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Burying Antiquities to Save Them

August 12, 2012

Archaeologist Zemaryalai Tarzi stands next to an archaeological artefact in Bamiyan. He is leading a project to protect Afghanistan’s heritage. Source: AFP

In Bamiyan, where 11 years ago the Taliban infamously destroyed two large, 1,500-year old statues of Buddha, Afghan archaeologists are burying artifacts to prevent them from being looted, according to a report from Agence France-Presse.  Looting, according to one French archaeological official, affects 99.9% of all sites.

“We covered everything up because the ground is private and to prevent looting,” says Zemaryalai Tarzi, the 75-year-old French archaeologist born in Afghanistan who is leading the project.

Mr Tarzi says he dug first in the potato fields to find artefacts, which he buried again afterwards. All around him, under a large area of farmland, he says, lie exceptional treasures.

In the West, the presence of such riches would lead to a large-scale excavation, frantic research and in time, glorious museum exhibitions.

In Afghanistan, ground down by poverty and three decades of war, it is the opposite.

“The safest place is to leave heritage underground,” says Brendan Cassar, head of the UNESCO mission in Afghanistan, adding that policing the thousands of prehistoric, Buddhist and Islamic sites dotted around the country was impossible.

Below ground, the relics are protected from endemic looting, illegal smuggling and the corrosive effects of freezing winters.

“There is looting on a large or small scale at 99.9 per cent of sites,” says Philippe Marquis, director of a French archaeological delegation in Afghanistan.

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