Artifacts – What Does Their Destruction Mean to Us?

Middle East: Greco-Roman Ruins

Middle East: Greco-Roman Ruins

The recent destruction of ancient artifacts in the Middle East by ISIS has painfully reminded us of an all too frequent repeating story of our globe’s plundering conquerors. ISIS is but a current version of a long history of plunderers. Destruction of archeological sites, ancient works of art and other creations of the conquered validate in the minds of the conquerors their power and superior, sacred worth and the wretchedness and valuelessness of their conquered. Obliteration of artifacts and the worth of their conquered creators in the minds of the destroyers sync well together.

During a Global News interview, Archaeologist Clemens Reichel called the work of ISIS “cultural genocide:”

“[ISIS militants] are completely obliterating an ancient culture.”

Other historians have called artifact destruction an act of “heritage terror.” As University of Texas Islamic Art Professor, Dr. Stephanie Mulder, put it (after viewing an ISIS video of their handy work):

“This is a propaganda video that is intended as an act of heritage terror. [ISIS] know this kind of action will cause harm in the international community. It demonstrates their mastery over everything. Their mastery over the past [-] and it has a deep impact on the people of Iraq as well as those who cherish these objects.”

Of course, ISIS is but the current version of artifact destroyers. Amy Gazin-Schwartz reports in the New Republic:

“ISIS’s actions are part of a long history of people destroying ancient sites for political, economic, or religious purposes. The Assyrians looted and destroyed Babylon in 700 B.C.; medieval Christians in England toppled and broke up some of the ancient “pagan” standing stones at Avebury; Spanish conquistadors melted down gold artifacts, including the solid gold “gardens,” of the Inca. Modern conflict has not respected antiquities. The 5,000-year-old cities of Ur and Uruk were heavily damaged by the first and second Gulf Wars. Despite warnings from archaeologists, ancient artifacts were stolen (or looted) from the Baghdad Museum even while Baghdad was under American control.

“These are recent examples of the way all participants in conflict do not respect the “value” of antiquities. . . . Archaeological sites are often destroyed in the course of economic development.

“Archaeologists themselves have also been responsible for the removal of antiquities from their places of origin. Museums around the world are full of antiquities from ancient sites in the Middle East, Africa, Australia, and North and South America that were stolen, traded, or excavated by archaeologists and explorers.”

And so, we have a long and sorted history – and a variety of reasons – when it comes to how and why ancient, irreplaceable artifacts have been destroyed over the centuries, regardless of their economic, cultural or spiritual value.

When it comes to its meaning, the word “artifact” also has an ancient history. Typically, modern dictionaries define “artifact” as an item, usually of historical or cultural interest, that has been created by a human being.

But the word “artifact” has its more ancient, Latin roots: “arte factum”. “Arte” means “by skill.” “Factum” means “thing made.”

Which brings me to another endangered creation – a thing made by skill that fits the Latin origin of the definition of “artifact” to a “T”.

This creation is also an irreplaceable one-of-a-kind. It’s unique. It’s creative process is awesome, brilliant, intelligent, self-actualizing, self-organizing, always evolving, never final. It’s both ancient – really ancient – and very contemporary.

Not only is it a beautiful work of art, it’s extremely functional. Of immeasurable value. In fact, it’s totally necessary.

It’s our Earth and its Earth-bound Cosmic Artifacts. Some scientists refer to these Artifacts as Nature’s “Environmental Public Goods.”

Over the centuries humans have authored a lot of stories about the beginnings of the Cosmos, and the creation of its elements, including our galaxy and our Earth. The best scientific evidence we have today relates the beginnings to the “Big Bang,” the galactic explosion that began spewing out trillions of stars and gaseous clouds folding into planets some 15 billion years ago, but we really don’t know. The Big Bang might simply have been in interlude, a repulsion of matter from a black hole that had enveloped an earlier beginning. The stories of the ancient Greeks personified the beginnings, calling our Earth “Gaia,” after the primal Greek Mother Goddess, the creator and giver of birth to the Earth and all of the Universe and its gods. When Carl Sagan spoke about the place our Earth occupies in the Universe, he poetically called our Earth the “Pale Blue Dot.” His poetry provides a thoughtful and spiritual perspective we too often ignore.

