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Tina Greenfield is among the archaeologists racing to excavate and document relics and rarities at sites that could be the next target of militant group ISIS. // PHOTO BY KATIE CHALMERS-BROOKS
Tina Greenfield is a research associate in the department of anthropology and co-director of the Near Eastern and Biblical Archaeology Laboratory at St. Paul’s College. // PHOTO BY KATIE CHALMERS-BROOKS

The Future of History

Digging up artifacts for 11 hours a day under a scorching Middle Eastern sun is not for the fainthearted.

“Archaeologists are pretty tough characters,” says U of M researcher and alumna Tina Greenfield [BA/92, MA/97].

Even more so when they work under the threat of ISIS.

Greenfield is among the archaeologists racing to excavate and document artifacts and buildings at sites that could be the next target of the militant group. Followers of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have taken sledgehammers to historical statues, ignited barrel bombs to destroy walls of ancient cities, and rammed bulldozers through archaeological digs in a region recognized as the cradle of civilization.

Only a handful of these archaeological attacks have made headlines, but Greenfield says her colleagues count roughly 600 sites now destroyed in Iraq and Syria in the last few years.

She’s brought her expertise of ancient animal bones (which reveal the diet, health and even status of early civilizations) to projects in Iraqi-Kurdistan, Turkey, Israel, Serbia, Romania and South Africa. For her PhD through the University of Cambridge, Greenfield helped unearth a 32-hectare Assyrian city, where their team even discovered a previously unknown language dating back 2,500 years.

She first heard of ISIS’s intent to wipe out anything they deem idolatrous to pure Islam when she arrived in Erbil in 2013 to teach local Iraqis high-tech archaeological techniques (like digital imaging). Within a week of the workshop ending, she got word of an attack on a museum in nearby Mosul.

“We were getting daily reports of where Islamic State was going to be moving and how far they were pushing west from Syria,” Greenfield says.

One archaeologist who for four decades oversaw the ancient ruins of Palmyra in Syria—Khaled al-Asaad—lost his life defending the site. ISIS killed the staunch protector in grotesque fashion, beheading him in front of a crowd.

“We should all be horrified and not complacent to what is happening,” says Greenfield.

But she does see some promise, with foreign forces helping to protect the people from ISIS and a growing number of halted archaeological excavations starting up again.

“We are fighting back,” she says.

Greenfield first fell in love with history and all of its secrets in high school. For family getaways, she pushed to go explore Europe with its ancient castles and churches rather than the family cottage in Lac Du Bonnet, Man. At 18 she got her wish and flew to France as an exchange student.

“The wow moment was just the majesty and incredible length of history that you could see literally everywhere you turned,” says Greenfield. “I knew immediately that was sort of where I should be. I wanted to surround myself with history.”

On another solo trip she traced her family’s genealogy in Holland. As a U of M student she took part in an archaeological dig in 1991 in Serbia—her first—and was immediately hooked.

“I knew then for sure that archaeology was my passion,” Greenfield says. “I absolutely loved every aspect of an excavation. I loved the science of it. I loved the historical component. I loved being able to understand and put into context how people lived 8,000 years ago.”


Perhaps my biggest objective when I do archaeology, personally, is to take a very integrated holistic point of view—which might be by integrating historical, textual and other archaeological data—so that I can understand how people lived and worked on a daily basis.

What types of animals we eat can define who we are. For example, if someone is eating lunch meat or a hot dog that would cost a lot less money than someone eating the best piece of steak. Just by its nature this information helps to define our social status. And a lot of times there are larger forces that dictate that, especially in ancient times.

When I was working in Turkey, because we had animal bones from commoner residences and palaces and other locales, I was able to map out simply based on animal bones who were the wealthy and who were the non-wealthy inhabitants.

Archaeology is 50 per cent patience, 40 per cent sweat and 10 per cent sort of that wow moment. It is a discipline that requires passion.

A typical day [at the archaeological site in Israel where Greenfield was this summer] is that you wake up at 4:30 a.m. and arrive on the site at 5:00. We work until 1:00 p.m., come down from the site to have lunch, do lab work and we’re back there from 4:00 till sometimes 8:00. It’s a long day. And that’s six days a week. It’s physically demanding but also mentally draining.

You never know what you’re going to find when you’re digging. Sometimes you find nothing. Sometimes you find spectacular things. It’s the passion and the anticipation of finding something and understanding just a little bit more that keeps us going. Most of the time it’s not about the wow moment or the most amazing find. A lot of the time it’s about the small things—the changes in dirt, which indicate a house floor or another new feature—that help us understand the big picture. It’s like a puzzle.

It’s always on our minds that we need to excavate and document as much as we can because we never know what’s going to happen in the future.

That’s the hardest thing: all these sites in Syria and Iraq, many of them have been monumentally destroyed.

