As he chats in a mixture of Urdu and Pashto with an Afghan archaeologist, it’s easy to see why documentarian Brent Huffman wanted the UW-Madison professor of anthropology to appear in his upcoming film about Mes Aynak, a 2,600-year-old Buddhist monastery. Huffman needed someone who could articulate what will be lost when a new copper mine destroys this archaeological treasure. Kenoyer, at home in the region and with its languages and culture, was his man.
The Mes Aynak site. (Image courtesy “The Buddhas of Mes Aynak” by Brent Huffman)
The camera follows Kenoyer’s gaze across a vast complex of stone houses, passageways, burial chambers, and stupas
(ceremonial monuments), dotting the desolate landscape as far as the eye can see.
“This whole mountain contains artifacts,” says Kenoyer. “They buried manuscripts inside the buildings that could tell us about life and commerce along the Silk Road. Archaeologists need 30 years to properly excavate this site.”
Unfortunately, all they have is about nine months.
The China Metallurgical Group has said it will close the site to archaeologists next year and begin preparing the area to make way for a massive copper mine. Archaeologists fear that everything will be destroyed, including artifacts from undiscovered levels beneath the Buddhist monuments that may date back to 3000 B.C., during the Bronze Age.
Though the mine will go forward no matter what, there is still a chance — a small chance — that the excavation site could exist alongside it.
“Miracles can happen,” says Kenoyer, which is one reason that he agreed to travel for the first time to the heart of Taliban country to help make a dramatic case for preserving this vital piece of global heritage.
Around the world, archaeological sites are threatened by war, environmental degradation, mining, dam-building, and even mass tourism. Rebellions in Libya, Syria, and Mali have endangered not only the lives of millions of people, but also thousands of years of human history.
“This is a global problem,” says UW-Madison classics professor and archaeologistWilliam Aylward, who is currently working on a project in Troy in modern-day Turkey. “The question can be put to everyone on the face of the earth: what is worth saving?”
Archaeologists and anthropologists play an increasingly vital role in communicating not only the importance of what will be lost, but the potential benefits to tourism and culture if it can be saved. In the digital age, the impact of a well-crafted story or petition or documentary can resonate much further than it might have 15 years ago.
Aylward has witnessed this firsthand. In 2002-2004, he was involved in documenting the rescue of thousands of artifacts from Zeugma, an ancient Greek and Roman frontier city on the Euphrates River in Turkey. One-third of the city was flooded by a massive, hydroelectric dam.
“It took the threat of destruction to bring the site worldwide attention,” he says. “The New York Times ran a front-page story on it. Because of that, the Packard Humanities Institute launched a five-month rescue operation, with hundreds of archaeologists working as the waters rose in the river valley.”
Now, he says, Zeugma is on the radar of Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Archaeological teams visit the site every summer, and the looting that had plagued the neglected site has ceased. Aylward, whose Troy expedition has
attracted much media attention, says scholars must walk a fine line between advocacy and courtesy.
“I always remember — and I impress upon my students — that we are international guests,” he says. “We are there at their invitation and subject to the limitations that they might impose. I respect those limits because I want to go back.”
Language skills, ease with the media, and respect for local people can make a difference.
Take Kenoyer, an expert on the Indus Valley civilization. For 30 years he has been excavating at Harappa, Pakistan, focusing on ancient technologies, economics, and religion. He has also appeared on Pakistani TV and speaks fluent Urdu.
All this made him an attractive figure to Huffman, an Emmy Award-winning documentarian.
“I knew I wanted him to be part of my film as soon as I met him,” says Huffman. “He’s a world-renowned archaeologist with a rare ability to accomplish things in impossible situations.”
Huffman drove with Kenoyer around Kabul and into the hills, stopping to film the anthropology professor as he asked people about the threat to Mes Aynak.
“It’s their heritage, and their lives, impacted by the loss of these materials,” says Kenoyer.
Huffman, an assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern University, directed and produced The Buddhas of Mes Aynak, which he is submitting to film festivals this year. Meanwhile, Kenoyer has convened archaeology colleagues in five South Asian countries to discuss the site.
Already, word has spread: a global petition to save Mes Aynak has garnered more than 60,000 signatures.