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In Afghanistan, drones (also) serve science and heritage

Jean-Michel Marlaud - Kabul, Afghanistan - 15 April 2016



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In the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, drones are well known for their military uses, whether for surveillance or air strikes. They have even won literary acclaim, with the recent publication of a thriller by an author writing under the pseudonym Doa, whose title, “Pukhtu primo” is a clear allusion to this part of the world.

But one of their other uses, entirely peaceful this time, is less well known: they serve a civil purpose that is directly linked to the study, understanding, sharing and enhancement of cultural and archaeological heritage.

Afghan soldier overlooking the archaeological site of Mes Aynak

Mes Aynak, an archaeological site where heritage conservation meets economic development

That is how, one morning at dawn, beneath the dirty grey sky of sleepy Kabul, I find myself taking a road towards the south, between the small markets and the countless containers that have been turned into shops, bakeries and craft workshops, making Afghanistan a real “containerstan”. The road continues for thirty kilometres at most, well-asphalted and mostly free of potholes. Only the soldiers posted every hundred metres with their backs to us indicate that, despite the short distance, this road is now considered unsafe. On entering Logar province, we turn off the main road on to a track that is also in good condition, past a series of small forts built from sheet metal and breeze blocks that keep watch over the vast plain, a “Desert of the Tartars”.

At the entrance to the huge archaeological site of Mes Aynak, the ground becomes hilly and the track skirts two camps, one occupied by police officers who protect the area and the other by bomb-disposal experts who “decontaminate” the area of the explosives left after years of war, before reaching the “Chinese village”. A Chinese village? The carefully aligned blue-roofed huts do not look very oriental, but they were built to house the hundreds of workers that were to come from China to exploit the copper mine, which is said to be the second-largest in the world in terms of its reserves.

Hilly landscape of Logar, seen from the archaeological site of Mes Aynak

This place is at the heart of a possible conflict between heritage conservation and economic development, for Mes Aynak, whose name means “source of copper”, was a known site in ancient times. Abandoned and forgotten, it was then rediscovered by the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan (DAFA) in the 1960s and exploited very superficially by the Soviets... It was not until 2006, when the decision was made to sign a copper mining contract with a Chinese company, that serious excavations were undertaken by the Afghan National Institute of Archaeology with support from DAFA and UNESCO, and funding from the World Bank.

Since then, archaeological findings have revealed the structure of the site, which is divided into four main sectors: the mine itself, where copper is visible, smelting workshops still blackened by traces of fire from ancient times, and lastly, homes and places of worship, some Zoroastrian and others Buddhist. The two religions cohabited peacefully and the remains of a great fire temple date from the same period as the stupas.

Schist stupa on a square base. Polygonal drum decorated with trapezoidal false niches. / © Embassy of France in Afghanistan

Using drones to map Mes Aynak before its remains disappear

The archaeologists are pushed for time: although the work to start exploiting the mine has not yet begun, the remains will be destroyed within a few years, perhaps less. That is where drones come in, provided by Iconem, a French start-up that has come to Mes Aynak each year since 2010. The images taken during each series of excavations closely track the development of the dig and bring the site back to life, including through a 3D reconstruction which enables all those who are interested but will never have the opportunity to visit the place to explore one of Afghanistan’s main centres of Buddhism, to weave between the Zoroastrian platforms where the dead were laid out, to admire the folds in the clothes and the delicate features of the bodhisattvas, and even to make out the holes left by tomb raiders in more recent times.

  • image diaporama - Clay statue of a sitting bodhisattva or (...)
    Clay statue of a sitting bodhisattva or Buddha - 3rd-6th century AD / © Embassy of France in Afghanistan
  • image diaporama - © Embassy of France in Afghanistan
    © Embassy of France in Afghanistan
  • image diaporama - Clay sculpture of a standing bodhisattva or (...)
    Clay sculpture of a standing bodhisattva or Buddha (5-6m high) / © Embassy of France in Afghanistan
  • image diaporama - © Embassy of France in Afghanistan
    © Embassy of France in Afghanistan
  • image diaporama - © Embassy of France in Afghanistan
    © Embassy of France in Afghanistan

Making an archaeological map of the entire country in the face of destruction

The same Iconem drone technology, used in Iraq, shows the extent of today’s plundering by Daesh. In Syria, it can be used to trace the damage inflicted on the Krak des Chevaliers with the still uncertain hope of restoring it, and to reconstruct the Temple of Bel, which was razed to the ground by Daesh but survives in countless pictures and photos that allow us to recreate it in perfect detail. It is only fair that Afghanistan, which was one of the first victims of this barbarism when the Buddhas of Bamiyan were destroyed in 2001, should benefit from this technology now.

Aware of the risks of destruction linked not only to the conflict but also to economic development projects, the Afghan government has just entrusted DAFA with creating an archaeological map of the country. This immense task will take several years, given the wealth of this territory which has seen a succession of invaders and brilliant civilizations, from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan, from the Timurid Empire to the founders of the Mogul Empire, and where access on the ground has been limited by war for nearly forty years.

How does all this affect us today? Can we learn from the history of Mes Aynak? A few months after COP21, where the countries of the world tackled the issue of climate change and the consequences of human behaviour, the “source of copper” bears a message: the site was not destroyed. It was abandoned after excessive mining of natural resources. Transforming copper requires wood, and the trees that used to cover the hills of this region were chopped down, the rivers dried up and fuel had to be brought in from increasingly distant places, until the day when that was no longer possible...




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