Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A caveat about reports of site razings

We still have no imagery of the bulldozing of Nimrud, or Hatra, or Dur Sharrukin, as reported by Iraqi heritage officials, and hence no confirmation of how extensive the damage is (or even whether that damage has actually occurred). Reputable media outlets from CNN to the New York Times to NPR have spread the stories, and the documented iconoclasm at the Mosul Museum and Nineveh certainly lends them credibility. But without optical proof, we can't be certain.  

Should these sites turn out to be more or less intact after all, the error will no doubt be seized upon by the same looting deniers who declared no harm had been done at the Iraq Museum in 2003 because first reports mistakenly said the museum had been completely looted and it later turned out that "only" 15,000 artifacts were stolen, and who later pointed to the absence of looting on 8 sites as proof that there was no looting to speak of at the thousands of other sites in Iraq.

We should know the truth soon enough, once the site monitoring groups at Penn and the AAAS get done looking at the latest satellite imagery. But the very fact that we don't know what the facts are, and that we have to wait days to get them, is more important than whatever the facts turn out to be. For it is a sign that the US military is not taking seriously the need to prevent ISIS from getting to major sites. Doing so would have meant setting up a realtime monitoring regime covering not just the sites but the roads leading to the sites, so that bulldozers and trucks heading out to a site would be spotted, targeted and destroyed on the way to, not from, the sites. No such realtime monitoring system exists, it seems. That's a big problem. The Penn Cultural Heritage Center and AAAS projects are crucial for tracking the long-term effect of clandestine digging and must continue to be supported, but they were not designed for the quick turnaround needed to deal with this particular challenge. That's the military's job.

So if it does turn out that Hatra and Dur Sharrukin are not yet victims of bulldozing or dynamiting, we should thank God for our good luck, consider this a second wake-up call after the televised ISIS iconoclasm at Nineveh, and redouble our effort to force the military to step up with an operational plan -- realtime monitoring plus operational capacity to neutralize the bulldozers before and not after they get to the site -- before what happened at Nineveh is repeated.

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