Priceless artifacts destroyed by people

Much of what we know about the distant past we learned from its relics. Without the pyramids, for example, or the artifacts found in ancient tombs, the mummies, or the hieroglyphics, the ancient Egyptians would still be a mystery. Archaeology gives us a window into a past that would otherwise be invisible.

Over time, ancient buildings crumble and forgotten relics turn to dust, so archeology is a little bit like a race against the forces of nature, a mission to rescue history from the clutches of time. So when artifacts are lifted from the ruins of the past, restored and preserved, and then someone willfully or stupidly destroys them, we kind of just want to punch that person in the face.

The good news is that the willful destruction of historic sites and artifacts is now a war crime, governed by the International Criminal Court. In the summer of 2016, an Islamist fighter named Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi became the first person to be prosecuted by the court for the destruction of cultural artifacts — he razed a bunch of mausoleums and a mosque in Timbuktu, and then said he felt bad about it, probably mostly because he was facing 30 years in prison. Sadly, Ahmad's rampage was not the first time ancient artifacts and sites were targeted by evildoers, and it probably won't be the last.

Death to America, and all these ancient relics, too

Because we didn't already have enough reasons to hate ISIS, in early 2015 they gave us another one — a video that showed militants ransacking the central museum in Mosul, Iraq. The footage begins with some guy prattling on about idolatry, and then proceeds to the main story arc, which is a bunch of dudes armed with sledgehammers and what appears to be a very large drill gleefully toppling statues that are thousands of years old, and then smashing them to bits, with all the exuberance and intellectualism of toddlers stomping on bubble wrap.

Their reason? Because the Assyrians and Akkadians were polytheists, so that means they should be erased from history. Evidently, it doesn't matter that modern Assyrians are monotheistic or that the Akkadian civilization is extinct because the polytheism of the past is somehow a threat to the monotheism of the present. If there was ever a way to tell the world just how insecure you are in your own faith, that's it. Happily, these dummies' faces are on camera, so we really hope there's an International Criminal Court date somewhere in their futures.

This pyramid is in the way of our road

Belize is a tiny island nation in the Caribbean — so tiny, in fact, that one construction company thought to itself, "This island ain't big enough for our construction company and this ancient Mayan pyramid." So bye bye, pyramid.

According to National Geographic, the construction company's activities were noted by Belize's National Institute of Culture and History, which at one point worried that crews were bulldozing mounds at the Nohmul pyramid site in order to obtain gravel for a road project. But apparently they were unable to do anything to prevent the destruction, so they just kind of sat by and watched as crews edged closer and closer to the main 60-foot pyramid and then knocked the whole thing down.

The site is protected by Belizean law, as are all similar Mayan sites, so it's unclear why nothing was done to prevent the pyramid's destruction (other than some vague rumblings about the burning of cane fields somehow obscuring the presence of the backhoes, but probably no one is buying that). So now the country is left with an Institute of Archaeology investigation, which is all well and good except that it can't really bring back an entire ancient pyramid. But hey, at least they're going to have a lovely new road.

We thought looting was totally cool

Looting has a long and glorious history — any time there was chaos, looters would descend like swarms of mosquitoes, sucking the cultural blood of every devastated community. Modern warfare has rules against such things (hence the prosecution of Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi), but even as recently as World War II soldiers regularly looted valuable goods from defeated enemies, and sometimes it was more than just a dead guy's watch.

Toward the end of World War II, HistoryNet tells us three drunken U.S. Army officers staggered into a secret room in the requisitioned Kronberg Castle in Germany, found a suspicious-looking concrete patch, and proceed to uncover a stash of hidden jewels belonging to Germany's House of Hesse. The trio knew getting the jewels out of Germany intact would be nearly impossible, so they pried out all the precious stones, kept the gold and silver mountings as scrap, and mailed most of the loot back to the U.S., pawning the smaller pieces in Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

It was all quite stupid, really, since the Hesse family was alive and well and living in cottages just outside the castle, so were not likely to have forgotten about their stashed-away crown jewels. The American officers were found out and court-martialed on charges of larceny, dereliction of duty, and "conduct unbecoming U.S. military officers." Each one served time in federal prison for the crime, but more than half the jewels they stole remain lost.

