Adventures in Podcasting 4: ISIS, Iconoclasm, and the Humanizing of Objects

Richard Rothaus and I once again ventured into the uncertain waters of podcasting. Content enough with our efforts to discuss academia, our research, and our shared history, we decided to turn our banter to more controversial topics.

So, this week, we discuss ISIS’s highly-publicized video showing their destruction of objects in the Mosul museum. There has been some debate concerning the authenticity of these events and the extent of the destruction, but they have nevertheless captured the attention of archaeologists and antiquity lovers the world over.


Of particular interest to us was how these videos pushed archaeologists to break out of our scientistical mode of inquiry and actually express genuine emotional concern for these objects. The ISIS destruction of these statues suggests that they saw these objects as potentially competing source for authority, and this understanding of statues extends back at least to Late Antiquity where more fanatical members of Christian communities defaced pagan statues (see below). Modern archaeology, however, has tended to privilege a more dispassionate attitude toward objects. In fact, it is only with the discovery and destruction of objects that archaeologists “allowed” to express genuine compassion for the material evidence for the past. Outside of these circumstances, we typically accept that even the most spectacular find is merely an arbitrary sample of an unknown total number of objects, monuments, and sites. The ritualized destruction of objects by ISIS evoked emotion (both the triumphant celebration of the destroyers and the anguished cries of the western world) that trumped the scientific rituals associated with archaeological practice which work to suppress emotional commitments to destructive practices of archaeology in much the same way that the ritualized interaction between doctor and patient reinforces a kind of scientific objectivity.

 What’s interesting to me (and not to speak for Richard here) is that recent work in archaeological theory has made efforts to consider more critically the role of artifacts in the archaeological process. Some scholars have advanced complex arguments arguing that objects have agency, require ethical treatment, and provide the foundation for a more symmetrical archaeology. Witnessing ISIS destruction of antiquities has provided an opportunity for even more conservative members of the profession to humanize their objects of study as they abandoned their staunchly defended place among the post-Enlightenment sciences and indulge in Romantic sentimentality. At the end of the podcast Richard pushed me to consider the ultimate implications of an emotional investment in these objects as he recounts the story of a young soldier from Minnesota who lost his life guarding a museum in Iraq and the podcast concludes with Richard’s rather abrupt assessment of this. For him, the agency of objects and their ethical treatment has very clear limits. Our hope is that our discussion offers an provocative perspective to critically engage recent events!

Here’s a link to the impressive joint statement by the AIA/ASOR/AAA/SAA/AAMD on ISIS and here’s a link to Wayne Sayles blog (for the post he took down, I can only provide a dramatic reading).

I won’t link to the video of ISIS destroying antiquities. 

Here’s a link to the Life of Porphyry of Gaza and Marinos’s Life of Proclus.

Here’s a link to the Atlantic Monthly story: “What ISIS Wants”, and here’s a thoughtful response.

Here’s a link to the The Egyptian martyrs of Libya added to the Coptic Synaxarium.

Here are some images from Richard’s book Corinth: First City of Greece (Brill 2000) which you can purchase for the low, low price of $177.72.


Here are some resources regarding Pfc. Edward Herrgot.

Your Enthusiasm for Protecting Antiquities Cost Army Pfc. Edward J. Herrgott His Life


The full tale of Pfc. Herrgott, the first Minnesotan to die in the Iraq war (3 July 2003), is little known. The news reports all read “Herrgott, 20, of Shakopee, Minn., died July 3 when a sniper shot him in the neck outside the National Museum in Baghdad.” But here is a fuller account from our fellow The Ohio State University Alum, Colonel Peter Mansoor:

“Two days into my command, the Ready First Combat Team lost its third soldier since its arrival in Baghdad and the first of my tenure. Private First Class Edward J. Herrgott was guarding the Baghdad Museum when he was shot and killed by armed gunmen. I visited the location shortly after his death and was shocked by what I discovered. The museum was not the one that contained the ancient treasures of Iraq but was rather more akin to a wax museum for the enjoyment of locals and tourists. The curator had removed all of the exhibits to a safe location to prevent their theft in the aftermath of the war, but nevertheless CJTF-7 had ordered us to guard the place. The media frenzy over the looting of the National Museum of Antiquities had provoked a knee-jerk reaction to guard every place that could possibly be construed to have cultural value. The end result was that we were guarding an empty structure, one made indefensible by the cavernous buildings that engulfed it on both sides and parking garage several stories high across the street. The gunmen who killed Herrgott had sneaked up a side alley and engaged him from the flank as he manned his position in the hatch of a Bradley fighting vehicle.

