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Plunder of Pakistan’s archaeological sites

The author of this article, reflects on the destruction of many of Pakistan’s archaeological sites & how perhaps the viewpoint that the works would be better preserved in foreign museums is a valid one.
This argument is often put forward by the British Museum, but in many ways should not apply to cases such as the Elgin Marbles, with Greece being as much a western country as Britain is.
Another bigger problem that I have with this argument however, is the suggestion in it that the countries who have lost their artworks to western museums & collectors had some element of choice in the matter, or that there was a level of discussion about how the artefacts could best be preserved. The reality however is that in many cases collectors greedily took whatever they could & then later sold it to museums in the west. There was no consensus that this was the best approach, nor did any unbiased international body ever appoint the museums to carry out this task. They are (in my personal opinion) merely using this argument to try & post-rationalise their earlier misdemeanours, based on events that have happened in these countries after the artefacts were taken (or in some cases, based on events that might possibly happen, but that have not.)

Daily Times (Pakistan) [1]

Thursday, November 18, 2004
LETTER FROM LONDON: Squandering our patrimony
Irfan Husain

There has been a long debate about the right of ex-colonial powers to keep the antiquities they carried off with them from around the world. The counter-argument is that at least people can see historical objects at museums in London, Paris and New York. Had they stayed in their places of origin, they would probably have been stolen and kept in private collections

Last week, this newspaper carried a story about the plunder of our archaeological sites. Based on a report published in The Times of London, the account told us how 90 percent of Pakistan’s historical sites had been (and are) wide open to robbers who have been digging up rare and valuable artefacts and smuggling them out of the country. Many of these pieces end up in London’s antiquity market.

While horrifying, this is not a new racket. While I was working in the Ministry of Culture some fifteen years ago, I was told by the then director general of the Archaeology Department that a large number of known sites had deliberately not been excavated because he did not have the resources to protect them from the elements as well as thieves. Nevertheless, robbers have been active, with or without the connivance of security staff.

Pakistan is fortunate in having a rich patrimony of historical sites, buildings and other remains of a glorious past. Unfortunately, preserving this heritage has always been accorded a very low priority by successive federal and provincial governments. By and large, the Archaeology Department has been woefully under-funded, its budget barely adequate to meet salaries and utility charges. Apart from a few high-profile sites like Taxila, the Shalamar Gardens in Lahore and Lahore Fort, there is very little money for the upkeep or security of lesser historical sites.

Obviously, the Archaeology Department will never have the manpower to safeguard all its scattered assets, and nor should it have to. It is the responsibility of provincial governments to ensure that these sites are not violated. But the reality is that few policemen take this responsibility very seriously. Even when called upon to assist, they often look the other way while robbers are active.

The biggest demand for Pakistani antiquities is for Gandhara relics, and these are found in the ancient Buddhist realm that extended from Taxila to modern-day Kandhar (which derives from Gandhara). Thus, much of it lies in the NWFP and the Tribal Areas. Given the degree of lawlessness prevailing in much of this territory, it is hardly surprising that the field is wide open to plunder.

The gangs behind this crime are highly organised. And while many artefacts fetch up in London, Japanese collectors of Buddhist sculpture are known to commission these robbers to dig up remote sites. Any departmental security staff on location are simply warned off by these heavily armed crooks. And the local police seldom respond to requests for assistance.

The result of this continuing pillage is that some of the finest pieces of Gandhara art are now abroad. Over the years, a number of scandals have surfaced, only to be soon forgotten. The reality is that nobody in or out of government really cares very much about the fate of old carvings and statues. We forget that if we are serious about attracting tourists, we need to protect and preserve our heritage. But in our Islamic fervour, most people are convinced that ancient sculpture is profane, and therefore it’s no big deal if it is sent abroad. Unfortunately, this iconoclastic outlook is reinforced by barely educated politicians and generals who have held sway over our fortunes for decades. They simply do not realise that they are presiding over the rapid loss of one of the most valuable resources this country possesses.

Another party to this racket is the Customs Department which often looks the other way when antiquities are being smuggled abroad. Given the vast profits this illicit trade generates it is small wonder that officials ease this export on its way. If they were to display half the zeal they show in tracking down smuggled booze, perhaps some of these valuable objects would still be in the country.

However, the sad fact is that even if the Archaeology Department were able to intercept and interdict a part of this traffic, it just does not have the space to display any more objects than it already does. All the old museums are already full, and to my knowledge, no additional galleries have been built in recent years. The museum in Islamabad is housed in a rented building. The display at the national museum in Karachi is tired and boring. Other museums rotate displays, bringing in new objects and showing them in an attractive and imaginative way.

But then why should we expect this department to perform any better than the rest of the bureaucracy? Neglected and ignored, it still does better than many others in the country. There has been a long debate in the UK and elsewhere about the right of ex-colonial powers to keep the antiquities they carried off with them from around the world. The Elgin Marbles at the British Museum have become a symbol of this argument, with the Greek government demanding their return. The counter-argument is that at least people can see historical objects at museums in London, Paris and New York. Had they stayed in their places of origin, they would probably have been stolen and kept in private collections. Given our own sad experience, who can quarrel with this viewpoint?

The writer is a freelance columnist