Mes Aynak: Corruption, Copper and a Nation’s Heritage

4000 Years of Cultural Treasure versus a $100 Billion Copper Mine

Mes Aynak, Seated Buddha. Photo Brent Huffman, "Saving Mes Aynak." Archeologists have uncovered countless priceless artefacts at an ancient Buddhist settlement south of Kabul: an ancient copper mine, a series of monasteries, and homes or workshops.

“Preserving our heritage is so important… The relics we find don’t just belong to the Afghans — they belong to the world.” Abdul Khalid Khorshid, Afghan archaeologist, quoted in Copper mining will crush ancient Afghan site, Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times, July 12, 2011

A cultural wonder in Asia will be lost to a future focused on resources that ultimately benefit residents of other countries over Afghan citizens.”  Brent Huffman, documentary filmmaker, producer/director of Saving Mes Aynak, and Associate Professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Mes Aynak is the most important discovery of the century. Destroying Mes Aynak would be like destroying Atlantis.” American archaeologist Dr. Mark Kenoyer.

Mes Aynak is a vast ancient Buddhist monastery complex and trading center situated just 25 miles southeast of Kabul, Afghanistan, in Logar Province. Although preliminary archaeological exploration began with French efforts in 1963, and there was extensive geological research by the Soviets during their occupation of Afghanistan, serious archaeological excavations at Mes Aynak began only in 2009. The archaeological sites dimple multiple hills and are scattered across more than 100 acres. The excavations have focused primarily on sites from the late Kashan to late Hindu Shahi periods, from around the 2nd to the 9th century CE. The nineteen sites discovered so far include dozens of temples, and monasteries filled with painted murals, elaborate stupas and hundreds of statues, many in an extraordinary state of preservation, but too fragile to be moved.

Mes Aynak Standing Figure Tepe Kafirat, US Embassy Photo.

The years of excavations at the surface have only begun to expose its riches, which include not only Buddhist artworks but also hundreds of ancient manuscripts. These may be crucial to understanding Mes Aynak’s historical role as a center of trade across Asia. Beneath the layers of Buddhist habitations dating to the 1st to 4th centuries, Afghan archeologists have discovered evidence of copper workings as far back as the Bronze Age, several thousand years before Buddhism arrived in the region. Archaeologists and academics from around the world agree that Mes Aynak is a treasure house of antiquities and of the heritage and history of Afghanistan’s past. The wealth of the Mes Aynak site is based upon ancient trade in the minerals derived from local mining. In ancient times, traders, local miners, and Buddhist monasteries not only coexisted, they were inextricable economically linked. The cultural riches derived from ancient sources of mineral wealth – and the traditional lives of the people in the whole region – are now threatened by modern demands for the same commodities.

Projection of site after mining, Brent Huffman “Saving Mes Aynak.”

Afghanistan is a nation riven by decades of war, without basic infrastructure or security, a country in which the majority the population is desperately poor. The threat to future discoveries at Mes Aynak is because the site, extending over 1000 hectares around the Baba Wali Mountains, is also the single most concentrated economic asset of Afghanistan. The archaeological sites sit directly on top of an estimated $80-100 billion dollars’ worth of copper and other minerals.

In 2007, a Chinese government-owned mining conglomerate cut a $30-billion-dollar deal with the Afghan government to extract these riches by building a giant open-pit copper mine. China now wants to rewrite this agreement with the Afghan government, and will not move forward its promises to build railroads, a coal power plant, or take steps to ameliorate the destructive impact of toxic effluent and environmental damage to the surrounding communities. Already, the Chinese company MJAM (formed by China Metallurgical Group Corporation, or MCC, and Jianxi Copper, Ltd) has completely failed to deliver on promised relocations, new housing, and decent jobs for local Afghans. Jianxi Copper has been severely criticized by civil society organizations for toxic pollution from its factories in China, and the creation of “cancer villages” in the surrounding countryside.

Archaeologist Qadir Temory working on site. Photo Brent Huffman “Saving Mes Aynak.”

