In recent history, anger and revolution have destroyed a number of great monuments to the work and beliefs of mankind. The Cultural Revolution comes to mind, and its destruction and defacement of a variety of religious monuments, including some of the early Buddhist temples along the Silk Road. The book burning in Nazi Germany is another example. The symbolic burning of Old Glory to support a specific cause is an example of representative destruction, as was done during the Vietnam War. The Taliban and their destruction of various non-Muslim religious spaces is another example.
But all is not lost with these acts of violence. The monuments that were destroyed are often held in even more reverence at later times. The calls to destruction can attract new attention to significant historical locations and even sometimes lead to renewed study and preservation concerns for the past. Take the recent discovery that Buddhists near Bamiyan used oil-based paints in the 7th century for example. If the Taliban hadn’t attempted to destroy the caves and the two Buddha statues outside, conservationists would have been reluctant to study the composition of the painting materials. From restoration processes after the Taliban’s reign, we now know that people in the area were using oils centuries before the advent of oil painting in Europe.
What debt, then, do we have to those who attempt to destroy culture and end up preserving it even more firmly? Does it say something more about them, or about us, that we study only those things that are most endangered or at risk. What does it mean that a high percentage of the archaeological study taking place in North America only happens as a result of land development? What does it mean that we only have the resources to discover the past when the physical presence of that past is threatened?