Of much shorter broad stripes and fewer bright stars

Today, if you want to own a piece of history, you check eBay. A few hundred years ago, you just cut someone else's piece of history into a bunch of little pieces. According to the Smithsonian, that's what happened to the broad stripes and bright stars of the Star Spangled Banner. The original flag that gallantly streamed through the perilous fight was cut up and redistributed in a truly shining example of what is possible in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

The flag was passed down from Lt. Col. George Armistead to his daughter Georgiana after his death. No one knows who first asked for just one little piece, but pretty soon everyone was clamoring for a part of the historic flag, which now hangs in the National Museum of American History and is roughly 20 percent smaller than it used to be. One of the stars is missing, too — that one presumably went to a super, extra-important person, though Georgiana declined to reveal his or her identity.

Those little fragments are still floating around out there in the world, and it's perfectly legal to own them since they were separated from the original back when no one gave a large rodent's butt about preserving historical artifacts for the greater good of everyone. If you want one though, it will cost you — in 2011 a scrap about the size of an address label sold for $10,755.

Psst ... wanna buy a decapitated mummy head?

Thieves are not usually known for their appreciation of the objects they steal — they're mostly just in it for the money, so if they manage to break into a place full of priceless artifacts, it's not like they're going to wear white gloves and avoid using flash photography. In 2011, thieves broke into the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and opened 10 cases full of priceless figurines. When they discovered that the figurines were very inconsiderately not made out of gold, they dropped and broke them, because people suck and there is no hope for the human race. But wait, it gets worse. Thwarted by the lack of things that could be melted down and sold to a pawnbroker, the thieves decided to decapitate a couple of 2,000-year-old mummies instead, maybe because they knew of a pawnbroker who could fence ancient human heads. And then while they were at it, they stole a bunch of stuff from the gift shop to prove they have no concept of value.

The thieves were stopped outside the museum and the heads were returned intact, but a lot of damage had already been done. According to CNN, the damaged items included some of the artifacts from King Tutankhamun's tomb, in particular one famous image of King Tut on a panther. Fortunately, restoration teams were able to fix up at least some of them, but ultimately broken artifacts are still broken, no matter how carefully the repairs are hidden.

This geoglyph would go perfectly with a couple donuts

We've all known at least one seriously obnoxious guy who has an off-road vehicle and gets a kick out of tearing up the grass in places he really isn't supposed to be tearing up the grass. But one guy in particular decided he would channel the obnoxiousness of all obnoxious owners of off-road vehicles who came before him and just do donuts in a UNESCO World Heritage site, perhaps just so everyone in the world would know what a total jackass he is.

According to Ancient Origins, the man drove right past all the warning signs meant to keep people out of the area and then right over the top of three of the Peruvian Nazca Lines, which are geoglyphs of animals, plants, and strange creatures, and are so enormous they must be viewed from the air to be fully appreciated. The Nazca lines are thousands of years old and so fragile that anyone who approaches them on foot is supposed to wear special shoes to avoid damaging them.

Unsurprisingly this is not the first time the Nazca lines were damaged by idiots — in 2014 Greenpeace activists stomped all over some of the images so they could leave a geoglyph-sized message reading, "Time for change! The future is renewable!" Which they then signed "Greenpeace," thus letting everyone know just how extra-stupid they were. You're not winning people over with this one, folks.

The guy who paintballed ancient Native artwork

So then a totally different guy who might have actually been a cousin to the dude that did donuts on the Nazca Lines shot up a bunch of ancient petroglyphs in Lake Mead National Recreation Area with a paintball gun.

It's really, really hard to comprehend the thought process that will get you from "I'm bored," to "I'm going to destroy a priceless part of history," but that's exactly what the 21-year-old vandal did. According to KCET, area tribes were able to get most of the paint off, but because it was oil-based there is still residue left on the ancient artwork.

Fortunately, the vandal was prosecuted for the crime. His sentence included 15 months in federal prison, restitution of around $10,000, and some community service. At least the prison sentence is real punishment, but the rest of it? Ultimately $10,000 and his 50 hours of community service means that all that lost history is only worth one used Hyundai and a few ruined weekends.

Those jewel-encrusted walls would look better at my house

The reasons ISIS gave to justify the destruction of artifacts in Mosul's central museum were self-righteous and stupid, but at least they were reasons. Not so with the Red Army's destruction of the Amber Room, which The Telegraph says happened in "a frenzy of revenge or through ill discipline."