Meanwhile, Afghan archaeologists, supported part-time by visiting scholars and foreign archaeologists, struggle to complete a 20-30-year job in the uncertain period allotted to them. They have more than once officially run out of time, only to be granted a grudging year or two more, since the Chinese have yet to extract any ore from Mes Aynak.

At the same time, both local and international observers question whether Afghanistan is ready to properly make use of Mes Aynak’s enormous economic potential, given rampant abuse of the laws governing mining in the country today. Critics point to the development of a ‘looting’ economy for extractives; they say that mineral wealth from dozens of other mines is being trucked out of the country and sold by well-connected politicians and warlords, but little or no royalties or fees are paid to the government.

News of the Site’s Importance Placed Mining on Hold

International pressure to preserve the cultural treasures of the Mes Aynak site, or at least to enable rescue archaeology to be completed there, have delayed the start of the mining project for years. In 2009, after pressure from both the archaeological and the international Buddhist communities, the Chinese company announced that archaeologists would have three years to excavate and rescue objects.

French conservationist David Aguilella Cueco at Mes Aynak, Photo Jerome Starkey, via Wikimedia Commons.

Most archaeologists said that 30 years, not three, were needed to complete excavations. Nonetheless, dozens of foreign specialists arrived in Afghanistan and hundreds of workers were employed at multiple locations at the site. There were problems due to lack of coordinated planning, disputes over turf, and wildly disproportionate funding for the different projects, but excavations proceeded by fits and starts. Estimations of the extraordinary artistic and historic value of the site grew as more and more treasures of beautifully painted sculptures and incredibly rare wooden objects and manuscripts were discovered. An extraordinary exhibition, “Mes Aynak – Recent Discoveries Along the Silk Road,” funded by the U.S. Embassy, was able to display only a few of the thousands of objects so far discovered.

In July 2018, an agreement was announced between Afghanistan’s Ministry of Mines and Petroleum and its Ministry of Culture to complete excavations at Mes Aynak before allowing mining extraction to proceed. The agreement sets as its goals to perform salvage archaeology to move the ancient relics from Mes Aynak, to resettle villagers near to the mine site, to upgrade security in the area, and to renegotiate the contract with China’s state -owned mining conglomerate MJAM. Minister of Mines and Petroleum Nargis Nehan told Tolo News that, “we drew up the reports, got orders from the High Economic Council and have solved the problems.” This optimistic assessment leaves out the future negotiations needed with China – and also sets forth the government’s plans to go forward with mining regardless – which will require complete destruction of the original site of Mes Aynak.

Mes Aynak, State Department Cultural Heritage Program Manager Laura Tedesco, archaeologist Marek Lemiesz, and Eileen O’Connor, Director of Strategic Communications and Public Diplomacy, US Embassy photo.

‘Salvage’ or ‘rescue’ archaeology is based on removing as many artifacts as possible from a location that will be destroyed. Stratigraphic analysis takes a back seat, and the best hope is to thoroughly document the removals. While rescue archaeology is not limited exclusively to taking away movable objects such as ceramics or metal artifacts, it is much less suited to uncovering a multilayered, architecturally complex and unknown site.

Dozens of statues have been found, many with intact layers of color and some covered in gold leaf; there are reliefs along with elaborately constructed stupas made of pieced and patterned mud bricks. While thousands of objects have been taken from the site, many of the most spectacular objects are too fragile or too large to be moved, even with great care. This is the case of sculptures and decorations constructed of mud brick alone or brick finished with layers of plaster and paint , and of the dozens of beautiful wall paintings, whose fresh colors have lasted over a thousand years.

Interview with Afghan archaeologist Qadir Temory, Photo Brent Huffman “Saving Mes Aynak.”