Over hundreds and thousands of years, we’ve known that there has been different cultural groups coming in and destroying cultural monuments across the Near East and Europe. The problem with Islamic State is they are very good at visual media. They are calculating the highest media impact that they can have and that’s what they’re putting out on the web. They send news releases to all the major news companies in the world. They also have glossy magazines that are given out all over the Near East and geared towards the younger population.

When they move into a city or a village, they hire local men to work for them at a higher rate than anywhere else. They’re targeting young boys, as well as teenagers to 40-year-olds to recruit as part of their army and that’s why it’s growing so large: because these men make very, very good money. When they work for the Islamic State, nine times out of 10, they don’t know what they’re doing. It is only afterwards that they finally realize what is happening. By the time they understand what exactly Islamic State represents, it is often too late.

They are very savvy, very calculated. Islamic State isn’t a bunch of people in the back of a pick-up truck like it once was, trying to take over a small village. They’re incredibly wealthy, they’re incredibly calculated and very, very resourceful.

People ask me, ‘What do you do about it?’ I play my little part by informing the public and academic worlds about what is going on in these regions and also by going out to work on sites in Iraq. We are trying to save our mutual, ancient, cultural heritage, including the archaeological sites.

By far the largest devastation is the shocking number of people who have been killed. This does not come across in the news that most people hear about. And the refugee camps are astounding—you know, millions and millions of people are living in them. The devastation on the human population of the region is massive.

I have so many images [of archaeological damage] that I get from colleagues, it is overwhelming. The question that we as archaeologists ponder is: ‘Do we show all of these images to the world when clearly this is what [Islamic State] wants?’ They want them shown around the world so they can be seen as powerful. Many archaeologists have now refused to repost these images. Instead, they will say damage has been done at such and such a place but there will be no pictures because the images just feed the frenzy of the Islamic State.

[In videos] I’ve seen them blow up the walls of cities—ancient Nimrud and ancient Nineveh in Iraq. It is a place that is actually in the Bible and linked to the story of Jonah and the Whale. They’ve blown up walls and beautifully carved reliefs from those sites. They’ve gone into museums and burnt medieval manuscripts—ancient manuscripts. They have blown up statues. They have taken bulldozers to sites and literally bulldozed the walls and architecture. They see each of these as being impure.

It’s devastating. All historians and archaeologists—even all citizens of the world—should be horrified at this and saddened because this is everybody’s history. This region, Mesopotamia, is what we call the cradle of civilization. It’s where writing, astronomy, temples and organized cities began. In reality, we are all part of this history. It is our universal heritage that is being destroyed.

[Islamic State] knows antiquities will sell on the black market. Next to oil, their second largest source of income comes from antiquities. They bulldoze sites and hire the local population to dig through rubble to find the antiquities. These are trafficked around the world to private collectors who probably either don’t realize or don’t care that they are supporting Islamic State and destroying a priceless resource.

These antiquities show up in the United States, all over London. It’s private investors most of the time. It’s quite controversial. This is one of the things I teach in my classes. Museums have policies of not buying any artifact that does not have proper papers that go with it. However, when you know that antiquities are being destroyed or bought by people, and that you will never be able to research or study these artifacts, should museums buy them to keep and to preserve them? This is a big debate. Different colleagues have different answers. Some say yes, this is war and that we need different scenarios during times of war—where you save anything you can. Others say absolutely not, that you are only financing Islamic State. It’s a big controversy. And it’s not an easy one to answer.

But it’s not all doom and gloom because there are several projects in Iraqi Kurdistan now. We are excavating new sites and documenting old sites. Archaeologists are even beginning to work in southern Iraq again—this is where I am going in the springtime.

The hot thing right now in archaeology is digital imaging, everything from satellites to 3-D imaging of artifacts to drones used for site documentation. For documenting, we’re using something called photogrammetry at sites to make 3-D reconstructions of the trenches while you’re digging them. That’s what we’re doing in Israel and Kurdistan on the projects I am involved in.

Another hot thing is archaeological sciences, which is a very large, quickly growing field where you bring in archaeological scientists like myself that work specifically at archaeological sites to analyse bones, plants, metals, beads, glass, soils and a variety of different artifacts to try and retrieve as much information as possible. Part of the archaeological sciences is something called bioarchaeology, which is having its glory days right now because archaeologists are starting to realize that through the analysis of plants, animals and charcoal we can build an economic picture of a site that other artifacts such as pottery cannot tell us. So, we investigate what people ate, what they drank, how the environment looked and how old the site is.

We’re currently training Iraqi and Kurdish archaeologists in new methods of excavation in hopes that they will lead their own projects in the near future. I am involved with a new project with the British Museum in London where I will help train these archaeologists in bioarchaeological data recovery beginning in late September in Kurdistan.

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