Archaeologists Warn of Danger to Sites in Afghanistan

AFP reports on damage to cultural heritage in Afghanistan today.  We heard a lot about damage done in Iraq, but as Larry Rothfield and others have pointed out, Afghanistan is a chance to correct the mistakes that were made in Iraq.  It looks like it might be a failed opportunity.  It is a familiar story of a flawed market, economic instability, and little enforcement. 

KABUL — 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.

  1. Claire Cozens, AFP: Archaeologists seek protection for Afghan treasures (2010), http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jf-EWqmhK3CiG7XGyGyVtOsNWZ8g (last visited Jun 22, 2010).
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