Colosseum defaced by Americans: How do we teach reverence for world sites?

Two young American tourists reportedly carved their initials in the Roman Colosseum, while ISIS releases videos showing destruction of sacred historical sites. How can parents reinforce the importance of protecting cultural artifacts?

Max Rossi/Reuters
A carabinieri paramilitary car patrols in front of the Colosseum in Rome February 17.

The destruction of antiquities taking place around the globe lately is disturbing for parents who want to ensure that those resources remain available to visitors, while making sure their children are not among those defacing or eroding them.

It seems to me all too unsurprising to see a headline today about two young adult tourists from California allegedly carving their initials into Rome's Colosseum on Saturday and posing for a selfie.

The two unidentified women, ages 21 and 25, were arrested after the alleged vandalism of the Colosseum, The Guardian reports.

Apparently, they left their tour group and scratched their initials, J and N, into the amphitheater with a coin, despite signs posted in both English and Italian make the law very clear: defacing walls is illegal at the Colosseum.

It's interesting that when looking at different sites about “tips for young tourists” there were lots of guidelines which addressed personal safety and how to get the best deals, but nothing on this form of etiquette.  

The defacing of public landmarks and ancient sites is all too common. In November of 2014 a Russian tourist carved a giant letter into the Colosseum.

In May of 2013 a teenage Chinese tourist carved "Ding Jinhao was here" on an ancient Egyptian temple.

Stories about ancient cities have been all over the news recently, from the celebration over the potential discovery of the legendary "White City" in Honduras, to the destruction of an ancient city in Iraq by Islamic State militants. It seems that on one hand we are able to share the science and history with our kids even as these very same things are being trod on and even demolished.

Aside from terrorists and tourists, last year the environmental group Greenpeace tried to make a political point and in the process was brought up on charges by Peruvian authorities for damaging a 1,500 year-old landmark. The environmental group unfurled several large banners across the Nazca Lines world heritage site, inflicting harm on the millennia old work of art, according to Peruvian authorities.

Judging by the actions of these teens and young adults defacing global treasures I worry that some parents are raising kids who think it’s perfectly justifiable to leave their mark on an antiquity, work of art, or public landmark if it suits their immediate desire.

I suspect that many of our children have visited museums or public antiquities outdoors and have been instructed by tour guides and teachers to not touch the art for fear of having the oils from their hands do damage via erosion.

I’ve known parents to share the video “Bernard at the Museum” with young kids prior to a school trip.

However, as our kids reach their teenage years and young adulthood the warnings of childhood seem to not only fade, but become a target of a challenge. 

Carving initials into things seems to also be something that may range from romantic (first loves carving initials into trees and park benches) to the self-aggrandizing “I was here.”

Years ago, when one of our sons, age 11 at the time, carved his name into the dining room table built by his deceased grandfather, the whole family got a lesson on how upset some people can get over a piece of history being defaced. My husband and I not only gave one of the world’s longest parental lectures, but eventually pressed all of our sons into the service of refinishing the table.

From reading the stories of these vandals, I think we need to go for a more timely and perhaps dramatic example we can offer kids.

For teens and young adults who might need something a bit more powerful than a tour guide’s speech to convince them, my go-to example is the recent destruction of both a museum in Mosul, Iraq and the demolition of the ancient city of Hatra, both by the Islamic State.

Islamic State militants have begun demolishing the ancient archaeological site of Hatra. Hatra is an ancient fortified city that was the capital of the first Arab kingdom. It is a UNESCO world heritage site. This follows a video released by ISIS in February which showed militants smashing antiquities at a museum in Mosul, Iraq.

When my sons, ages 11, 16, 19 and 21, saw the videos of the ISIS militant smashing a statue in a museum and another of bulldozer leveling an ancient landmark, each of them came away angry and offended at seeing the casual pummeling of history and culture by an uncaring force. 

My intention in sharing these videos with my own sons is to further reinforce the traditional guidance of “don’t touch the art” with some poignant examples of what it looks and feels like to see those antiquities vanish before our eyes.

Then I will explain that while it may seem insignificant for a tourist to scratch their initials or a message onto the surface of an ancient site, we must think about the millions of people visiting that place each year.

When taking children on a tour to the local botanical gardens, I always use the same explanation when they want to pick a flower.  

I ask them, “Think about what this beautiful garden would look like if everyone who ever comes here picks just one flower?” I follow up with, “How many people do you think visit here every year?” When a tour guide provides the answer, it’s easy to see how many flowers would be leveled for the sake of taking a memory home.

It’s a good general reminder that if every tourist carves their initials in ancient sites there wouldn’t be enough coins in the world to buy what we will all lose when sites like the pyramids or Colosseum are reduced to little more than piles of dust.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.