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2,600-year-old Buddhist monastery in Afghanistan under threat

From Huffington Post:

It was another day on the rocky hillside, as archaeologists and laborers dug out statues of Buddha and excavated a sprawling 2,600-year-old Buddhist monastery. A Chinese woman in slacks, carrying an umbrella against the Afghan sun, politely inquired about their progress.

She had more than a passing interest. The woman represents a Chinese company eager to develop the world’s second-biggest unexploited copper mine, lying beneath the ruins.

The mine is the centerpiece of China’s drive to invest in Afghanistan, a country trying to get its economy off the ground while still mired in war. Beijing’s $3.5 billion stake in the mine – the largest foreign investment in Afghanistan by far – gets its foot in the door for future deals to exploit Afghanistan’s largely untapped mineral wealth, including iron, gold and cobalt. The Afghan government stands to reap a potential $1.2 billion a year in revenues from the mine, as well as the creation of much-needed jobs.

But Mes Aynak is caught between Afghanistan’s hopes for the future and its history. Archaeologists are rushing to salvage what they can from a major seventh century B.C. 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 likely be largely destroyed once work at the mine begins.

Ancient Buddha statues inside a temple in Mes Aynak

Hanging over the situation is the memory of the Buddhas of Bamiyan – statues towering up to 180 feet high in central Afghanistan that were dynamited to the ground in 2001 by the country’s then-rulers, the Taliban, who considered them symbols of paganism.

No one wants to be blamed for similarly razing history at Mes Aynak, in the eastern province of Logar. The Chinese government-backed China Metallurgical Group Corp., or MCC, wanted to start building the mine by the end of 2011. But under an informal understanding with the Kabul government, it has given archaeologists three years for a salvage excavation.

Archaeologists working on the site since May say that won’t be enough time for full preservation.

“That site is so massive that it’s easily a 10-year campaign of archaeology,” said Laura Tedesco, an archaeologist brought in by the U.S. Embassy to work on sites in Afghanistan. Three years may be enough time just to document what’s there, she said.

Philippe Marquis, a French archaeologist advising the Afghans, said the salvage effort is piecemeal and “minimal,” held back by lack of funds and personnel.

Around 15 Afghan archaeologists, three French advisers and a few dozen laborers are working within the 2-square-kilometer (0.77-square-mile) area – a far smaller team than the two dozen archaeologists and 100 laborers normally needed for a site of such size and richness.

“This is probably one of the most important points along the Silk Road,” said Marquis. “What we have at this site, already in excavation, should be enough to fill the (Afghan) national museum.”

The ruins, including the monastery and domed shrines, will likely be largely destroyed once work at the mine begins

The monastery complex has been dug out, revealing hallways and rooms decorated with frescoes and filled with clay and stone statues of standing and reclining Buddhas, some as high as 10 feet. An area that was once a courtyard is dotted with stupas standing four or five feet high.

More than 150 statues have been found so far, though many remain in place. Large ones are too heavy to be moved, and the team lacks the chemicals needed to keep small ones from disintegrating when extracted.

MCC appears to be pushing the archaeologists to finish ahead of schedule. In July, the archaeologists received a letter from the company asking that parts of the dig be wrapped up by August and the rest to be done by the end of 2010.

A copy of the letter – signed by MJAM, the acronym for the joint venture in charge of the mine, MCC-JCL Aynak Minerals Co. – was provided to The Associated Press by the head of the archaeological team. MCC and MJAM officials did not respond to requests for comment.

August has come and gone, and excavations at Mes Aynak continue. But 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 said.

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.

Mes Aynak, 20 miles (30 kilometers) south of Kabul, lies in a province that is still considered a major transit route for insurgents coming from Pakistan. In July, two U.S. sailors were kidnapped and killed in Logar. Around 1,500 Afghan police guard the mine site and the road.

Promised funding from foreign governments has yet to materialize. The Afghan government has allotted $2 million for the dig and is trying to find another $5 million to $10 million, said Deputy Culture Minister Omar Sultan.

The United States has promised funding but hasn’t yet figured out how much, said a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman, Mireille Zieseniss.

Mes Aynak’s religious sites and copper deposits have been bound together for centuries – “mes” means “copper” in the local Dari language. Throughout the site’s history, artisanal miners have dug up copper to adorn statues and shrines.

Afghan archaeologists have known since the 1960s about the importance of Mes Aynak, but almost nothing had been excavated. When the Chinese won the contract to exploit the mine in 2008, there was no discussion with Kabul about the ruins – only about money, security and building a railroad to transport the copper out of Logar’s dusty hills.

But a small band of Afghan and French archaeologists raised a stir and put the antiquities on the agenda.

The mine could be a major boost for the Afghan economy. According to the Afghan Mining Ministry, it holds some 6 million tons of copper (5.52 million metric tons), worth tens of billions of dollars at today’s prices. Developing the mine and related transport infrastructure will generate much needed jobs and economic activity.

Waheedullah Qaderi, a Mining Ministry official working on the antiquities issue, said MCC shares the government goal of protecting heritage while starting mining as soon as possible.

