Afghanistan’s Lost Empires

December 14, 2017

For archaeologists, Afghanistan is virtually off-limits for fieldwork, as Taliban forces battle the Kabul government in far-flung provinces and security remains tenuous even in the capital. Yet U.S. and Afghan researchers are now finding thousands of never-before-cataloged ancient sites in the country, which for more than a millennium served as a crucial crossroads linking East and West. The discoveries promise to expand scholars’ view of long-vanished empires while giving the battered nation a desperately needed chance to protect its trove of cultural heritage.

In a collaboration funded by the U.S. Department of State, archaeologists are analyzing commercial satellite data, along with U.S. spy satellite and military drone images, which offer a fine-grained view of remote sites that are too dangerous for researchers to visit. At a meeting here last month of the American Schools of Oriental Research, team members said they have more than tripled the number of published archaeological features in Afghanistan, to more than 4500. The discoveries range from caravanserais, huge complexes designed to house travelers and built from the early centuries B.C.E. until the 19th century, to networks of ancient canals invisible from the ground. Meanwhile, octogenarian archaeologists are emerging from retirement to add information from decades-old fieldwork to the site inventory.

“The capability to explore a relatively little known region efficiently and safely is really exciting,” said David Thomas, an archaeologist at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, who has done remote sensing work in Afghanistan but is not a member of the mapping team. “I’d expect tens of thousands of archaeological sites to be discovered. Only when these sites are recorded can they be studied and protected.”

The Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership is the brainchild of archaeologist Gil Stein of the University of Chicago (UChicago) in Illinois. In 2014, he and other cultural heritage experts met with Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, who earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University and served as the World Bank’s top anthropologist. Ghani called for a detailed effort to map relics of the country’s past. “He said cultural heritage is a key to economic development and, in a country so divided, critical for a strong national identity,” Stein recalls.

The following year, the State Department awarded a $2 million grant to Stein’s team, and gave it access to U.S. government imagery that is often an order of magnitude more precise than publicly available images.

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