A rescue operation is underway to save as much as possible from ancient Buddhist monasteries in Mes Aynak, Afghanistan, before the mountains become an open-cast mine and the site is destroyed. In what is now the world’s largest archaeological dig, around 1,000 workers are trying to excavate artefacts from the country’s second most important Buddhist site (along with Hadda), after Bamiyan.
The site, a former training camp of Osama bin Laden, has been leased to a Chinese mining company for copper production. Only what can be excavated and removed to safety will be saved.
Despite the impending archaeological loss, Mes Aynak has received scant attention internationally. Moreover, Afghanistan’s heritage has suffered much in recent years from civil war, looting and the vandalism of the Taliban.
Mes Aynak (Little Copper Well) lies 25 miles south-east of Kabul, in a barren region. The Buddhist monasteries date from the third to the seventh centuries, and are located near the remains of ancient copper mines. It is unclear whether the monastery was originally established to serve the miners or if the monks set up there to work the mines themselves.
Here, 7,000 ft up the mountains, Bin Laden set up a training camp in 1999 to prepare terrorists for the 11 September attack. All traces of the camp have gone, but the region still remains a Taliban stronghold.
During the early 2000s, widespread looting occurred at the Buddhist sites after the Kabul government found it difficult to impose control. Archaeologists are now uncovering dozens of statues with missing heads that were broken off to sell.
Mes Aynak’s fate changed again in 2007, when the government negotiated a 30-year mining concession with the state-owned China Metallurgical Group. The archaeological remains sit on the world’s second largest copper deposit. The $3bn deal represents the largest business venture in Afghanistan’s history.
The mining project should bring major economic benefits for the country, but it involves digging a huge open-cast mine that will envelop most of the archaeological remains. Although mining has not yet begun, large numbers of Chinese workers are already developing the infrastructure.
The rescue excavations began in 2009 at Gol Hamid, which lies in a mountain pass adjacent to a Chinese camp. Work was undertaken by the National Institute of Archaeology and the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan. Part of the monastic compound was excavated, leading to the discovery of a vaulted chapel, monks’ cells and storerooms. Polychrome terracotta statues were also found, including a sleeping Buddha.
Last year the archaeological work moved to Tepe Kafiriat, higher up the mountains. The 260 ft walled complex originally had eight stone-clad stupas (ceremonial towers for relics), surrounding the main stupa. Among the finds are a 25 ft-long reclining Buddha and wall paintings. Archaeologists also discovered a pair of large feet, which are all that remains of a 10 ft statue (the main part was looted or destroyed in the early 2000s). An ancient wooden Buddha was also discovered, which very rarely survive.
Although comparatively little has been excavated, the archaeologists are supposed to complete their work within 14 months. Mining is due to start in 2014.
Last month The Art Newspaper spoke to Omar Sultan, the deputy minister for information and culture. He pledged that from this month, the number of archaeologists would rise from 30 to 65. The number of labourers would be increased tenfold, from 90 to 900. The site is guarded by a force of 1,600 soldiers.
Archaeology Excavation costs are now estimated at $28m, although it is not clear whether the whole site has been surveyed. Funding is coming from the ministry of mines, and possibly from the Chinese company. The Chinese have also promised to send archaeologists.
The most important portable finds have been transferred to the National Museum in Kabul, although its storage and conservation facilities are inadequate to handle the volume of material that has been unearthed.
On 15 March, finds from Mes Aynak went on display in Kabul. “Along the Silk Road: Recent Excavations from Mes Aynak”, featuring 70 of the most important discoveries, was funded by the US embassy in Kabul.
The government has plans to build a new museum near Mes Aynak, on a site in Logar province. It will be five miles from the mine. There are hopes of moving some of the stupa bases and reconstructing them in the new museum.
Sultan has a personal interest in Mes Aynak, since in 1976 he worked with Soviet archaeologists on an initial survey. He remains optimistic: “Yes, we do have enough time. We have an agreement with the ministry of mines to safeguard the archaeology.” Archaeologists, however, have expressed their horror at the rush to mine the copper.
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