A prize-winning documentary by filmmaker and Northwestern University professor Brent Huffman, Saving Mes Aynak, was shot on site from 2009 to 2013. The film describes the challenging relationships between international economic forces, Afghanistan’s government, foreign embassies, the people of the surrounding villages, and the multiple Afghan and foreign archaeological organizations at work on the site. Saving Mes Aynak is a tour de force of layered narratives in which each of the participants in the story present their own perspectives. The Afghan archaeologists, who have persevered under incredible political pressures and physical stress, cannot help but be the film’s true heroes; their selfless commitment and dedication shines through it all.

The Rescue Archaeology Story

Mes Aynak, photo Brent Huffman “Saving Mes Aynak”

The lack of resources for the Afghan side of the archaeological project stands in stark contrast to the incredible material riches of the site. When filming was taking place, the Afghans were still without computers to map the site or digital cameras to record it. They worked with the most basic tools, shovels and picks, carefully brushing away dirt from each new discovery of a shard or an ornament. As a winter storm arrives, diggers and archaeologists work together, indistinguishable in layers of old sweaters and mufflers, constructing impromptu shelters of old boards and plastic to protect priceless 1500-year-old painted statues from wind and snow.

Despite announcements that the World Bank, USAID and other foreign donors had contributed U.S. $50 million to the excavation project – and to build a nearby museum – where all that money went it remains unclear. Philippe Marquis, the French archaeologist who headed the team at the Delegation Archaeologique Francaise en Afghanistan (DAFA) was ostensibly in charge of the Afghan archaeologists excavations; in the film Saving Mes Aynak, when Afghan chief archaeologist Qadir Temory tells Marquis that neither he nor his workers have been paid for four months, he is seen simply walking away from the discussion. In another scene, Temory is barely able to restrain his anger, as he tells Marquis that the French have promised computers and cameras for years, and yet they object to his receiving a grant from the Czech Embassy for these necessary tools. (In recent years, solid relationships with Czech archaeologists and organizations have resulted in several important academic papers and an exhibition of the finds from Mes Aynak in Prague.)

Mes Aynak, Archaeologist Philippe Marquis with Nadir Rassouli, US Embassy Photo, October 2011.

The American Embassy in Kabul brought in a professional archaeologist and heritage specialist, Laura Tedesco, to manage the U.S. complement to the excavation. The embassy hired several archaeological staffers for the dig and is said to have dedicated $1 million in funding that was sourced through the American military. This did not reach the Afghan archaeologists, however, who were dependent upon administration of funds though DAFA.

Other foreign nations also contributed staff and funding, but excavation on the different locales within the large Mes Aynak site appear to have proceeded piecemeal, with limited coordination between the various foreign groups and the Afghan archaeologists. As time has passed, foreign participation has dwindled. At one point, there were more than three hundred archaeologists and diggers working at the site. Today, only a skeleton crew of about a dozen are at work.

The Mine Will Leave a Giant Crater, ‘Superfund’ Site, and a Hole in History

Mes Aynak, Interview with villager, Brent Huffman “Saving Mes Aynak.”

Filming of Saving Mes Aynak was completed as the initial deadline for the salvage archaeology project was imminent. However, since 2015 the schedule for beginning mining has been delayed multiple times. Security concerns and poor economic planning are most responsible the delays; There is relatively little concern at the Chinese mining company over the likelihood that the mining region will become unfit for humans or animals to live in, nor has any work been done prospectively to ameliorate the consequences resulting from contamination by toxic mining wastes that will pollute water supplies. There have been international protests against destroying such a valuable resource for the understanding of the expansion of trade and religion in Asia’s heartland, largely coming from Buddhist countries such as Thailand, but the Chinese conglomerate appears indifferent to these concerns. The Chinese are focused on profits instead; these are still very possible, for China if not for the Afghan people living nearby.

