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Latest Archaeological and Cultural News of Iran and the Iranian World


Afghanistan: A Treasure Trove for Archaeologists


27 February 2009



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  A newly discovered site at Zargaran, an ancient jewelers' hub near the city of Balkh 


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The Dark Side
An Afghan laborer excavates a fortification wall at Tappeh Zargaran. For every legitimate excavation site such as this, there are many more ransacked by looting. The estimated $4 billion antiquities black market puts it on par with the country's drug trade.


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Hints of History
A rising section of an ancient citadel wall stands among farmland in Balkh. Artifacts found here will be shipped to Kabul where they will be analyzed and placed in a historical context, enabling archeologists to reconstruct what life once looked like.

(Click to enlarge)


LONDON, (CAIS) -- Roland Besenval is a magician. With a few words and expansive hand gestures, the French archaeologist conjures a magnificent city from the millenniums-old ruins that crown a windswept plateau in Afghanistan's far north. Stabbing a finger in the direction of misshapen hillocks made of eroded mud brick, he describes massive battlements built to repel barbarian raiders from the north. Balkh, as the city was known, would have needed them. More than 1,000 years before Marco Polo visited its ruins, Balkh (ancient Bactria) was a Persian city renowned throughout the ancient world for its fabulous wealth and advanced culture. It was the birthplace of one of the world's first monotheistic religion, and the city where Alexander the Great took his second bride, Roxanne. Seemingly oblivious to the recently spent ammunition rounds dislodged by his footsteps, Besenval — who heads the French archaeological delegation to Afghanistan — paints over the war-scarred landscape with his colorful descriptions of Zoroastrian fire altars, Buddhist monasteries, Christian shrines and Muslim mosques. "Here, you are standing on 3,000 years of life," he says, as he walks over scattered shards of blue and green glazed pottery that he casually dismisses as "early Islamic, 11th century or so."


In Afghanistan, history literally crunches underfoot. The country's location, which once was part of Iranian world for over 2400 years, situated at the crossroads of Asia's major trade routes drew merchants, artisans, nomads and conquerors. The ruins of Iranian Balkh, along with those of hundreds of other ancient cities and religious sites, speak of a rich heritage that spans centuries as well as cultures. Artifacts unearthed at these centers of commerce shed light not only on her history, but that of the limited Western civilization. Ai Khanoum, established by Alexander in 328 B.C.E. after the fall of Achaemenid dynasty, still bears remnants of columns that wouldn't look out of place in the Parthenon. Bamiyan was the seat of a vast Buddhist civilization whose artisans dressed their idols in Parthian fashions. Excavation of the earth around Masjid-i-No Gumbad, a 9th century brick mosque thought to be the oldest still standing in the world, could illuminate many of the mysteries regarding Islam's spread to Central Asia after the fall of Sasanian dynasty in 651 CE. In 1978, a Russian archaeologist uncovered a vast trove of gold ornaments in a 2nd century nomad necropolis. The find, which included a collapsible crown, golden daggers and thousands of jeweled buttons, "speaks to the riches of the trade routes across Afghanistan," says Brendan Cassar, UNESCO's culture specialist in Afghanistan. "If nomads had this kind of riches, you can only imagine the wealth of trade going through Afghanistan."



Burying the Past
Imagining may be all that future archaeologists will be able to do. In the seven-year battle since 2001 to set Afghanistan back on its feet after more than two decades at war, the country's historical sites have been ignored. Its ancient heritage has fallen victim to an epidemic of pillaging on par with the depredations of Genghis Khan's army that in 1220 left the city of Balkh in ruins. Unauthorized excavation on the scale of organized crime is carried out by professional gangs supported by local warlords and even government officials, with ties to the international black market in antiquities. While estimates of this illicit trade vary widely, government authorities put it at as high as $4 billion, roughly on par with the country's drug trade. This hurts not only historians and archaeologists who are just starting to understand the country's important role in the development of Central Asian civilization — many experts say that Afghanistan compares to Egypt in terms of the historical value of its archaeological sites — but also Afghans themselves.


The mid – 20th century blossoming of archaeological research in Afghanistan uncovered treasures of unimaginable value: carved ivories, Greek statues and Buddhist icons that mesmerized the world. Those findings also ignited gold fever in the country, inspiring hundreds of freelance "archaeologists" to dig for treasures of their own, with a black-market value that far exceeded a farmer's annual earnings. Then, starting in 1979, war uprooted whatever fragile government protections had been put in place and thousands of priceless artifacts, some even looted from the national museum in Kabul, were spirited out of the country. But it was the fall of the Taliban in December 2001, and the subsequent power vacuum, that unleashed the most devastating rape of Afghanistan's heritage to date. "Ironically, poverty and war are what kept these sites safe," says Jolyon Leslie, head of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which promotes the rehabilitation of Afghanistan's cultural heritage. In times of conflict, civilians were afraid to leave home, he says, and the fear of land mines kept many from digging. Now that a nationwide campaign to clear the mines is bearing fruit, looters are returning to sites that have been untouched for years, and are even discovering new ones. "Given the price land mines exact, you don't exactly want to promote them," muses Leslie. "But it is tempting to put up warnings just for preservation."



