Western archaeologists seek protection for Afghan treasures

22nd June 2010, Comments 0 comments

A senior Western archaeologist in Afghanistan says he is struggling to protect a vast wealth of cultural treasures from being stolen and smuggled to wealthier countries, or worse, destroyed altogether.

"I think there is absolutely no site in this country which is unaffected," Philippe Marquis, the director of a team of French government-funded archaeologists operating in Afghanistan, told AFP in a recent interview.

"The illegal trade in antiquities is very significant, and is related to all the illegal activities which are going on in Afghanistan," he added.

Afghanistan's position on the ancient Silk Road that linked east with west has left the country with a rich cultural heritage.

But decades of war have hampered efforts to conduct proper archaeological investigations, while a lack of regulation means that priceless treasures are being smuggled out of the country at an alarming rate.

The looting is often carried out by poor villagers who are paid by middlemen often based elsewhere in the region -- a problem the French have gone some way to addressing by paying the looters to work on their digs instead.

But Marquis believes much of the blame lies elsewhere. It is illegal to take object more than 100 years old out of Afghanistan, but enforcement of the law is weak, and most stolen antiquities are smuggled to wealthier countries.

The United Nations recently sought the advice of the French archaeologists after it discovered a large number of Afghan antiquities in the shipment of a departing staff member.

"People are often not even aware of the importance, they just think, well this would be nice on a shelf in my house in France or the UK," says Marquis.

The French archaeological mission has been working in Afghanistan since 1922, when the Afghan authorities invited the government in Paris to begin carrying out surveys in the country.

It had to interrupt its work during World War II, and again in 1982, when the pro-Soviet regime asked its archaeologists to leave.

But it returned in 2002 and now has several projects around the country, including excavations in the historic cities of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan -- site of the ancient Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban -- and Balkh in the north.

Last year, in cooperation with the Afghan National Institute of Archaeology, it began an excavation of an ancient Buddhist settlement at the Mes Aynak mine, which has the second-largest known unexploited copper deposits in the world.

The Afghan government has awarded the mining project to the China Metallurgical Group Corporation, which is keen to begin work at the site, 40 kilometres (25 miles) outside the capital Kabul.

But Marquis says it risks destroying untold numbers of archaeological treasures, and he and his team are racing to rescue as much as possible before the mining work begins.

"It appears there was a copper mine on the site from the second century BC right up to the sixth century AD," he says.

"Excavation started in 2009 and we have already discovered wall paintings and hundreds of statues, some quite large, including a five-metre sleeping Buddha."

The area around Mes Aynak has already been heavily looted. Marquis's team found parts of giant clay statues left behind by thieves who had apparently broken them apart because they were too heavy to carry in their entirety.

"Virtually all the statues had been mutilated, it was a case of people taking what they could carry," says Marquis, describing the market in antiquities as a "major source of income for the black economy."

"The problem of plundering of historic sites in Afghanistan is not only an Afghan problem, it is also an international one.

"We are trying to raise awareness in Europe that people buying these objects are part of the criminal process. They are as responsible as those who are looting the site. The only way to stem this is to stop the demand."

© 2010 AFP

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