Friday, March 31, 2017

ISIS Isn't Saving Anything in Mosul

 Ruins of the shrine of Nebi Yunus (“the prophet Jonah”) in Mosul, January 2017 (VOA)
Over the past few months, Iraqi army forces have retaken much of the city of Mosul in Iraqi Kurdistan from ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). With the capture of much of the city– where stories of liberation and horror compete for our attention – these forces have also captured the mounds of Kuyunjik and Tell Nebi Yunus. These two artificial hills (or “tells”) and their surroundings form the site of the famous ancient city of Nineveh, now in eastern Mosul. From the end of February, news outlets started reporting the discovery of an ancient Assyrian palace at Tell Nebi Yunus, in tunnels that ISIS had dug into the mound. News reports about the discovery have varied immensely in quality, and it is often difficult to sort through the many discrepancies. We have also had our share of sensational-sounding headlines: Previously Untouched 600BC Palace Discovered under Shrine Demolished by Isil in Mosul (the Telegraph); “Jihadist tunnels save Assyrian winged bulls of Mosul” (Agence Presse-France); “Iraqi troops find Assyrian treasures in network of Isis tunnels” (the Guardian). Fox News unsurprisingly emphasized the biblical connection of the palace. But what do we really know here? Let’s take a step back and sum up the situation to date:

Map showing the location of the shrine of Jonah within the ruins of ancient Nineveh, in eastern Mosul

On July 24, 2014, ISIS detonated the shrine of Nebi Yunus (“the prophet Jonah” in Arabic), standing on the top of Tell Nebi Yunus. The shrine is one traditional site of the tomb of Jonah, revered by local Muslims and Christians alike. After Iraqi forces retook this mound in the middle of January, archaeologists surveying damage to the site discovered that ISIS had dug a series of tunnels through the mound. These tunnels were apparently designed to loot artifacts for sale in order to fund their activities. The effort was successful: while the tunnels were mostly empty, a handful of important stone relief sculptures and an inscribed slab were found in them by the archaeologists – presumably because they were too heavy for ISIS to remove them easily through the tunnels. It is thought that many smaller artifacts of lesser value were removed from the site: a cache of more than 100 artifacts discovered in an ISIS commander’s house in eastern Mosul back in January might have come from these tunnels. Archaeologists now warn that there “cave-ins in the tunnels every day,” with danger of collapse of the entire tunnel system.

 Tell Nebi Yunus (with the shrine of Jonah on top) in 1932 
(Matson Photograph Collection, via Library of Congress)
 Shrine of Jonah in 1999 (by Roland Unger via Wikimedia Commons)

Now to the sensationalist headlines: First, despite the claims of several media outlets, ISIS did not “save” anything. ISIS looting does seem to have uncovered artifacts from a palace or other royal building – but, if they hadn’t been uncovered, they would still lie perfectly intact beneath the soil of the tell. Instead, ISIS has looted a number of artifacts from the site, with the exact number unknown. Many of these may be lost, many may be illegally removed from the country. In addition, looting operations are massively – let me repeat, massively – destructive. Any artifacts not deemed of sufficient value on the market (and most artifacts found at sites generally fall into this category) are discarded or destroyed. On top of this, we lose not only the objects themselves, but also their archaeological contexts. Artifacts found in contexts can tell us how they were used by people, the functions of buildings, and all sorts of details of everyday life at a settlement. All of this information is now gone from these tunnels.

Second, it is unclear if ISIS discovered a previously unknown building. As British Institute for the Study of Iraq (BISI) chair Paul Collins told Fox News, previous excavations on the mound of Nebi Yunus have uncovered remains of Assyrian royal buildings. Are the new discoveries related to one of these buildings? Note also the discrepancy between the claim that this is a newly discovered palace and the detailed history given of this palace (which kings founded and renovated it) in several reports. Such a history would be difficult or impossible to reconstruct if without scientific excavation. How do we resolve these discrepancies? The history given in the news accounts actually seems to describe what we know of an Assyrian royal building partially excavated at the site in the past, a “review palace” or royal arsenal. The new discoveries could be part of this building, but we cannot be certain without more information.

Third, are the reliefs left in the tunnels in danger from collapse? This concern appears to be exaggerated in news accounts. It is unclear if the handful of large stone slabs would be seriously damaged by collapses of dirt above, especially since the condition of the tunnels is little understood outside of Mosul. In AFP’s story on the palace, Iraqi archaeologist Layla Salih is cited as follows:
“‘We fear it could all collapse at any time,’ entombing the treasures, said Layla Salih.”
The word “entombing” is not a direct quote from the archaeologist; it is the journalist’s paraphrase or interpretation. Is this in fact what Salih is worried about? After all, “entombing” is not a danger to the artifacts themselves; once again, buried artifacts are relatively safe. They can be dug out again eventually. (Contrast the National [UAE] version of the AFP story, which is simply wrong in stating that “[t]he tunnels could collapse at any time, meaning the treasures would be entombed forever.”

The greater danger from the instability of the tunnel system is the collapse of a significant portion of the mound itself. Paul Collins has made a similar observation, emphasizing that the threat is even greater since the hill was already damaged by the demolition of the shrine of Jonah. Archaeologically, there would be significant loss of information from the dirt above the tunnels. This material is stratified – that is, it records the history of how buildings and dirt layers were deposited at the site, with artifacts in the contexts where they were abandoned or discarded in ancient times. When stratified material is excavated properly, the amount we can learn, about individual artifacts, groups of objects, buildings, and the entire history of occupation of the settlement for hundreds and hundreds of years, is nearly limitless. As was already the case with the looting from the tunnels themselves, all of this information would be lost in case of collapse.

Beyond this, Tell Nebi Yunus is still an important part of the living city of Mosul today. The shrine of Jonah is still a holy place even in its ruined state. A collapse of a significant portion of the tell would be a major loss, and a setback to any attempt to restore the shrine.

There are other problems with the news reports: The British tabloid the Daily Star seems to have invented some details, as we hear not only of stone sculptures but also “coins, jewelry and mosaics found in the palace” (Not only have no such small finds have been reported, but more significantly, coins and mosaics did not exist in Assyria at this time.) Even in Josie Ensor’s generally good report on the discovery in the Telegraph, we read (in connection with the inscribed stone slab) that there are “only a handful of such cuneiforms recovered from the period,” when Neo-Assyrian cuneiform inscriptions are quite common. Several new stories refer to these stone reliefs in the tunnels as “treasures.” This is a poor choice of words, since it presents archaeology less as scientific study of the past than as treasure hunting. The New York Post describes a “race against time to save the archaeological treasures”; compare Maev Kennedy’s “race against time to save artefacts” in the Guardian. Gone are the realities of the war. What we are left with is a romantic image of something exciting and adventurous – like an Indiana Jones film.

Our knowledge of what has actually happened here is partial and provisional. As Iraqi archaeologists continue to study the tell and the artifacts left in the tunnels, as more and better reports are received from Mosul, we can get a much clearer picture of what has actually been found at Tell Nebi Yunus. In the meantime, these stories show that, as usual, we must read news reports on archaeology in wartime with great caution.

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