Rescue Excavation of Buddhist Relics in Mes Aynak, Afghanistan

By Dianne C. Brown, Move One InMotion, May 16, 2011

The historical and archeological area, which was a former Bin Laden training site, is endangered by a copper mining company

Mes Aynak, Afghanistan -- After years of armed conflicts, amongst the terrible human cost, Afghanistan has also suffered the loss of thousands of archeological objects and hundreds of ancient sites.

One of those sites is Mes Aynak, located in a mountainous region 40 kilometres from the capital. Mes Aynak is a hill topped by an ancient monastery. This site was discovered by archaeologists in the 1960s, but it has never been excavated. Archaeologists discovered that, two millennia ago, this region served as a critical conduit in the spread of Buddhism to Central Asia and China. It is believed that Mes Aynak could provide and entirely new insight into the origin of one of the world’s major religions.

During the late 1990s, the hill was a training camp of Osama Bin Laden. First, the Taliban brutally destroyed the site’s 1,700 year old statues of Buddha, the largest of their kind in the world. Today the ancient monastery is again under threat of destruction, this time from a copper mining company.

In 2007, the Afghan government negotiated a 30-year mining concession with the China Metallurgical Group Corporation for copper production at the Mes Aynak site. Archaeologists have since started emergency excavations in a bid to remove and preserve only those  pieces that could still be saved. Dozens of ancient statues, defaced and vandalized, can be found there. The rescue excavation is undertaken by the National Institute of Archaeology and the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan. Only one small part of the site is fully excavated, just enough to reveal a vaulted chapel, monks’ cells and storerooms. Many polychrome terracotta statues were found, including a unique statue of the sleeping Buddha.

Omar Sultan, the Deputy Minister for Information and Culture said that the pace of excavation is accelerating, and will include an increase in the number of archaeologists on site from 30 to 65, and a massive increase in laborers from 90 to 900. While the archaeological works are ongoing, the site will be secured by a force of 1,600 soldiers. Excavation costs for the accelerated project are estimated to be nearly $28 million, and are financed partly by the Ministry of Mines.

Some of the most important finds have already been transferred to the National Museum in Kabul. Unfortunately, the facilities of this museum are often inadequate to appropriately house such valuable pieces. In response, the government has announced plans to construct a new museum just seven kilometers from the site, in Logar province. Both the government and attending scientists hope to move the most important and sensitive material to this new museum.

Deputy Minister Sultan has a personal interest in Mes Aynak. In 1976, he worked on an initial survey of this site together with Soviet archaeologists. Although time is running out for this rescue excavation, Sultan remains an optimist, telling reporters “Yes, we do have enough time. We have an agreement with the ministry of mines to safeguard the archaeology.”