Monday, August 24, 2015


The news that a prominent Syrian scholar has been brutally murdered by Islamic State militants has hit the arts community hard -- and has been condemned by Syria's antiquities chief, Maamoun Abdul Karim, as a "cowardly and criminal act of appalling brutality."

But the beheading of the 82-year-old Khaled Asaad, an archaeologist and researcher who for half a century has served as guardian of the exquisite ancient ruins at Palmyra, also demonstrates the great uncertainty facing the famed UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Asaad's death is not a good omen for the future of this singular ancient city, an important Silk Road hub that bears Greco-Roman, Persian, Indian, Chinese and other influences -- some of which date back more than two millennia. Scholars around the world have been on edge about its future since May, when Islamic State militants invaded the area, killing hundreds of local residents. The militants are known as much for their violence against humans as for their destruction of historic sites -- from pre-Islamic pagan temples to Muslim shrines -- under the pretense that they are idolatrous.

While the militants largely left the ruins alone in the weeks following the invasion, by July, they had gotten around to destroying some of its statuary, including an important 2,000-year-old statue of a lion. At the time, UNESCO chief Irina Bokova described the destruction as being on an "industrial scale."

If the ruins at Palmyra were to be destroyed, the loss wouldn't just be a Syrian one. Palmyra was a place where East met West -- tied as much to Classical European civilizations as it was to the cultures of the Middle East and Asia. According to UNESCO, their destruction would be "an enormous loss to humanity."

The death of Asaad, in the meantime, represents the silencing of one of the ruins' most vaunted defenders. Asaad, who was born in Palmyra, had been director of the UNESCO heritage site for 50 years, from 1963 to 2003. Even after his retirement, he still worked as an expert with the antiquities and museum department.

Asaad had helped with the removal of many of the on-site museum's greatest treasures in anticipation of the invasion by Islamic State, and some experts theorize that is why he was killed. One Syrian source told the Guardian that the archaeologist had been interrogated by militants for about a month before his murder, likely about the location of Palmyra's treasures. But Asaad had refused to cooperate. His death is a tremendous loss. Asaad was intimately identified with Palmyra -- having been responsible for some of its most significant finds, including an intact third-century mosaic depicting a battle between human beings and mythical animals. Moreover, he had written countless texts on the history of the site.

"It's like you can't talk about Egyptology without talking about Howard Carter," one Syrian antiquities expert told the Guardian, in reference to the archaeologist who discovered Tutankhamun's tomb. "You can't write about Palmyra's history or anything to do with Palmyrian work without mentioning Khaled Asaad."

Asaad had refused to leave the city when Islamic State militants invaded this spring. As Abdul Karim recounted to the Daily Mail: "He told us, 'I am from Palmyra and I will stay here even if they kill me.'"

Sadly, that has now come to pass.


Khaled Asaad, 82, is beheaded by militants outside the museum where he worked for more than 50 years looking after the city's ancient artifacts. Isis militants tortured and executed the antiquities chief of the ancient city of Palmyra, according to Syrian officials and activists.

A graphic image posted online by Isis-affiliated social media accounts purported to show the decapitated body of 82-year-old Khaled Asaad, his distinctive glasses still placed on his head on the ground.

The head of Syria's department of antiquities said that militants later took Mr Asaad's body from the square where he was executed and hung it from a Roman column in one of the ruins he had dedicated more than 50 years of his life to restoring.

A placard attached to the remains pictured online reportedly claimed Mr Asaad had been killed for overseeing "idols" in the ancient city, attending "infidel" conferences as Syrian representative, and for staying in touch with his brother and with palace officials in the wake of Isis's takeover.

Maamoun Abdulkarim, based in Damascus, said Mr Asaad's family told him the scholar had been held and interrogated by Isis for at least the past month. He said Isis had tried to get information about the city's "treasures" from the expert, without success.


Excavations at the Central Anatolian province of Çorum’s Alacahöyük site, one of the significant centers of the ancient Hittite civilization and Turkey’s first national excavation field, have unearthed various artifacts in a 3,700 year-old mine factory.

Professor Aykut Çınaroğlu, the head of the excavations that are carried out by Ankara University, said work had been continuing since 2009 and this year they discovered two copper bullions, proving the existence of the mine factory.

Çınaroğlu said the bullions were used for the production of various artifacts, adding that the remains dated back to 3,700 years ago.

“At this factory, we work in new rooms and new sections every year. This year we have been working for some 20 days and found the walls of the factory. Although this place is a third-degree earthquake area, we were surprised at the smoothness and durableness of these walls. We will keep them as they are without doing any restoration,” he said, adding that excavations at the site are ongoing.


Cut marks on two 3.4-million-year-old animal bones from Ethiopia were thought to be evidence that the beasts had been trampled by other animals long ago, but new research suggests that's not the case.

The new results debunk one theory for how the bones got their marks, and support — but do not, on their own, definitively prove — the alternative hypothesis that ancient human ancestors cut the bones. If that latter hypothesis turns out to be true, it would mean hominins — the group of species that consists of humans and their relatives after the split from the chimpanzee lineage — were butchering animals 800,000 years earlier than scientists had previously thought.

Combined with recent evidence that human predecessors used stone tools about 3.3 million years ago, the new study could help change the picture of human ancestors of the genus Australopithecus, whose members include the famous "Lucy" skeleton. [In Photos: 'Little Foot' Human Ancestor Walked With Lucy]