A good resolution is important for MCC “because it is their first-ever project in Afghanistan,” Qaderi said. MCC is expected to make an offer for another lucrative mineral prize – the Hajigak iron mine in central Afghanistan, estimated to hold 1.9 billion tons (1.8 billion metric tonnes) of iron ore. Kabul opened bidding to develop the mine in late September and is expected to award the contract late this year or in early 2011.

Still, a diplomat briefed on internal meetings says MCC has pressured Kabul to stop archaeologists from looking for new places to dig beyond the 12 sites already found. The diplomat spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Marquis said MCC has been cooperative and has helped the archaeologists, hauling dirt away 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.”

From Huffington Post.

Filed under: Archaeology, Heritage, Illicit trade & looting, , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Black Death came from China

From NYTimes:

The great waves of plague that twice devastated Europe and changed the course of history had their origins in China, a team of medical geneticists reported Sunday, as did a third plague outbreak that struck less harmfully in the 19th century.

And in separate research, a team of biologists reported conclusively this month that the causative agent of the most deadly plague, the Black Death, was the bacterium known as Yersinia pestis. This agent had always been the favored cause, but a vigorous minority of biologists and historians have argued the Black Death differed from modern cases of plague studied in India, and therefore must have had a different cause.

 

Triumph of death by Peter Breughel

The Black Death began in Europe in 1347 and carried off an estimated 30 percent or more of the population of Europe. For centuries the epidemic continued to strike every 10 years or so, its last major outbreak being the Great Plague of London from 1665 to 1666. The disease is spread by rats and transmitted to people by fleas or, in some cases, directly by breathing.

One team of biologists, led by Barbara Bramanti of the Institut Pasteur in Paris and Stephanie Haensch of Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany, analyzed ancient DNA and proteins from plague pits, the mass burial grounds across Europe in which the dead were interred. Writing in the journal PLoS Pathogens this month, they say their findings put beyond doubt that the Black Death was brought about by Yersinia pestis.

Dr. Bramanti’s team was able to distinguish two strains of the Black Death plague bacterium, which differ both from each other and from the three principal strains in the world today. They infer that medieval Europe must have been invaded by two different sources of Yersinia pestis. One strain reached the port of Marseilles on France’s southern coast in 1347, spread rapidly across France and by 1349 had reached Hereford, a busy English market town and pilgrimage center near the Welsh border.

 

Dance of Death by Michael Wolgemut (1493)

The strain of bacterium analyzed from the bones and teeth of a Hereford plague pit dug in 1349 is identical to that from a plague pit of 1348 in southern France, suggesting a direct route of travel. But a plague pit in the Dutch town of Bergen op Zoom has bacteria of a different strain, which the researchers infer arrived from Norway.

The Black Death is the middle of three great waves of plague that have hit in historical times. The first appeared in the 6th century during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian, reaching his capital, Constantinople, on grain ships from Egypt. The Justinian plague, as historians call it, is thought to have killed perhaps half the population of Europe and to have eased the Arab takeover of Byzantine provinces in the Near East and Africa.

The third great wave of plague began in China’s Yunnan province in 1894, emerged in Hong Kong and then spread via shipping routes throughout the world. It reached the United States through a plague ship from Hong Kong that docked at Hawaii, where plague broke out in December 1899, and then San Francisco, whose plague epidemic began in March 1900.

The three plague waves have now been tied together in common family tree by a team of medical geneticists led by Mark Achtman of University College Cork in Ireland. By looking at genetic variations in living strains of Yersinia pestis, Dr. Achtman’s team has reconstructed a family tree of the bacterium. By counting the number of genetic changes, which clock up at a generally steady rate, they have dated the branch points of the tree, which enables the major branches to be correlated with historical events.

In the issue of Nature Genetics published online Sunday, they conclude that all three of the great waves of plague originated from China, where the root of their tree is situated. Plague would have reached Europe across the Silk Road, they say. An epidemic of plague that reached East Africa was probably spread by the voyages of the Chinese admiral Zheng He who led a fleet of 300 ships to Africa in 1409.

“What’s exciting is that we are able to reconstruct the historical routes of bacterial disease over centuries,” Dr. Achtman said.

Lester K. Little, an expert on the Justinian plague at Smith College, said in an interview from Bergamo, Italy, that the epidemic was first reported by the Byzantine historian Procopius in 541 A.D. from the ancient port of Pelusium, near Suez in Egypt. Historians had assumed it arrived there from the Red Sea or Africa, but the Chinese origin now suggested by the geneticists is possible, Dr. Little said.

The geneticists’ work is “immensely impressive,” Dr. Little said, and adds a third leg to the studies of plague by historians and by archaeologists.

The likely origin of the plague in China has nothing to do with its people or crowded cities, Dr. Achtman said. The bacterium has no interest in people, whom it slaughters by accident. Its natural hosts are various species of rodent such as marmots and voles, which are found throughout China.

From NYTimes.

Filed under: Historia, , , , , , , , , ,

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