ISIS and artifacts: Daesh or bust

Since the days of global exploration and imperialism, historical and cultural artifacts have been removed from their original resting places and brought to museums. Indiana Jones was a fictional golden boy of cultural appropriation, stealing lost artifacts that might otherwise be sold for profit or bent to some nefarious purpose.

Much of the same argument is now arising over some of mankind’s most precious and most ancient cultures, where in the Middle East statues of Assyrian gods and kings are being smashed in by Daesh, commonly referred to as ISIS. For the sake of not relating a band of terrorists to the Egyptian goddess of death and night, I will refrain from calling them ISIS. Daesh, the local name for them, is fully sufficient.

So as Daesh pillages across the countryside, destroying their own heritage in an attempt to purify the continent of all history preceding the invasion of Mecca by Muhammed, the international community is in heated debates about whether or not to remove artifacts in order to preserve them.

The debate at first seemed like a non-issue, of course all historians, anthropologists, art dealers, whatever across the world should rise up against these international hooligans. I personally feel more defensive over completely irreplaceable pieces of human history than I do over any human life, but the issue is a legitimate one in a world where the western nations, in their self-inflated importance, have time and time again intervened and removed artifacts that would never again see their homelands.

Over the years, British and general Western exceptionalism has waned in its legitimacy as an excuse to explain what is globally considered grave robbing. Though Assyria might not be a living nation capable of claiming its own history, the prodigy of these ancient people often feel they have ancestral and regional rights over these artifacts. It has therefor become commonplace for artifacts to be returned to their home countries if it is found that they were once removed unethically.

In this new, understandably anti-appropriation archeological climate, the question becomes whether the threat to the artifacts is so great that history is better preserved in a museum than left where they are found.

What I believe is forgotten in this debate is that these particular artifacts are sites of world culture. The truth is, so much time has passed since these artifacts were created that a British man may very well have as much cultural right to the objects as the people now living in what was ancient Mesopotamia. So much time has passed that these objects must be considered the heritage of humanity, rather than that of a region. The ancestry of any white American leads back to the Fertile Crescent just as readily as that of an Egyptian or an Iraqi citizen.

Since these artifacts belong to the world at large, the debate loses significance, devolving into a much simpler question. Does one claim their own heritage, preserving it for generations to come, or does one allow this heritage to sit in the hands of those who would either destroy it or else sell it to further their nefarious purposes?