|24 November 2010
Chinese mine in Afghanistan threatens ancient find
A Chinese company is eager to begin developing the world's second-biggest unexploited copper mine which lies beneath the ruins of a 2,600-year-old Buddhist monastery in Afghanistan. Beijing put $3.5 billion stake in the mine, the largest foreign investment in Afghanistan by far, and the Afghan government stands to rake in a potential $1.2 billion a year in revenues from the mine, as well as the creation of much-needed jobs.
In the meantime, archaeologists are racing to salvage what they can from a major seventh century BCE religious site along the famed Silk Road connecting Asia and the Middle East. The ruins, including the monastery and domed shrines known as 'stupas,' will most likely be largely destroyed once construction of the mine begins. The Chinese government-backed China Metallurgical Group Corp., or MCC, planned to start building the mine by the end of 2011, but under an informal understanding with the Kabul government, it has granted archaeologists three years for a salvage excavation.
Archaeologists working on the site since May say that will not be enough time for full preservation. "That site is so massive that it's easily a 10-year campaign of archaeology," stated Laura Tedesco, an archaeologist brought in by the U.S. Embassy to work on sites in Afghanistan. Philippe Marquis, a French archaeologist advising the Afghans, said the salvage effort is piecemeal and 'minimal'; held back by lack of funds and personnel. "This is probably one of the most important points along the Silk Road," revealed Marquis. "What we have at this site, already in excavation, should be enough to fill the (Afghan) national museum."
The monastery complex has been excavated, revealing hallways and rooms decorated with frescoes and filled with clay and stone statues of standing and reclining Buddhas. Some statues reaching as high as 10 feet. An area that was at one time a courtyard is dotted with stupas standing four or five feet high. More than 150 statues have been found to date, though many remain in place. The large ones are too heavy to be moved, and the team lacks the chemicals necessary to keep small ones from disintegrating when extracted.
MCC appears to be pushing the archaeologists to complete the excavation ahead of schedule. The Afghan archaeologist overseeing the dig said he has no idea when MCC representatives might tell him his work is over, so he tries not to think about deadlines. "We would like to work according to our principles. If we don't work according to the principles of archaeology, then we are no different from traffickers," Abdul Rauf Zakir noted.
The team hopes to lift some of the larger statues and shrines out before winter sets in this month, but they still haven't procured the crane and other equipment needed to do so. Funding from foreign governments has been promised, but has yet to materialize. Marquis said MCC has been cooperative and has been helping the archaeologists with dirt removal and asking what more needs to be done. Zakir, the Afghan archaeologist, laughs. "Yes, they are very helpful. They want to help so that we can finish quickly. They want us gone."
Edited from Associated Press (14 November 2010)
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