Plundering Afghanistan

A booming antiquities trade strips the country of its cultural heritage

Published on 30 April 2002

Author(s): Archaeology Magazine/Massoud Ansari

Type:  News report

A journalist and an archaeologist comment on the destructive actions of the Taliban, both in Afghanistan and Paskistan

Since Pakistan has been harboring Afghan refugees for more than two decades, the country has become a transit point for all of Afghanistan’s illicit trade, from guns to drugs to artifacts. Despite the fact that Pakistan’s 1975 Antiquities Act states that anything older than 75 years can be neither sold nor purchased for commercial purposes, artifacts from Afghanistan and even Pakistan itself are sold openly throughout the country, from the storefronts of border cities like Quetta and Peshawar, to the government-run Sunday bazaar in the capital of Islamabad. Furthermore, although the Antiquities Act punishes smugglers with five to 20 years of imprisonment, not a single person to date has been prosecuted under the act, even though several gangs of antiquities smugglers have been apprehended. Local authorities are often indifferent to the illegal trade, and even when a case reaches the country’s notoriously slow court system, wealthy smugglers and dealers use their cash and contacts to have the charges dropped.

Favored hunting grounds for antiquities dealers are the sprawling Afghan refugee camps of Jalozai and Shamshatoon, near Peshawar, and a colossal refugee settlement near Chaman. Here they buy thousand-year-old statuettes and jewelry, as well as centuries-old copper and bronze pots, and musical instruments from displaced Afghans for a pittance. Dealers regularly troll the camps for treasures at throwaway prices, and often place orders with refugees returning to Afghanistan.

Mark Kenoyer comments on the Taliban in Pakistan

"Archaeologists have to be proactive in many different ways. There’s nothing I can do to stop this war, but I do want to save history and help people understand their past. Islam is unique among major religions in this regard. There are various statements in the Koran that say ’look at the ruined mounds, see what happened to those who lived in the past, understand the past.’ This is a guiding principle for some Pakistani archaeologists, though Pakistan is a secular country, and other researchers take a purely scientific approach. But what does ancient history mean to non-archaeologists? In Pakistan, people often come up to me in the field and ask ’Why are you digging? Why not build hospitals instead?’ I tell them to think about what the Koran says. I also point out that one of the most important things distinguishing people from animals is a concept of history and culture. When we lose that, we lose our human identity and become just animals."

J. Mark Kenoyer, chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was raised in India and has conducted many archaeological projects in India and Pakistan. Since 1986, he has been co-director of the Harappa Archaeological Research Project, a collaborative effort between American and other international scholars and Pakistan’s Department of Archaeology and Museums. Kenoyer was interviewed by Susan Kepecs shortly before returning to Pakistan in mid-December.

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