Books with Missing Pages
At Tappeh Zargaran (meaning in Persian 'Goldsmiths' mound'), a newly discovered site near Balkh, there is no need to put up fake signs to ward off looters — most of the local diggers now working with the joint Afghan-French excavation team were once raiders themselves. Besenval shrugs: "That's the best way to neutralize them: give them a job."


Philippe Marquis, who leads the French archaeological team, points to a 26-ft.-deep (8 m deep) pit carved from the hill that exposes a cross section riddled with holes — like an ant farm pressed between panes of glass. He shows how looters dug wells, then tunneled horizontally when a promising layer was reached. (Looters, like archaeologists, know to look for signs such as ash or brick flooring for evidence of human habitation.) One such gallery has collapsed, so that it now seems just a jagged scar interrupting the smooth transition of history's layers. "It's like you are trying to read a book and some of the pages are missing," says Marquis. "Here we have lost an entire chapter in the archaeological novel."


As Marquis contemplates the mysteries of Tappeh Zargaran that he will never be able to unravel, a shout rings out from the other side of the excavation site. Ahmad Basir, a grinning 19-year-old, holds aloft a clay urn the length of his forearm. It took Basir several hours of painstaking work with a scalpel to free the artifact from the earth where it had lain. Before the archaeologists came, he explains, looters would simply hack away at a site with axes and shovels until they found statues or gold jewelry. "We didn't care about pots," he says. "We would just throw them out, or break them to look for things inside." Marquis places the urn in a large ziplock bag and labels it with the date and exact location of the find. Once the dig is finished, all the artifacts will be shipped to Kabul where they will be analyzed and placed in a historical context, enabling the archaeologists to reconstruct what life once looked like at Tappeh Zargaran. "We never knew this was important before," says Basir. "Now, when I find something like this, I am happy. A part of my history comes alive."


For every legitimate excavation like Tappeh Zargaran, there are many more ransacked in search of treasures destined for the living rooms of rich collectors. The vast plain of Ai Khanoum, once the easternmost center of ancient Greek culture, is pockmarked with thousands of looter pits, some still containing fragments of clay or shattered lumps of marble — remnants of statues that didn't survive the excavation process. There is little left of the Corinthian columns that once lined the city's main thoroughfare, though at least two of the elaborately carved pedestals can be found at a nearby restaurant, where they form part of the foundation.



A Looter's Story
Ustaad Nasrullah, 65, considers himself an expert on Afghanistan's northeastern archaeological sites, not because he has been studying them, but because he has been looting them for 40 years. Ai Khanoum was one of his specialties, and he describes in detail the treasures that have passed through his hands. Coins and smaller items he sold to tourists, but anything substantial, like a stone statue of a naked woman, possibly a fertility goddess, went to brokers who were able to smuggle the items to Pakistan, where they fetched higher prices. Nasrullah is proud of his country's rich heritage, and struggles over the moral implications of his business. "It's true that we lose our culture by selling these things to foreigners," he admits. "But poverty is also awful. Most people don't know the meaning of these objects; they just know that if they find them they can buy food." He blames those who allow the practice to continue: corrupt government officials, warlords and the businessmen who market Afghan artifacts to the world. "They are the educated ones. They are stealing from Afghanistan. The poor are just trying to eat."


Afghan archaeologist Zaffar Paiman blames the Western art market for fueling looting. At a dig near Kabul, he has uncovered a 5th century Buddhist temple replete with exquisite plaster sculptures of the Buddha. He has seen similar statues, selling for upward of $10,000, at Parisian art galleries. "Looters dig because of international demand. Looters loot because a collector wants something nice for his living room. It's the same as opium in this country — we grow it because junkies want heroin."

If the scourge of opium can't be eliminated from Afghanistan, what hope is there for the country's disappearing antiquities? In 2005 some four tons of Afghan artifacts were intercepted at London's Heathrow airport. Authorities there are eager to return the cache, which is still stored by British customs — but to where? Afghanistan's one national museum doesn't have the security to protect the items, and many experts fear it wouldn't be long before several of the pieces returned to the black market. Archaeological sites are even more difficult to protect, says UNESCO's Cassar. "You have a government that can't extend its authority outside of the capital, so how can you expect it to protect sites far from the center? These are areas that would be difficult to manage for any government, and here there is a lack of funds."



Surprise — and Hope
The news is not all grim. seven years after the Taliban blew up Bamiyan's 1,500-year-old standing Buddhas, a French-Afghan team has found a third buried at the base of the cliffs where the others had been carved. Last winter, Japanese experts discovered the world's earliest known oil paintings in nearby caves, reversing common understandings about the origins of the art. Emilie Chicroun, a French mural specialist, calls it "a small revolution." Mixing oil with pigments had long been considered a European innovation, started in the 9th century; the Bamiyan paintings predate that by a few hundred years. "Now we will have to reconsider everything we think we know about the history of painting," says Chicroun.


The potential for a better understanding of history is reason enough for saving Afghanistan's archaeological heritage, says Cassar. But it goes deeper than that. By preserving its past, Afghanistan also has a hand in protecting its future. "The greatest contribution of these artifacts is that they show a different aspect of the Afghan story," says Cassar. "They are a symbol of the hope that one day Afghanistan can be known for magnificent pieces of cultural history and art, rather than terrorism."


— with reporting by Ali Safi/Kabul





Extracted From/Source (Modifies/Corrected by CAIS) [*]




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