I was determined to get my soldiers out of that death trap. . . . “

Peter Mansoor, Baghdad at Sunrise: A Brigade Commander’s War in Iraq. Yale University Press, 2008.


Note 1: Herrgott’s Aunt is worth quoting: “President Bush made a comment a week ago, and he said, ‘bring it on.’ They brought it on and now my nephew is dead.

Note 2: I didn’t meet Col. Mansoor when we overlapped at the massive OSU. I met him while working on a battlefield study of New Ulm, MN, his home town. If you don’t think the world is ruled by serendipity and The Ohio State University, you are mistaken. And we are fine with that.

Note 3: It looks like the Washington Post ran the Wax Museum Story on 8 July 2003, but I’m not 100% sure.



  1. Interesting stuff. I think that you guys both under- and over-estimate the emotional attachment of modern Americans to the preservation of Antiquity as such. Take any random tourist or first-year undergraduate to an archaeological site and break a plain sherd in front of him/her, or tell him/her that your excavation will be throwing away the finds from the plowsoil because they’re useless data. S/he will, more often than not, be upset. So I think that there is a ‘normal’ emotional reaction to the destruction of the past (or art, or books, or whatever) that is negative. On the other hand, this ‘dismay’ (to use the word of the moment) will not be particularly deep or long-lasting. The bulldozing of an archaeological site will not even have the lasting emotional damage that, say, the bulldozing of a local McDonald’s where you and your wife met (I don’t know where this example came from) or of your favorite football stadium would. It’s really evanescent and shallowly rooted in not much emotional investment.


    1. Something about the Atlantic article you cited didn’t sit well with me, and here’s the response to what troubled me: This is what happens when we wade into a topic not knowing (excuse my French) jack shit.


    2. Dimitri,

      Of course, you’re right about the general public whose dismay is fed by the most recent event in the outrage cycle. I was thinking about archaeologists. In general, archaeologists maintain a scientistic dispassion regarding their objects of study. We don’t become passionate about sherds (even if we do feel particular attachment to ARS105 or a very nice Megarian bowl). We might be emotionally attached to a site, but even then, we don’t usually show that in our professional capacities. In fact, when someone gives a paper that demonstrates too much emotional investment in a site (e.g. this is the MOST important site of the period…) we tend to instantly discount their arguments.

      When a site is threatened or a object is destroyed, however, archaeologists are free to express not only outrage (which can be directed toward scientistical causes), but sadness, longing, dismay, renting of garments. Much of this is natural and appropriate, but it also represents a moment where our scientistical facade breaks down. (Imagine your doctor giving you a grim diagnosis and then busting into tears!)

      I was thinking that these moments where we as archaeologists express out passions for things mark moments when our modernity as social scientists (no matter how fragile we recognize this to be in reflexive practices, we do tend to maintain it in our professional attitudes toward objects), breaks down. If we’re looking for objects with agency (and here I mean the strange form of agency that archaeologists consider), then I wonder whether we should look to these moments where our premodern or anti-modern attitudes toward the material world become professionally manifest.

      And, maybe this is a bridge too far, I found the idea fascinating that the willingness of both members of ISIS and members of the archaeological profession to attribute some authority to these objects and sites might place our world closer to the world of Late Antiquity than post-Enlightenment science. For an emotional moment, we occupy the same discourse where the marbles are screaming as they’re removed for the Parthenon, or things are being moved that ought not be moved, or statues can be baptized, or whatever.



      1. “In general, archaeologists maintain a scientistic dispassion regarding their objects of study.” I don’t think that’s true at all.

  2. Do you think that an archaeologist who comes around a corner in a store-room and sees a whole pot fallen from a shelf and smashed on the floor would be dispassionate about it? Because I don’t.


    1. Yeah. I suppose, but my point remains that destruction of antiquities evokes and authorizes that emotion which under ordinary circumstances would not be visible.


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