ISIS Smashes Priceless, Ancient Statues in Iraq

Shattered treasures include winged bulls that guarded entrance to ancient Nineveh.
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A video posted on the Internet on February 26 shows Islamic State militants destroying statues in Mosul Museum in Iraq. Dating from about 100 B.C. to A.D. 100, the figures were from nearby Hatra, now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Islamic State militants released a video on Thursday showing the destruction of priceless antiquities in northern Iraq.

Running for more than five minutes, the video records men toppling statues in a museum and smashing them with sledgehammers, and attacking other statues at an archaeological site with a jackhammer.

Likened to the 2001 demolition of the colossal Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, this latest rampage against the cultural heritage of the Middle East has sparked outrage and concern around the world.

The shattered artifacts, from archaeological sites near Mosul, represent two very different civilizations. (Read: "Q&A: Why Sunni Extremists Are Destroying Ancient Religious Sites in Mosul.")

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The militants also ravaged nine-ton statues of human-headed winged bulls that once guarded the entrance to Nineveh in the eighth century B.C.

The first moments of the video show stone statues under assault in the Mosul Museum. Dating from about 100 B.C. to A.D. 100, the figures come from nearby Hatra, now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

"There were so many statues at the site when I visited in the 1960s that we had to jump over them," says Lamia al-Gailani Werr, an Iraqi archaeologist now living in London.

"They probably represent officials or priests, and they stood in temples in the ancient city."

With a largely Arab population, Hatra was a trading city in the buffer zone between two powerful empires-the Romans in the west and the Parthians in the east.

Many statues and smaller artifacts from Hatra were on display in the Mosul Museum when the Gulf War broke out in 1990.

But as looting began to ramp up amid the chaos of the conflict, the Iraqi government moved many of the portable antiquities from this and other provincial museums to Baghdad for safekeeping.

"I remember two whole rooms devoted to Hatra in the Iraq Museum," says al-Gailani Werr.

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This 1867 engraving shows the manpower needed to move one of the massive winged bulls, known as lamassu in antiquity.

In Mosul, some of the statues smashed in the recent attack appear to be originals, carved from stone. But others seem to have been plaster copies, judging from how easily they shattered in the video.

Experts outside of Iraq are now engaged in remote triage, watching the footage frame by frame and trying to create a list of the real artifacts that were destroyed.

Winged Bulls Guarded Assyrian Palaces

The militants also ravaged monumental statues of human-headed winged bulls that once guarded the entrance to Nineveh, the capital of the neo-Assyrian empire from about 700 B.C. to 612 B.C.

Weighing some nine tons, the massive sculptures were easy targets. For starters, they were too big to smuggle out of the country and sell on the black market. And, as globally recognized icons of ancient culture, they were sure to draw attention to the militants' agenda.

Similar statues were discovered at three neo-Assyrian cities-Nineveh, Nimrud, and Khorsabad. Known as lamassu in antiquity, they combined the strength of a bull, the swiftness of a bird, and the intelligence of a human, all of which were harnessed to protect the royal Assyrian palaces from evil forces.

Early archaeologists transported a number of these statues to museums in Europe and the United States. Sketches from the mid-1800s show the manpower needed to lay these behemoths on wooden barges so they could be floated down the nearby Tigris River.

Today, examples are on display at the British Museum in London, the Louvre museum in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the Oriental Institute in Chicago.

Al-Gailani Werr contrasts the latest militant rampage in Mosul and Nineveh and the widespread looting that is ravaging sites in the Middle East. Ripping stolen artifacts out of their cultural context is criminal, but all is not lost.

"Those artifacts get passed down to grandchildren," explains al-Gailani Werr. "Eventually no one in the family wants them, they're sold, and museums can recover them."

But in the case of the attacks in the video, art that has managed to survive for many centuries is gone forever.

Al-Gailani Werr and other experts characterize this as a cultural tragedy with a global impact. "These things are part of the history of humanity," she says. "If you destroy them, you're destroying the history of everyone."

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