The Amber Room was literally a room made out of amber. It was built for Peter the Great in 1717 and was considered by many to be the eighth wonder of the world, although to be fair people have also tried to give that title to the Taj Mahal, the Empire State Building, the International Space Station, and Andre the Giant. Anyway the Amber Room was dismantled by the Nazis in 1941, shipped to Germany, and then re-installed in Konigsberg Castle. Then at the end of the war it was dismantled again, only to vanish forever.

People still argue about the fate of the Amber Room, but recently revealed documents say it was in the Knights' Hall at Konigsberg Castle when it was burned down by Soviet soldiers. It's possible the soldiers didn't know what was in the crates, but Moscow will never tell since it still maintains that one day the Amber Room will just sort of reappear and everyone will live happily ever after. But just in case, the Russians decided to build a replica of the Amber Room, which was completed in 1996 at a cost of $11 million.

I'm going to destroy this vase because art is really important

In what is perhaps history's most baffling case of a person not understanding his own point, a Florida artist decided to smash a priceless piece of art to make a statement about how important art is. In his strange brand of logic, the protest made a point about equality in museum exhibitions. He was mad because local artists weren't given the same opportunities to display their work in big museums as international artists were, which sounds more like a complaint than a movement. Maybe he should have focused on making better art to entice museums to feature him.

The unfortunate vase was somewhere between 7,000 and 5,500 years old and worth approximately $1 million. According to Mic, the artist who murdered it apparently got inspiration from the artist who "modified" it — Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who had dipped the ancient vase in bright green paint and then had it displayed beneath a picture of himself smashing a Han dynasty urn, so you can interpret that how you want to. Ai Weiwei also destroyed history, but at least he was protesting government corruption. The smashing of Ai Weiwei's work was mostly just the smashing of another artist's work plus also a ton of history. The artist later claimed he was not aware of the age or value of the vase, which just goes to show that you should always read the plaques at museums.

The printing press was 2,000 years too late

The printing press was undoubtedly one of the greatest inventions of our time, not just because it made it possible for books, newspapers, and other printed material to be widely circulated, but also because it made it possible for a work to survive even after multiple copies were destroyed. For many, there's nothing quite so offensive as a book burning, but at least today a burned book doesn't represent knowledge that's been lost forever.

In the ancient world, if multiple copies of a work existed there were usually only one or two of them, since copying a work was a painstaking process done by hand. So when one work was burned, that was a loss. When a whole library was burned, it was a tragedy.

The library in Alexandria, Egypt, stood for centuries and contained at least 700,000 scrolls. No one is really sure when it was destroyed, only that it was destroyed — according to Ancient Origins, some blame Julius Caesar and others think it was Christians in the fourth century A.D., who thought it was just too paganish to keep existing, much like those ancient statues in Mosul. A final theory has them being burned by the Muslim caliph Omar for pretty much the same reason except from a Muslim perspective. Others don't think the library burned at all, but was just abandoned as Ptolemaic Egypt declined and was replaced by more glorious civilizations.

Speak softly and have some big ships

Caligula is mostly remembered as the bald, hairy megalomaniac who ruled Rome for four years and made goat-mentioning punishable by death. Caligula was also fond of removing heads, both human and marble. He executed his enemies and his friends and sometimes put his own likeness on the decapitated statues of Roman deities.

One of the few things Caligula did that was not completely psychotic was order the construction of two oversized pleasure barges, which he had filled with marble statues because heavy things and wooden ships are such a great combination. The barges had short lives (which probably had nothing to do with all that marble), not unlike Caligula himself, who was assassinated at the age of 29. According to archaeologists, the ships sank to the bottom of Lake Nemi where they remained until divers discovered them 10 fathoms down in 1446. Back then it wasn't possible to salvage ships at those depths, so the wrecks remained where they were until the late 1920s, when the lake was drained and the ships were finally returned to dry land, only to be lost in a fire in 1944. The bronze fittings are the only surviving artifacts.

Fortunately the recovery of the ships taught archaeologists something about Roman shipbuilding. The Nemi ships were 200 feet long and 60 feet wide, which was much larger than the largest ships historians once believed the Romans were capable of building. So there was that, at least.