I wrote about what sets apart our Creator’s Earth-bound Cosmic Artifacts from Human-made Artifacts in Wonderlust, when I described our Earth’s Cathedrals in the Wild:

“The Cathedral’s walls are not of lumber or brick or shrouded in stained glass or paintings, but are original works, shaped by volcanic upheavals and tectonic folds and sculptured by roaring seas, tempestuous winds and grinding glaciers. Its pulpit and chapel may be dappled in light splashing among trees or dunes or rock formations that reach toward the heavens, or maybe a flowering open field under a rooftop of billowing clouds. In the Cathedral’s amphitheater, the hymns are sung by the songbirds and played on the flutes of the winds and the waves.”


Approaching a Cathedral in the Wild: Baja

There’s been a lot written over the past few decades about the irreversible destruction of our Earth-bound Cosmic Artifacts (Our gift of Nature’s resources) and the ultimate adverse affect on all of life, including humans. We too have written in our blog and in Wonderlust about the rapid extinctions of habitats and their species, the relentless diminution of the Earth’s finite resources, ocean acidification, exhaustion of soil and fresh water sources, pollution and illnesses and death, the result of growing abuse and careless destruction of our Earth-bound Cosmic Artifacts.

We won’t repeat those concerns.

But there is a recent scientific study with a stuffy title, (The Measurement of Subjective Value and Its Relation to Contingent Valuation and Environmental Public Goods), with results that are puzzling. Khaw, Grab, Livermore, Vossler and Glimcher, the authors of the study – a brain study – report that over the years neurobiologists have discovered correlations between blood-oxygen levels measured on MRI brain scans and the values people place on goods, concluding from their study:

“[A]ll previously tested valuation procedures are associated with brain activation . . . when the subjects considered, valued or chose between previously tested goods. . . . However, we find no evidence of a relationship between brain activity . . . [and] valuations of environmental goods. Puzzlingly, we find that the neural activations elicited by the environmental goods in those areas are lower than the average BOLD [blood-oxygen-level-dependent] activity elicited by snack foods.”

What are Nature’s “Environmental Public Goods?” The study explains:

“Environmental public goods — including national parks, clean air/water, and ecosystem services—provide substantial benefits on a global scale. These goods have unique characteristics in that they are typically “non market” goods, with values from both use and passive use that accrue to a large number of individuals both in current and future generations.”

Could it be that our outrage for the destruction by ISIS of Human-made artifacts, and our lack of outrage – in fact, in many cases, particularly among policy makers and political leaders, outright denial – about the destruction of Earth-bound Cosmic Artifacts – Nature’s Environmental Public Goods – has to do with the way our cultural values have warped our brains? With our valuing snack food higher than environmental public goods? With our being more concerned about the destruction of Human-made Artifacts than our Creator’s Earth-bound Cosmic Artifacts, which are also not only irreplaceable, but are also necessary for our survival?

The study is the first to venture into how humans value environmental public goods. It will not be the last. But the preliminary results are disconcerting.

Wonderlust’s final chapter includes the following observations from philosopher Thomas Berry:

“It is not only food for our bodies that comes from Earth, but our very power of thinking and the great images in our imagination. . . . Even our knowledge of God comes to us from our acquaintance with Earth, for the divine reveals itself first of all in the sky and in the waters and in the wind, in the mountains and valleys, in the birds of the air and in all those living forms that flower and move over the surface of the planet. . . .

“Unless we are totally depraved, we will seek to give our children not only life and education but a planet with pure air and bright waters and fruitful fields, a planet that can be lived on with grace and beauty and at least a touch of human and earthly tenderness.”

Let us hope we are not “totally depraved” and future studies will provide a more hopeful result – and that our children will inherit “a planet with pure air and bright waters and fruitful fields.”


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3 Comments on "Artifacts – What Does Their Destruction Mean to Us?"

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Healthy environment indeed we must do together. From any corner of the world until the midpoint of the world….

Hello, Dick~

I just now had the opportunity to read your latest blog.

Your correlation of the destruction of artifacts and what is happening to our planet grabs attention, for certain.

As always, we shake our heads in wonder at your perception, research, and ability to wrap it all together in your mission to influence.
Thank you. Lois

Dick, you are amazing, this is brilliant which I would expect from you and your “Wandering mind” but special and thought provoking.
I enjoy and look forward to each of your writings and hope you are writing a book that will encompass all of them. Thanks for sharing .