Ancient artifacts smashed with sledgehammers. Statues destroyed with jackhammers. Tombs and temples blown to bits.
For months now in Syria and Iraq, members of the Islamic State, or ISIS, have waged war against antiquities it considers sacrilegious.
The toll of this cultural terrorism thus far, according to the United Nations: More than 200 historic sites damaged and hundreds of artifacts destroyed.
But now scientists have joined the fight to stop it, rushing to use high-tech 3-D tools, imaging and holographic technology to digitally preserve and recreate what’s been destroyed.
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At the website called Project Mosul, for instance, volunteers are being asked to submit photos of the damaged monuments and historical sites to help create an online museum and possibly recreate them with 3D printers.
“It seems like magic,” one of the project’s leaders, archeologist Matthew Vincent, told PBS.
“I mean when you think about taking photographs and taking those photographs and turning them into three-dimensional models, it’s you know, something that’s kind of hard to fathom.”
Another team of archeologists has created a cheap 3-D camera they’re sending to people who live in hot spots in the Middle East to photograph buildings and artifacts. The images could some day be used to build replicas, perhaps with 3-D printers, of destroyed monuments.
The joint project between Harvard and Oxford universities had been underway for around five years, but it’s leaders sped it up after ISIS started its rampage of destruction.
“People in Syria have exactly the same cultural history as we do in New York and Boston, and if that gets wiped out by the sands of the desert, that's going to be a significant thing,” Roger Michel, executive director of The Institute for Digital Archaeology, told CNN.
The losses in the Middle East have been described as priceless. The United Nations considers the destruction “war crimes.”
Last month ISIS beheaded the 82-year-old archeologist who oversaw ruins in the ancient, historical city of Palmyra.
“We see today that heritage and culture comes sometimes into the forefront of conflict,” Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, said in July.
“The deliberate destruction, what we are seeing today in Iraq and Syria, has reached unprecedented levels in contemporary history.”
News of the latest attack came on Friday. Syrian officials announced that ISIS has blown up three funeral towers in Palmyra, perhaps sometime in the last two weeks.
The tombs dated from 44 and 103 AD, Syria’s antiquities chief told Reuters.
The four-story sandstone tomb known as Elahbel, which held the remains of the city’s richest families, was one of the best preserved of the ancient city’s funeral towers.
“It’s not just the physical remains that are going away but potentially our knowledge of how rich these regions are and the many different kinds of people that have traversed that terrain over a very long period of human existence,”
Lisa Ackerman, executive vice president of the New York-based cultural heritage preservation group, World Monuments Fund, told PBS last month.
Before Mosul, the Buddhas
In 2001, long before this kind of violence reached Syria, Islamic fundamentalists with the Taliban blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, once the tallest statues of Buddha in the world.
Built in the 6th century before Islam arrived in central Afghanistan, the taller of the two Buddhas was 170-feet tall; the other nearly 115 feet.
Locals later told how the Taliban threatened them with death if they didn’t help destroy the Buddhas. When tank fire wasn’t enough force to take them down, workers stuck dynamite in the ground around the statues to blow them up.
They were deemed impossible to rebuild. But one of the Buddhas came back to life in June through the use of 3-D light projection – the same type of technology used to create holograms of the late Tupac Shakur and Michael Jackson on concert stages.
The laser show was a gift to the Afghan people from a wealthy Chinese couple.
ISIS begins the rampage
A first glimpse of what ISIS was up to came through a dramatic five-minute video in late February – narrated and set to music – showing jihadists with sledgehammers smashing up and pushing over statues inside Mosul Museum in northern Iraq.
The museum, the second-largest in Iraq, reportedly contained only 300 of its original 2,200 artifacts because most had been moved to Baghdad for safekeeping before ISIS overtook the city in June 2014.
Media outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, noted that it was difficult to tell exactly when the destruction occurred.
Speculation arose that it was just a ruse, with some officials saying the video was actually staged to hide the fact that ISIS was really looting many of the works of art to sell for profit on the black market.
Antiquities theft and smuggling has gotten worse in recent months as terrorists use the profits to fund their activities, the Wall Street Journal reported in August.
Sacred temples destroyed
A few days after the video’s release, reports emerged that ISIS had bulldozed Nimrud, a 3,000-year-old city of Nimrud just south of Mosul.
Mark Altaweel, a British archaeology professor, told CNN that sadly, all of the wonders at the large site, one of the “really unique archaeological sites in the entire ancient Near East,” had not yet been discovered.
Iraqi officials had just nominated Nimrud to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site.
“ISIS continues to defy the will of the world and the feelings of humanity,” said a statement from the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.
The human toll
In May, ISIS overtook the 2,000-year-old central Syrian city of Palmyra.
A UNESCO World Heritage site known as the “bride of the desert,” Palmyra is home to beautiful Roman Empire-era monuments, ruins and a huge collection of ancient treasures.
In June, reports emerged that ISIS members had blown up two ancient Muslim shrines near Palmyra, wrecked a historic tomb and smashed relics with sledgehammers – then posted photos of the destruction to Facebook.
They also reportedly hacked apart a famous 2,000-year-old limestone statue of a lion called Allat God that had been hidden for safekeeping in a garden.
In August, ISIS militants beheaded renowned antiquities scholar Khaled al-Asaad, who had reportedly been held captive and questioned for a month.
According to reports, he refused to reveal where some of the city’s artifacts had been relocated to hide them from the terrorists. He had worked for more than 50 years as head of antiquities in Palmyra and refused to leave even after ISIS overtook the city.
ISIS members hung his decapitated body on a column in a main square of the city, The Guardian and other news outlets reported.
He was 82.
Techies step in
As an archeologist working for more than a decade in Jordan, seeing the damage that ISIS has done “is just too close to home,” Matthew Vincent recently told Tech Crunch.
He is one of the leaders of the Project Mosul project, an attempt to crowd source the digital reconstruction of the Mosul Museum destroyed earlier this year.
Through the project’s website, Vincent and his colleagues are soliciting pictures and images of the damaged artifacts that can be used to recreate them digitally.
“We hope to see a virtual museum come out of this, where as many of the artifacts as possible can be located within a virtual environment and visualized through the web or other environments,” Vincent said.
“The 3D models could potentially help to restore any of the originals.”
There is a lesson for museums around the world in what is happening in Iraq and Syria, said Vincent.
“Museums around the world should see this as a wake-up call,” he said. “No museum is safe from these sort of destructive acts, whether they are acts of man or natural disasters, heritage is a treasure to be preserved for generations to come. Museums can take preventative measures and digitize and publish their collections in open formats.”
He said he’d like to see more done now to protect the heritage that ISIS is destroying.
That said, he added, “ISIS has done far worse in terms of human lives lost, and the heritage is just one more casualty in a long list of those destroyed by the extremists.”