delivered with a hard-copy and on-line instruction set, to coach users through taking a series of images optimising the 3D representations of the endangered sites and objects.

Samarra, with its 9th-century Great Mosque, is high on Michel’s list. So is the Citadel of Erbil, at 7,000 years of age the world's oldest continually inhabited town. Aleppo, Bosra, and Damascus figure too.

“We can produce them for £50 a throw,” Michel says of the 3D cameras, which would cost up to £200 on the high street. They are being manufactured in China, on designs made at Oxford. He starts shipping them this week, and hopes to get 5000 of them to the Middle East before the end of the year. Michel's Institute for Digital Archaeology had been working on digital imaging since about 2012 to enhance the study of object surfaces and difficult-to-read inscriptions.

“If we can't protect these things on the ground,” Mr Michel adds, “at least we can preserve a highly detailed record of what was there.” In some sites, this record will be sufficiently detailed to allow the project team to contemplate making 3D printed reconstructions of the structures.

It raises philosophical questions, too, about the value of replacement. Mr Michel says the act of digitally enhanced documentation can reveal previously unobserved facets of an artefact—writing under writing, for example, or worn away etchings.

Also, though replicas always are second best, some of the most influential archaeological sites in the world—Knossos, on Minoan Crete, or many so-called classical sites on Sicily—are largely replicas, the originals long destroyed by earthquake or vandals.

A continuing visual reminder, even if reconstructed, remind us of our debt to the classical world, and to the Middle Eastern sites where it flourished. Palmyra was precisely the sort of site which guided Inigo Jones in his reconstruction of Old St Paul's Cathedral, or Thomas Jefferson in building Monticello. It would be a particularly sad time to forget our common history, values, and tastes, but “that is exactly what Isis wants,” says Michel. “I think it would be a shame to let them accomplish that goal.”

Indiana Jones may have exchanged his bull-whip for high technology, but this time, his enemies are waging war on the past. As Mr Michel tells me just before an air hostess makes him put away his mobile: “if we don't act now, it will all soon be gone forever.”