On the 28th March, a new piece of art was unveiled in Trafalgar square, part of the larger project The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, by Michael Rakowitz. The artist used 10,000 tin cans of date syrup to recreate one of the lamassu—winged bulls with human faces guarding the gated of the ancient city of Niniveh in modern-day Iraq—which had been destroyed by members of the Islamic State. Rakowitz, an Iraqi-American, aims to reconstruct all 7,000 objects stolen from the National Museum of Iraq following the invasion in 2003 by the US and its allies. He says, “as the artefacts disappeared, I was waiting for the loss to translate into outrage and grief for lost lives, but it didn’t happen. So I had the idea of these lost artefacts coming back as ghosts to haunt us.” The cheap, everyday materials were chosen to reflect the relationship of these ancient artefacts with the people and with ordinary life.
Two years before Rakowitz’s work was placed on the Fourth Plinth, Trafalgar square saw the unveiling of another work—a recreation of the 1,800-year-old Arch of Triumph in Palmyra, Syria, which was also destroyed by Islamic State militants. Roger Michel, director of Oxford’s Institute for Digital Archaeology, reflected that “monuments – as embodiments of history, religion, art and science – are significant and complex repositories of cultural narratives. No one should consider for one second giving terrorists the power to delete such objects from our collective cultural record. When history is erased in this fashion, it must be promptly and, of course, thoughtfully restored.”
Applicants for History of Art may want to consider the importance and meaning of these works, and whether a reconstruction can be considered ‘art’; along with Theology applicants, they might want to look into the history of iconoclasm in different cultures and for different reasons. Those applying for Theology in particular may wish to examine and evaluate ISIS’s claims to religious motivations for destroying historic sites. Applicants wishing to study History should think about the political purpose and symbolic significance of destroying or stealing artefacts and erasing cultural heritage, for example in the contexts of war or colonialism. Archaeology applicants should use the above examples to consider the changing role of archaeologists in the current political climate.