From where I sit - Digging deep to survive terrorism

July 7, 2011

Terrorism is threatening not only individuals in Pakistan but also their cultural heritage, by making life impossible for those trying to develop its rich archaeological resources.

Archaeologists' movements in the country have been restricted for some time, but the shooting of Osama bin Laden in May has made the situation worse. Last September, I spent several nights in Abbottabad, which has lovely British period buildings and was generally considered safe. The discovery that the city housed Bin Laden's hideout suggests that nowhere can now be considered safe, which has had huge repercussions for my work and for archaeologists generally.

Since the shooting and the attacks that followed in Karachi, Pakistan's biggest industrial city, and in the capital Islamabad - blamed on militants sympathetic to al-Qaeda - the UK Foreign Office has warned British nationals to be vigilant at all times. There have also been bomb attacks in Charsadda, part of the former North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and a city with a nearby archaeological site where I carried out research for my PhD 15 years ago.

For the past three years I have been part of a collaborative project with Pakistani colleagues in another area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Chitral. We have been trying to understand the Gandhara grave culture, a series of graves, burials and associated artefacts that help to fill the gap between the major urban Indus civilisation in South Asia, of around 2500 to 1900BC, and the beginning of the second urban historic period from around 1400 to 300BC.

I would normally be in the field for the whole season, leading survey teams and then directing excavations. But for more than a year I have had to rely on my Pakistani colleagues and PhD students because it is too unsafe for me to do fieldwork myself. Road access to Chitral is now severely limited due to terrorist presence on the main routes in. Al-Qaeda training camps encircle the area of archaeological interest, and kidnapping is a daily threat.

Pakistani fieldworkers are also at risk, and have to be protected by armed guards, but for foreign archaeologists the situation is impossible. They stand out as wealthy Westerners, becoming sitting targets when working in the field, and I think it unlikely that any of us will be able to carry out proper fieldwork anywhere in the country any time soon. The Foreign Office and the British Council have warned me against working there because of the activities of al-Qaeda and other groups - and all the signs are that things are likely to get worse before they get better.

People are always more important than things. Although the effects of terrorism disrupt the academic aims of privileged archaeologists, the situation for ordinary Pakistani people trying to live their lives amid continued insecurity and violence is far more serious. But the damage to archaeology can have far-reaching impact on their lives too. Cultural heritage, and the archaeology that helps to unearth it, helps to put the past into context and generates opportunities for education, tourism and wealth creation. Work in Chitral is particularly important as the area is relatively unknown in terms of archaeology.

Our project has begun to work with local people to try to understand how they think of their own past and how they would like their cultural heritage to be managed and presented. Given the extreme isolation of the area, tourism and cultural heritage management could play a key part in their future. But the actions of a terrorist minority have made this a secondary consideration to surviving the present.

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