Although Mes Aynak is thought to have been an important source of copper ore for local and long distance trade in the 1st-4th centuries CE, it had not been mined commercially since ancient times. The site was recognized as a rich reserve for commercial copper mining in the 1970s through testing by Soviet and Afghan geologists, who conducted extensive, systematic exploration involving hundreds of boreholes, trenches and geophysical surveys. The survey work was abandoned in 1989 after Soviet forces left, and work was not possible during the following civil war. A joint publication by the Afghanistan Geological Survey and British Geological Survey in 2005 interpreted the Soviet-era geological data on Mes Aynak that was archived in the Afghanistan Geological Survey, declaring it to be “one of the largest unworked copper deposits in the world.”

Afghan archaeologists meeting with local villagers, photo Brent Huffman, “Saving Mes Aynak.”

The state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corporation, or MCC, and Jianxi Copper, Ltd. (JCL) agreed in 2007 to a 30-year lease of the Mes Aynak site. (The partnership between the companies is now called MJAM, for MCC-JCL Aynak Minerals.)

MJAM was eager to extract the supposedly super-high grade copper ore from the site, estimated to be 2.3% copper, compared to a world average of 1%. China expected to use this exceptional resource to effectively corner the world’s copper market. Electric vehicles and other current technologies require significant amounts of copper. The Chinese government saw the exploitation of Afghanistan’s copper reserves as part of China’s key international development plans and its Belt and Road policy.

As part of the $30 Billion lease, the Chinese companies agreed to build rail lines east into Pakistan and north to Uzbekistan, to build a 400MW coal-fired power plant to provide power for mining and bring additional electricity to Afghanistan’s grid, and to “construct water supply wells and a pipeline system… to supply the Project’s fresh water requirements.”

MJAM set up a mining camp of orderly bungalows adjacent to the archaeological site, employing almost exclusively Chinese workers and just a few Afghan laborers. However, the company was unprepared for the challenges of working in a country with severely damaged or inadequate infrastructure and an ongoing security crisis.

Attacks on the Chinese Camp and the Archaeological Site

Afghan archeologist and conservator Abdul Wahab Ferouzi, who was killed by a roadside bombing in which four others were seriously injured in 2018. Ferouzi prepared literally thousands of items for the Kabul Museum at the site. Twitter Image from Facebook, Saving Mes Aynak.

Local Taliban (possibly with the acquiescence of other frustrated locals) have periodically attacked the Chinese camp with rockets. A Chinese group were killed on the road enroute to the site, as were four Afghan policemen. Since that time, the MJAM company is said to have come to an unspecified agreement with local Taliban.

Working at the excavation site is also fraught with danger for everyone involved. Two diggers were severely injured in 2012 when they struck a land mine buried at the site. The Mes Aynak story is also a chronicle of cross-cultural conflict. While local resentment appears primarily directed at the Chinese companies and the Afghan government, the archaeologists and workers at the site continue to receive death threats.

Tragically, in June 2018, the Afghan archeologist Abdul Wahab Ferouzi was killed and four others were wounded when driving to the site – their vehicle was destroyed by a roadside bomb triggered as they passed. Dr. Ferouzi was also the chief conservator for excavated materials; he had prepared approximately 30,000 objects for the Kabul Museum over the course of the excavations.

A Looming Environmental Disaster Uprooting Traditional Village Communities

Afghan observers have serious concerns about the environmental devastation characteristic of pit mining and the prospect that lands where villagers have dwelt for centuries will be irreparably poisoned. In this respect at least, the $30-billion-dollar agreement to mine Mes Aynak has harmed rather than benefitted local residents.

MCC’s contract with the Afghan government specifically states under Article 23 Resettlement and Compensation Plan, that local residents shall be compensated when adversely affected by mine development; if residents are required to move, they will be “properly resettled in a location and condition that does not result in a diminishment of the resettled resident’s standard of living or adversely impact the resident’s livelihood.” The company was also to build schools and sports facilities for employees and local residents.

Yet the film, Saving Mes Aynak, has several scenes in which local villagers meet with Afghan archaeologists or tell researchers their stories; not one village, shrine, or cemetery has been relocated, no mosques or schools built, and there are no jobs for them at the mining project. No one has answered their questions about where they will live, pray, or be buried.

