During the spring
of 2015, members
of the so-called
sites in northern Iraq.
Using a compressed-air drill, they
destroyed a statue of a Lamassu — a
winged bull with the head of a man —
standing nearly 15-feet tall and weighing
nearly 30 tons and standing at the gates
of the ancient city of Nineveh. Nearby
in the Mosul Museum, ISIS pushed
over statues and defaced others with
sledgehammers and jackhammers,
damaging artifacts that came into
being thousands of years ago when the
Assyrians ruled that part of the world.
Later that year, ISIS exploded the
Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria, a structure
that was almost 2,000 years old and part of
a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
ISIS posted the videos of the Mosul
destruction online for the world to see.
The reason? They claim the statues and
reliefs of animals and humans are a
forbidden form of worship.
Those who study art destruction offer
answers of power, control, propaganda
and the infliction of pain.
Unfortunately, not all of the monuments destroyed were documented, and to some art
historians, these acts represent “one of the worst cultural heritage disasters of
all times,” says Eckart Frahm, Yale professor of Assyriology, said.
But looting and destruction of art and cultural objects is not a new phenomenon.
It goes back to ancient times — across continents and many different civilizations.
The Romans were particularly greedy, destroying architecture like the Temple of
Apollo at Delphi and looting many sculptural works from Greece in order to claim
their military victories and to claim ownership of these cultural artifacts.
During World War II and Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich, many cultural items were stolen
from European countries, including paintings, ceramics, gold, currency, books and
religious treasures. Although many were recovered after the war by agents of the
Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program — made famous by the movie “The Monuments
Men” — many are still missing.
“Cultural heritage is an extremely important subject right now, and its destruction
is undermining the stability and security of nations,” said Rhonda Reymond.
Reymond, an art history professor at the West Virginia University College of Creative
Arts, studies and teaches about the global destruction of cultural heritage — not
just to document these losses but to create a greater awareness of the world’s
cultural heritage and to advocate for the preservation of cultural resources among
This Lamassu at the Nergal Gate in Nineveh, Iraq, stood the test of time in remarkably
good condition for generations until ISIS militants took a compressed air drill
to its face in 2015. (Photo Credit: DE AGOSTINI/ARCHIVIO J. LANGE)
“It is important to study the reasons for cultural heritage crimes, look for patterns
of similarities and to distinguish differences dating back from ancient Assyrian
purges to today,” she said. “But I am most concerned with what is happening today
to our cultural heritage and in safeguarding it now and in the future. It is about
saving cultures, but it is also vital for security and plays a key role in building
peace and resolving conflicts. It preserves identity and the memory of mankind,
encourages dialogue and engenders tolerance and mutual understanding.”
Historically, Reymond said, there are many reasons for the destruction or looting
of cultural property and heritage — power, propaganda, profit, religious control,
status, consolidation of great cultures, the destruction of roots and cultural
identity, neglect or disregard for objects, illicit trafficking and more.
Most recently, cultural heritage has been construed as a human rights issue. In other
words, one cannot separate objects or manifestations of culture from people and
their rights to their heritage.
Reymond also points out that cultural heritage is more than arches, pyramids and
paintings. It encompasses intangible things like customs, practices, performances
and other forms of artistic expression — things that are inherited from previous
generations so that they can be maintained and enjoyed by future generations.
“It may sound abstract or even overwhelming, but when you break it down and think
about cultural heritage on a personal level — tangible or intangible — it makes
sense,” she said.
“Sometimes I’ll ask my students if they have a family heirloom or practice that has
been passed down through their families. Most do, and they connect immediately
with the memory of that item or that custom and relate to how harmful it would
be to destroy something so precious. It gets them thinking about why art matters.”
Rhonda Reymond, art history professor at WVU, pictured here in the Art Museum of
WVU’s collection, is advocating for the preservation of cultural heritage to
keep our human story intact. (Photo Credit: Raymond Thompson Jr.)
Reymond and WVU are finding ways to support cultural preservation.
Reymond participated in a workshop through CyArk, a nonprofit group that is creating
3-D digital records of cultural sites around the world. WVU Landscape Architecture
Professors Charlie Yuill and Peter Butler support the University’s status as a
Technology Center with CyArk. They’ve been trained to the organization’s standards
for digital preservation, and Yuill takes laser scans of cultural artifacts in
A proposed new course in digital documentation in the College of Creative Arts School
of Art and Design’s Technical Art History program is in the works. It would include
techniques such as photography, computational photography, on-site conservation,
polarized microscopy, 3-D scanning and introductory modeling. The technical art
history degree itself represents a relatively new field that integrates art history,
material science, art and object conservation.
As a select Honors Faculty Fellow, Reymond is teaching a course this fall, “Whose
Culture? Global Art Crime,” that further studies historical and contemporary issues
surrounding the destruction of cultural objects.
“There are not too many courses around the country being taught like ours. It’s a
little different perspective,” she said. “We’ll be engaging in big questions about
culture and values, global interdependence, respect, economies and human dignity.”
Reymond called this spring “a banner time” for cultural heritage. In March, the United
Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a historic resolution about the protection
of cultural heritage during armed conflicts.
UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said, “Defending cultural heritage is more than
a cultural issue. It is a security imperative, inseparable from that of defending
“Weapons are not enough to defend violent extremism. Building peace requires culture
also; it requires education, prevention and the transmission of heritage.”
Reymond also cited a G-7 meeting that declared “culture as an instrument of dialogue
among peoples” that essentially reaffirmed that cultural heritage is an important
tool for growth and economic development.
“Cultural heritage is an extremely important subject right now and its destruction
is undermining the stability and security of nations.”
Science and philanthropy are also supporting the preservation of cultural heritage.
Reymond is excited about new nanotechnologies coming out of the increased interest
in cultural heritage and protection, including a new traceable liquid that is painted
on objects and, under a certain type of light, is visible. It was recently used
in Syria so that objects stolen from a particular site could be identified if they
are removed and end up for sale on the black market.
And UNESCO has raised more than $75 million as part of a $100 million for the Alliance
for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Zones.
Reymond is hopeful that her work will create a better understanding of the destruction
of cultural heritage that has taken place over centuries, and ways to educate oneself
and others to intervene — whether it is documenting and taking inventory of cultural
property, taking additional steps to safeguard and protect cultural sites and objects
or working to recover these treasures when a crime is committed.
She also hopes her work with her students and others will lead to more advocacy for
the arts through serving on local boards and committees, supporting the arts and
humanities council, advocating for state preservation tax credits, supporting museums
and libraries, taking care of archaeological sites and supporting the National
Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities.
“Getting involved in any of these entities will help save cultural heritage,” she