In ancient cities reclaimed from ISIS, restoration work begins

As ISIS is driven back from conquests in northern Iraq and Syria, a challenge looms: cataloging the damage to cultural sites and treasures from antiquity, repairing what can be fixed, and figuring out how to let people see them again.

The U.S. Smithsonian Institution, with support from the State Department, is dispatching a team to Erbil, Iraq, to work with the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage on a rapid assessment of damage to Nimrud, capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the ninth century B.C.E.

Soldier standing over damaged ruins of ancient building site (© AP Images)
ISIS militants destroyed much of the ancient royal palace and tombs at Nimrud in 2015 before Iraqi troops reclaimed the territory. (© AP Images)

They will help Iraqi counterparts forge a long-range plan for salvaging and safely rehousing damaged objects and stabilizing stone reliefs of mythological creatures and other figures carved into the palace walls.

After overrunning the site, which is 30 kilometers from Mosul, ISIS blew up the Assyrian palace of King Ashurnasirpal II in 2015, capturing the destruction in a propaganda video. Fighters broke walls with a bulldozer and jackhammers and toppled artifacts by hand.

Jessica Johnson, head of conservation at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute, likens the assessment and mapping out of recovery plans to what happens after an earthquake. “The methodology is basically the same,” Johnson said. “We teach people how to go in after a disaster, man-made or natural, and stabilize and recover cultural heritage so when it’s time to think about rebuilding, you’ve preserved as much as possible.”

Notwithstanding the devastation, there may be more to recover than people think. “I’ve heard estimates that 50 percent of the sculpture material is left,” she said.

Archaeologists discovered the site in the mid-19th century and were still finding new treasures beneath its mounds in recent times.

“What ISIS has sought to destroy, we are determined to set right,” said Mark Taplin, who leads the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. State Department. The bureau awarded $400,000 to the Smithsonian for the preliminary work.

Gold headdress and jewelry (© Marc DeVille/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Archaeologists were still uncovering treasures at King Ashurnasirpal II’s palace. (© Marc DeVille/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Apart from sheer destruction, ISIS has profited from looting and black-market sales of antiquities. In Nimrud, Nineveh and other heritage sites, looting remains a threat, as do vandalism and exposure to the elements.

“The idea is to help the Iraqis create a team and cadre of people who can go out and start the process of assessing, stabilizing and ultimately restoring places,” said Andrew Cohen of the State Department’s Cultural Antiquities Task Force.

American Schools of Oriental Research recently received $900,000 to further its conservation work in Iraq, Syria and, for the first time, Libya. Since 2014, the scholarly organization has inventoried 13,000 sites.