An Uncertain Future: Rewriting the Mining Contract and Plans for the Site

An unexpected development in the Mes Aynak saga occurred in April 2017, when Shen Heting, the former general manager of MCC, was expelled from the Chinese Communist Party for corruption, a career-ending move in China.

Mes Aynak, Stupa, US Embassy photo.

The removal of the head of MCC complicated an already severe conflict between the Afghan government and the mining companies. In 2013, the deadline set under the contract for beginning copper extraction, MJAM asked that the contract be rewritten. MJAM has not performed on its development promises to build a coal plant or railways, and now says it wants out of these obligations. So far, MJAM has not extracted any copper at all from Mes Aynak. The main problems holding up the project are the lack of even basic infrastructure, roads and reliable electricity. All of these benefits were promised in the company’s contract with the Afghan government, but eight years later, none have even begun construction.

China’s trade ambitions with Afghanistan appear to have been wildly overblown. If its security and supply expectations were unrealistic and its promises under the mining contract were too expansive, it must also be said that the Chinese companies have made no effort to engage positively with the local people, to honor any of their commitments to development, or to rely on recognized good business practices to encourage the building of a solid management structure for mining within Afghanistan’s government.

Mes Aynak, Corridor on Tepe Kafirat. US Embassy photo.

In April 2016, Afghan officials asked MJAM to begin mining immediately. The governor of Logar province, Niaz Mohammad Amiri, announced that there were no longer security reasons for delay, since 86 security posts had been set up and 1750 policemen deputed to man them and police the area. This increase was seen as the implementation of Afghanistan’s responsibility to provide security for the project.

The Chinese demand to rewrite the contract with the Afghan government is based on the clear difficulties facing them in Mes Aynak, but also is part of an across the board slowing of direct foreign investment in Afghanistan, in part because of international recognition that Afghanistan lacks a legitimate business or political structure to operate within.

Industrial Scale Mineral Looting in Afghanistan

The conflict over Mes Aynak raises fundamental questions about Afghanistan’s readiness to engage in large scale industrial mineral exploitation. The situation underscores the failure of the Afghan government to fairly manage mineral resource development in smaller mines across the country. It raises questions about whether mineral extraction is good for Afghanistan today. Have the millions in development funds given by international grantors to establish a minerals sector been thrown away?

Afghanistan’s new laws on mineral extraction provide for competitive bidding for mineral rights.  They limit grace periods for exploration phases in which revenues are not expected, establish reasonable royalties and fees to be paid to the state, and require protections and fair wages for workers. Unfortunately, these regulations are not enforced against powerful political or military interests, which ignore them.

The failure of private mineral exploiters to pay the government its due deprives Afghanistan of a revenue stream that is essential for its development. Today, export of minerals is estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars in value per year, but in 2016, government royalties amounted to only 16 million dollars.

Former Afghan Minister of Mining and Petroleum Wahidullah Shahrani at the 2013 Mining for Development Conference. Photo: Mike Wightman, AusAID. Wikimedia Commons.

Under these circumstances, there are legitimate concerns that mining Mes Aynak would not actually deliver benefits to Afghanistan’s people, but would instead follow existing patterns of enriching the few and the powerful, and reinforce a flawed system of mineral looting already well-established in Afghanistan.

The Western media often decries the ‘looting’ of Afghanistan’s archaeological treasures. Yet studies of Afghanistan’s economy show that the real looters are warlords and politicians. They aren’t stealing antiquities, which are largely unmarketable. The real looting taking place in Afghanistan is the flagrant violation of its mineral and mining laws by powerful individuals or families who ‘steal’ its mineral riches and pay no extraction fees or royalties to the government.

Afghanistan has no functional government structure to monitor mineral extraction, and no transparent inspection system to make an accounting of mining activities even possible. Large scale industrial looting of minerals is not hidden, either. Caravans of trucks fully loaded with ore travel the country’s main highways, and are ticked off by Afghan Customs as they cross into Pakistan. But there is no cross-referencing between Customs and the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, and the government does not know what it is owed by the extractors. Secrecy in the tenders, in contracting and in the mining process makes it easy for influential individuals to hide their profits and deny crucial resources and development funds to the Afghan government.

