London : A Chinese company digging an unexploited copper mine in Afghanistan has unearthed a sprawling 2,600-year-old Buddhist monastery.
Archaeologists are rushing to salvage what they can from the major seventh century B.C. religious site along the famed Silk Road connecting Asia and the Middle East.
More than 150 statues have been found so far, though many remain in place. The large ones are too heavy to be moved, and the team lacks the chemicals needed to keep the small ones from disintegrating when extracted.
The ruins, including the monastery and domed shrines known as ‘stupas’, will likely be largely destroyed once work at the mine begins, reports the Daily Mail.
The ruins were discovered as labourers excavated the site on behalf of the Chinese government-backed China Metallurgical Group Corp., or MCC, which wants to develop the world’s second largest copper mine, lying beneath the ruins.
Hanging over the situation is the memory of the Buddhas of Bamiyan – statues towering up to 180 feet high in central Afghanistan that were demolished in 2001 by the Taliban, who considered them symbols of paganism.
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.
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.
“That site is so massive that it’s easily a 10-year campaign of archaeology,” said Laura Tedesco, an archaeologist brought in by the US Embassy to work on sites in Afghanistan. “Three years may be enough time just to document what’s there.”
Philippe Marquis, a French archaeologist advising the Afghans, said the salvage effort is piecemeal and ‘minimal’, held back by lack of funds and personnel.
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.
Around 15 Afghan archaeologists, three French advisers and a few dozen labourers are working within the two-square-kilometre area — a far smaller team than the two dozen archaeologists and 100 labourers normally needed for a site of such size and richness.