It looks terrible - vandals of the Islamic State attacking ancient Assyrian statues with sledge-hammers.

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Nineveh, on the site of modern day Mosul, was the capital of the Assyrian empire that lasted nineteen centuries from 2500 to 605 BC.

But, according to archaeologists, most if not all the statues in the Mosul museum are replicas not originals. The reason they crumble so easily is that they're made of plaster.

"You can see iron bars inside," pointed out Mark Altaweel of the Institute of Archaeology at University College, London, as we watched the video together. "The originals don't have iron bars."

According to Eleanor Robson, chair of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq, the majority of original statues have been taken to the Baghdad Museum for safe-keeping.

'The winged bull'

Nonetheless, the stone winged bull you can see being destroyed is an original, probably one at the gates to Nineveh, dating back to the seventh century.

"I think the Winged Bull is very important locally, because it's one of the few objects that hasn't left the country or gone to Baghdad," said Dr Robson.

The demolition squad of the Islamic State are following in the tradition of the Taliban who blew up the Buddhas at Bamyan, in Afghanistan, and the Malian jihadi group Ansar al Dine which destroyed mud tombs and ancient Islamic manuscripts in Timbuktu.

They quote suras from the Koran that they say demand the destruction of idols and icons. But iconoclasm isn't just a Salafi Islamic idea. In the 17th Century, puritans, under the rule of Oliver Cromwell, destroyed Catholic holy objects and art in Britain.

"We pulled down two mighty great angells, with wings, and divers other angells . . . and about a hundred chirubims and angells," wrote William Dowsing, Cromwell's chief wrecker, after leading his henchmen into Peterhouse college chapel in Cambridge in December 1643.

Countless works of art were lost to history. But such vandalism doesn't just destroy objects. It's also an attempt to deny people their sense of self.

"What ISIS does by destroying cultural sites is fundamentally to undermine people's hope," said Dr Robson. "It undermines the cohesion that holds communities and societies together. That's why it's so damaging and so hard."

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