Mes Aynak site with Chinese camp in the background. Photo Jerome Starkey, via Wilimedia Commons. A Chinese state mining company won a $3bn contract in 2007 to mine the rest of the copper deposit, one of the largest in the world, which sits directly beneath the ancient settlement. They are now unwilling to build a promised railway and power station. 14 November 2011.

Afghanistan has been known for its mineral wealth since ancient times, when it was a source of precious materials for the Indus Valley, Sumer, and ancient Egypt. The most famous ancient stone was lapis lazuli – “lajward” in Persian Afghan Dari – but gold, silver, emeralds, rubies, garnets, aquamarines and other semi-precious stones abound. Today, Afghanistan is known to be rich not only in copper, such as is found in Mes Aynak, but also has important reserves of lead, zinc, iron, chromium, tin-tungsten, mercury, uranium and rare earths.

Unfortunately, the country is not benefiting under its new, official regulations designed to create a viable contractual and royalty system. Javed Noorani wrote in 2017:

“A recent report by Integrity Watch Afghanistan – based on a case study of five mines in the country – found a catalogue of errors throughout the mining process. Tender documents were often prepared in a way that favoured the winning bidder and contracts were eventually awarded to enterprises in which politicians or other Afghani government officials hold an interest, in violation of the Minerals Law that prohibits certain officials being granted licences.”

Wealth Beyond Reach: How mining activities in Afghanistan negatively impact local communities, SUR File on Natural Resources and Human Rights, SUR 25 – v.14 n.25, 2017.

Noorani authored a major report, The Plunderers of Hope? Political Economy of Five Major Mines in Afghanistan, prepared for Integrity Watch Afghanistan in 2015. It showed that not a single one of the five mines studied for his research had followed legal requirements at any stage of the exploration or mining processes. Nor had they obtained permits or paid royalties or taxes. Not only were environmental dangers completely ignored; there was zero revenue accruing to the government or the people of Afghanistan. In each mine, the lease had been awarded to members of politically connected families.

Noorani states bluntly that:

“The system of governance existing in Afghanistan survives on corruption and the perception about state building within the country is that it is hostage to appeasement of warlords and political elites. Through their networks, these players dominate in the center of the country and have managed grassroots support elsewhere either through “fear” politics or “political favors.” The companies operating in the sector are, at same time, being godfathered by some of the senior-most leadership of the country.”


“… Today there are over 50 members of Parliament who own mines or are major partners in mining projects. The acquisition of lucrative contracts in the mining sector has reinforced the status of these individuals and networks as legitimate faces of the rural population, which has been as used as a bargaining tool.”

Noorani, “The Plunderers of Hope? Political Economy of Five Major Mines in Afghanistan” Integrity Watch Afghanistan, 2015, p. 64

Appointment of a new head to the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum in 2017 offered an opportunity to begin rebuilding Afghanistan’s mining system along professional lines. It is not yet known if changes will be made, or if the status quo, in which officials are helpless to control the illegal activities of powerful individuals, will continue.

Archaeology in Afghanistan

King Amanullah and Queen Soraya of Afghanistan on their European tour in 1928. Fitz Gibbon-Hale Collection.

Afghanistan was never colonized by any Western power, defeating three British incursions over the 19th and early 20th centuries and numerous attempts by Iranian and Russian rulers to influence its political development. Afghanistan’s emirs did not welcome foreign archaeologists or other academics until the modernizing reign of Amanullah Khan (1919-1929). Amanullah created the first Museums Department, which contracted exclusively with French archaeologists, establishing the Delegation Archaeologique Francaise en Afghanistan (DAFA). DAFA archaeologists concentrated on excavations of Hellenistic and Kushan period sites, and their domination of Afghanistan archaeology meant that there was relatively little work on Afghanistan’s rich prehistoric, Bronze Age, and Islamic period sites.

