ISIS's archaeological vandalism destroys knowledge and history: Bob McDonald

The willful destruction of the ancient Iraqi city of Nimrud by ISIS militants earlier this month has been condemned by UNESCO. As Bob McDonald writes, this archaeological vandalism is another attempt to erase, then re-write history.

ISIS militants destroyed ancient Iraqi city of Nimrud earlier this month

The extremist group ISIS has destroyed a number of shrines - including Muslim holy sites - in order to eliminate what it views as heresy. (AP)

The willful destruction of the ancient city of Nimrud by ISIS militants earlier this month has been condemned by UNESCO as a war crime. This archaeological vandalism is just the latest in a long history of groups attempting to erase, then re-write history.

Destroying irreplaceable statues, reliefs and the remains of an entire city more than 3,000 years old is an assault on history and knowledge. This current rampage has also included the destruction of statues in a museum at Mosul, tombs and libraries, plus the ancient cities of Khorsabad, Hatra and Bosra.

All of this is happening in a region that is often referred to as the cradle of civilization. The ancient Syrians and Babylonians and other historic cultures of the Middle East gave us the alphabet, mathematics, astronomy – the foundations of science that are still in use today.

Sadly, the recent destruction of historical artifacts is just the latest in a long story of cultural warfare. In 2001, the Taliban destroyed the 1,500-year-old Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan, the largest statues of Buddha anywhere. The world was shocked and sickened.

More than vandalism

This bewildering behaviour, in which one extremist group tries to erase thousands of years of history in a few moments for the sake of its ideals, is also an attempt to re-write it. After all, history is usually written by the victorious. Hitler infamously tried to do the same thing by burning books.

The fortified city of Hatra withstood repeated attacks by the Roman Empire, but this wall of an ancient building fell to a militant wielding a hammer, seen in this image made from an ISIS video posted on YouTube. (Associated Press/YouTube)

It is only much later, after conflicts have been resolved and peace has returned to a region, that archaeologists can pick through whatever fragments remain from the ruins and try to salvage the truth of what really happened in the past. And they don't have a lot to work with.

When you think about it, scientists have had to reconstruct entire civilizations from just building foundations, broken statues, faded paintings, engravings in tombs – written in stone – or a few handprints on a cave wall. There are a lot of gaps in those stories that may never be filled in, and those gaps get larger the further back in time we go. Eventually, all we have are spear tips, stone tools and bones.

That's why the loss of any ancient artifact is a huge loss to the story of who we are and how we got here. It's more than vandalism; it's a crime against the foundations of humanity.


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.