Penn’s Hanson Works to Protect Cultural Heritage Sites in Syria and Iraq

Katharyn Hanson stands on stage at the World Café Live in Philadelphia in front of a crowd of several dozen. Behind her flash images of antiquities and artifacts that make up much of the cultural legacy in places like Syria and Iraq. Sprinkled throughout are photos of explosions, dark gray plumes masking former heritage sites.

Hanson used to leave out this type of picture intentionally from her lectures; she didn’t want to give additional publicity to the people carrying out the acts. But experience and passion for her job convinced her to do what it takes to get people to notice, and she’s started including them. 

For nearly two decades, Hanson’s work has focused on steps to document and protect important sites in conflict zones. Raising awareness is part of her role as an archaeologist broadly, and more specifically as a postdoctoral fellow at the Cultural Heritage Center, or PennCHC, at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

So far the work has taken her to Iraq and Syria, among other places, where she has taught locals emergency measures they can use to defend their treasures. And through SHOSI, or Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria and Iraq, and her role at PennCHC, she’s working to build a damage database. 

“This destruction can be staggering. It can be overwhelming. And at a certain point the humanitarian suffering and the loss of life and the loss of cultural heritage sites really just become too much to keep looking at over and over again,” she said during a talk on the topic, part of the Penn Science Café series that features Penn faculty and experts.

“But,” Hanson said, “we are recording all the losses ... as an effort to make sure we have evidence.”

It is a record of what the sites used to be but also evidence to be used in future war-crimes prosecution, she added. Sadly, the proof is mounting.

Hanson said it’s an endless cycle: Destruction of such sites not only makes news but has done so recently more than ever, with social media propelling it farther and wider. She used as an example much of what’s happened in Palmyra in Syria. Any notoriety motivates those committing the acts to destroy more.

Locals, too, are suffering.

“Think about the people behind the artifacts,” she said, pointing to Khaled al-Assad, a renowned Syrian archeologist killed by militants this past summer for not revealing the hidden location of some ancient relics.

“We have brave colleagues on the ground, who are willing to protect their cultural heritage sites.”

In addition, the archaeologist noted, there’s destruction the news media doesn’t pick up, such as damage due to military presence, graffiti and looting and theft of what remains.

Despite having such a dire situation to report, Hanson closed her Penn Science Café presentation with messages of hope, speaking specifically of SHOSI, and offering ways for people in the United States to help. A bill, the “Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act,” passed in the U.S. House of Representatives this past spring and a Senate bill of the same name is now being considered. Both place import restrictions on items coming into the U.S. from Syria, something that currently exists for parallel items entering from Iraq. 

The message, Hanson said, is that the United States will not allow stolen cultural material into the country. “Yes, it is just law, it is just policy, but it sets out a principle that’s really important.”

For Hanson and others working toward this cause, that’s a step in the right direction to protect the world’s heritage. 

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