In the 1960s and 1970s, American, Soviet, Japanese and other international archaeologists were also granted permission to excavate. The Institute of Archeology was established in Kabul in 1966, and Afghan archaeologists, many with advanced training in foreign universities, partnered with foreign experts, including Americans Louis and Nancy Dupree in prehistoric excavations and Soviet archaeologist Victor Sarianidi, who was the primary archaeologist and discoverer of the Bronze Age civilization known as the Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC), but who is also famous for uncovering the Tillya Tepe hoard, one of the richest treasures of ancient worked gold and silver ever found. After a Soviet-directed revolution in Afghanistan in 1978, Western archaeologists were expelled and Sarianidi refused to continue his work there.

Archeological work came to a standstill after the Soviet invasion in 1979, although some workers previously employed by foreign archaeologists went into the antiquities business for themselves. In 1982, one of a series of temporary Soviet-backed puppet governments briefly introduced Afghanistan’s first national patrimony law, but this legislation existed only on paper, as did other laws of the same period. (The new laws included an order to Afghans to paint their doors Communist red – prompting a fresh outbreak of green doors in the capital). In reality, none of the goals or restrictions regarding cultural property were enacted; in an ongoing war, there was little thought of preserving culture.

Despite arrests and killings of intellectuals, the flight of millions of refugees from Soviet-held Afghanistan, and the incredibly difficult working conditions for those who remained after the Soviet invasion of December 1979 and full-scale civil war, Afghan archaeologists persevered. Both inside Afghanistan and in foreign venues, they pursued academic work and did all that was possible to preserve existing artifacts.

During the anti-Soviet war and the civil wars which followed, Afghanistan’s cultural heritage suffered from neglect, deliberate destruction, and looting from both government-aligned and anti-government forces which held different parts of the country. Even Kabul’s National Museum, which was located at the edge of the capital, became both a theater of war and a source of stolen artifacts.

Before and after photos showing the site of the Great Buddha, Bamiyan, Afghanistan

A disastrous failure by UNESCO to accept a proposal[1] to grant safe harbor in Switzerland to art from the Kabul National Museum left its contents vulnerable. Many smaller, important artworks were secretly hidden for years by heroic museum staffers, who risked their lives to secure them. Most of the thousands of items left in store were smashed with sledgehammers by the Taliban in 2001, leaving, in some cases, a black hole in the history of Afghanistan. Since Afghanistan never utilized partage to divide archaeological finds, there may now be nothing left of a particular period or material culture. Taliban extremists destroyed the world-famous 120 and 173-foot-tall Bamiyan Buddhas with explosives the same year.

”To me, to have been able to move these things under Unesco auspices could have saved these pieces and ultimately allowed for their return to a civilized Afghanistan again. Now what is destroyed is destroyed, irrevocably. Whatever survives of Afghanistan’s artistic heritage survives in foreign collections.”

Michael Barry, quoted by Barbara Crossette in U.N., in Shift, Moves to Save Art for Afghans, New York Times, March 31, 2001.

Only in the 2000’s was it possible to begin rebuilding the archaeological and museum infrastructure in Afghanistan.

Mes Aynak, Laura Tedesco & Hans Curvers, US Embassy photo.

Laura Tedesco, an archaeologist, spent two years as cultural heritage manager for the U.S. State Department in Afghanistan, starting in 2011. Afghan archaeologists credit her with setting a pragmatic and positive approach to the excavation during her time there. Her efforts, however, were often frustrated by the inability of the various parties engaged at the site to work together. In Saving Mes Aynak, director Huffman notes that the U.S. Embassy was not cooperative and had directed their staff not to talk to him.

However, in addition to the work at Mes Aynak, there have been recent collaborations between multiple U.S. agencies and Afghanistan’s Ministry of Information and Culture to digitally document the 12th century Towers at Ghazni. Afghan cultural authorities, Italian conservation experts, and UNESCO also began conservation work on the tilework at the extraordinary Timurid period complexes of Herat.

