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Saving history from the iconoclasts – the academics ride to the rescue

August 28, 2015


There aren’t many stories in this horrible, death-strewn summer that lift my heart. But here’s one of them.

The London Times reports a plan to equip thousands of volunteers throughout the Middle East with 3D cameras. The idea is that they will take photos of every monument and artefact threatened with destruction or theft by ISIS or any other gang of iconoclasts intent on wiping out the pre-Islamic history of the region.

Teams from Oxford and Harvard Universities hope that before 2017 the volunteers will have taken 20 million pictures of objects, using digital cameras that cost as little as £20 ($30) each. What is subsequently destroyed will be able to be recreated using 3D printing.

I think it’s a brilliant idea. The only questionable aspect is whether they can find the volunteers to do the job. I hope they can, and quickly. Palmyra may be lost, but there are many more sites and museums not yet within the clutches of the barbarous ideologues with their sledgehammers and dynamite.

A few months ago, after the destruction of Hatra and Nimrud, I wrote a post called Daesh: the Destroyers of History? No Chance. I pointed out that whatever ISIS manage to destroy, there is much that they cannot reach, either because it still lies underground or because we already have extensive photographic evidence that is available to all of us via the very tool that they use so effectively for their own purposes: the internet.

This plan goes another step towards putting history beyond their reach. And when people use the hackneyed argument that we should be more concerned to protect the living than to preserve the heritage that the dead have left behind, I will always argue that it’s not a matter of choosing one or the other. Both are achievable, and both are important.

For the dead nourish the living, and without a record of what they thought, achieved and built, our ability to make sense of the world would be much diminished. Which of course is what ISIS want; in the world they seek to create, sense is irrelevant. Belief is all.

So the Oxford/Harvard project sends a message to the iconoclasts that no matter how many archaeologists and museum curators they decapitate, and no matter how many objects they destroy, what is remembered can no longer be forgotten.

So esteemed academics, please, please, make it happen, and soon.

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