A key task is the documentation of the contents of the Afghanistan Museum with assistance from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, a project which is currently supported by the U.S. State Department. The Oriental Institute is also the center for the Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership (AHMP) scheduled through October 2018; its goals include to “inventory and map known and previously unknown archaeological heritage sites, especially in areas threatened by future mining development, urban expansion, and looting,” to monitor site destruction and to train Afghan heritage professionals in the use of GIS technology. At the Oriental Institute’s Center for Ancient Middle Eastern Landscapes (CAMEL), there are landscape archaeology projects working with satellite imagery to study subjects as diverse as fortification patterns around Balkh in northern Afghanistan, and pastoral inhabitation in Spin Boldak. If peace brings greater security to Afghanistan, these projects could include the longer-term work inside the country that is necessary to a real understanding of Afghanistan and its heritage needs. Currently, for many foreigners who wish to study the region, Afghanistan remains, for all practical purposes, as inaccessible as the moon.

MJAM camp Mes Aynak, Afghan Ministry of Mines photo.

Among those who were fortunate to experience Afghanistan firsthand were the Oriental Institute’s GIS trainer in Kabul, Jessica Giraud, and Emily Hammer, who worked on the Balkh project. The Oriental Institute’s and U.S. State Department’s collaboration with Kabul Polytechnic University brought together a fully-equipped GIS laboratory with 100 computers loaded with GIS software at KPU to enable potential mining analysis (and also archaeological data).

It is surprising, given the level of technology and significant funding provided for these projects, that the Afghan excavators at Mes Aynak, who have done the most to excavate and secure Mes Aynak’s treasures, have been chronically underfunded. (A new, globally-distributed Internet promotion for Microsoft’s AI program, which includes multiple shots showcasing discoveries at Mes Aynak, provides a dramatic, hyper-tech contrast to the daily deprivations, lack of security, supplies, and missing workers’ salaries that Afghan archaeologists too often have experienced.)


Mes Aynak, Afghan security for the Chinese camp, Brent Huffman, “Saving Mes Aynak.”

The security situation in Afghanistan is increasingly unstable and impacts virtually the entire population.  The UN Mission in Afghanistan has reported a large increase in civilian casualties – 10,000 in 2017. According to the World Bank, some 200,000 Afghans were displaced in 2017 by military conflict and another 50,000 lost homes and lands to natural disasters.

Violence has increased, giving NGOs more reasons to depart. Reductions in international military presence reduces both the need and money to pay for services. Afghanistan’s very limited economic growth does not replace the reductions resulting from troop and NGO withdrawals.

The situation in Mes Aynak, with a Chinese company far more ready to exploit the site’s resources than to fulfil its environmental and development obligations, may be so untenable that no amount of funding or international demand to complete archaeological work at Mes Aynak will prevent its destruction. Nonetheless, ensuring adequate funding and support today for the Afghan archaeologists who know the site and the surrounding communities best, is of enormous importance. It is hoped that the international archaeological community will do all it can to assist Afghanistan’s truly heroic archaeologists to excavate, document, conserve, and preserve Mes Aynak’s treasures for future generations.


See also: Engel, N. 2011: New Excavations in Afghanistan– Mes Aynak. Published at occasion of the exhibition „Mes Aynak – Recent Discoveries Along the Silk Road“ at National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul, 2011. Koln

Jiri Unger, Preliminary results from sites 005 and 034, Mes Aynak, Afghanistan, (PDF) Exhibition Afghanistan – Rescued Treasures of Buddhism in Náprstek Museum of Asian, African and American Cultures.

[1] The linked UNESCO report fails to mention that UNESCO refused for months to allow export while hundreds artifacts were packed in boxes for immediate shipment and UNESCO only gave approval to the proposal to send artifacts out of Afghanistan after the destruction of those same artifacts.

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