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Extraordinary Buddhist Sculptures Unearthed in the Ruins of an Ancient City in Pakistan


Archaeologists excavating the ruins of a city of the Kushan Empire in Pakistan have discovered an ancient shrine with statuary depicting the Buddha’s entry into the world of suffering people. After he saw the pain and misery of the world, from which he had been shielded as a youth, Buddha went on to found a religion based in love, compassion, and mercy.

Italian archaeologists discovered the sculptures and carvings in the ruins of a shrine and courtyard in the long-abandoned city of Bazira in the Swat Valley. Some of the images depict the prince Siddhartha, the name of Gautama Buddha, astride his horse Kanthaka and leaving his father’s palace, says an article about the discovery on Live Science.

The Buddha founded Buddhism, a philosophical religion that started in northeast Indian and now has about 500 million adherents worldwide.

Bazira was a small town but became a city in the Kushan Empire. Alexander of Macedon besieged the fortified town in 326 BC, and catapult stones have been found in the ruins. The residents abandoned Bazira after earthquakes and financial troubles brought on by the decline of the Kushan Empire.

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The ruins of Bazira, also called Vajirasthana, are near the modern town of Barikot, where the Italian Archaeological Mission has been excavating since 1978. Over the years archaeologists have excavated the ancient city to reveal palatial quarters and shrines. Bazira is an important center for the study of Greco-Buddhist art.

According to an article from Colorado State University, the word Kushan derives from the Chinese Guishang. This term is used in historical writings to refer to one branch of Indo-European tribes called Yuezhi that were driven out of northwest China between 176 and 160 BC and settled in Bactria around 135 BC. Bactria comprised modern Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

Barikot Ghundai ruins. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

“By positioning themselves at the center of the Silk Road, midway between China and India in the east and the Mediterranean world in the west, the Kushans became a world power second only to China and Rome and the first unified force in Afghanistan to dispense rather than receive authority,” the article states.

The empire lasted from about 20 to 280 AD. It made a push for conquest in 48 AD when Kujula Kadphises traversed the Hindu Kush and allied with Hermaeus, the last Greek king in the Kabul Valley. This alliance allowed Kujula’s son Vima Kadphises to defeat the Scythians in northern India. The successors of these two men enlarged the empire, whose borders eventually stretched from the Ganges River in the east to the Gobi Desert.

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The statues depict Siddhartha’s departure from the protected, cloistered life his father the Sakya king had confined him to from a young age when sages told the king his son would be a great ascetic.

“As if playing out the archetypal refusal of the call for his son, the king decided he would rather that Siddhartha be a world monarch, and he provided him with sumptuous palaces, beautiful women and riches,” says The Oxford Companion to World Mythology .

Siddhartha eventually left his father’s palace and saw sick and dying people and others who showed signs of pain and imperfection. This inspired him to become an ascetic, and after much meditation and testing by Mara, he achieved enlightenment and began preaching mercy and universal love. His teachings caught on, and a beautiful philosophy entered the world.

‘Departure of Siddhartha.’ (1914)

Another carving at Bazira shows a seated, aged male, possibly a deity, holding a severed goat’s head and a glass of wine. Luca Olivieri, the director of excavations at Bazira, told Live Science the figure resembles the ancient Greek god of wine and ecstasy, Dionysus.

The carving found at Bazira showing an unknown deity with a wine goblet in one hand and a goat's head in the other. ( ACT/Italian Archaeological Mission )

The Swat Valley had robust viniculture and winemaking, Olivieri said, and apparently there was some problem with drinking. “It seems that Buddhist schools tried their best to curb the habit of consuming wine and other 'intoxicating drinks' even amongst the monastic community,” he told Live Science.

The archaeologists also found a stupa decorated with carved lions near the shrine, a mound upon which Buddhists meditated.

Amlukdara stupa near Barikot, Pakistan. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Featured Image: A sculpture discovered in Bazira telling a Buddhist story involving Siddhartha, who later became the Gautama Buddha. Source: Aurangzeib Khan, ACT/Italian Archaeological Mission


Archaeologists discover “Lamborghini” of chariots near ruins of Pompeii

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Archaeologists in Italy have unearthed an elaborately decorated, intact four-wheeled ceremonial chariot near the ruins of the Roman city of Pompeii, famously destroyed when Mt. Vesuvius catastrophically erupted in 79 CE, BBC News reports. The archaeologists believe the chariot was likely used in festivities and parades—possibly even for wedding rituals like transporting the bride to her new home, given the erotic nature of some of the decorative motifs.

The find is extraordinary both for its remarkable preservation and because it is a relatively rare object. "I was astounded," Eric Poehler, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who is an expert on traffic in Pompeii, told NPR. "Many of the vehicles [previously discovered] are your standard station wagon or vehicle for taking the kids to soccer. This is a Lamborghini. This is an outright fancy, fancy car. This is precisely the kind of find that one wants to find at Pompeii, the really well-articulated, very well-preserved moments in time."

Other archaeologists weighed in on Twitter. "My jaw is on the floor just now!" tweeted Jane Draycott of the University of Glasgow. "Still wrapping my head around the latest incredible discovery," Sophie Hay of the University of Cambridge tweeted in an extensive thread about the surprising find. "The details are extraordinary."

As we've previously reported, the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius released thermal energy roughly equivalent to 100,000 times the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, spewing molten rock, pumice, and hot ash over the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in particular. The vast majority of the victims died of asphyxiation, choking to death on the thick clouds of noxious gas and ash. But there is also some evidence that the heat was so extreme in some places that it vaporized body fluids and exploded the skulls of several inhabitants unable to flee in time.

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The sudden eruption covered the remains of the city in a thick layer of ash, preserving many of the buildings and daily ephemera of the doomed city—and the bodies of its former inhabitants. There have been several exciting archaeological finds among the excavated ruins in recent years. Last December, for instance, archaeologists unearthed a termopolium, or “hot drinks counter” that served up ancient Roman street food—and plenty of wine—to the people of northeast Pompeii in the days before Mount Vesuvius erupted. Painted bright yellow and decorated with detailed frescoes, the counter would have been a quick stop for hot, ready-made food and drinks. And the small shop still held the remains of its proprietor and perhaps one of its last customers.

Late in 2018, the remains of a horse—saddled up and still in its harness—were uncovered in a stable at the Villa of the Mysteries just outside Pompeii's walls. Previous finds at the site include wine presses, ovens, and frescoes. The remains of two additional horses were also discovered, although archaeologists were unable to make casts to preserve the scene, thanks to all the damage caused by looters. After the initial excavation of the site in the 20th century, it was reburied for the sake of preservation. But the looters dug an elaborate network of tunnels around the area—running some 80 meters and over five meters deep—to illegally gain access and remove artifacts.

The ceremonial chariot was found in the ruins of the two-level portico facing the stable where the horse remains were found in 2018. Archaeologists had carefully removed the carbonized wood ceiling and determined that it had been constructed from oak, while the carbonized door had been made of beechwood. On January 7 of this year, archaeologists found an iron artifact in the volcanic material filling the portico, followed by the ceremonial chariot, which was remarkably well-preserved, given that the walls and ceiling of the room had collapsed and the looters had dug tunnels on either side of it.

The archaeological team spent the next several weeks meticulously unearthing the find, making plaster casts of any voids to preserve the imprint of any organic material that may have once been there—including the chariot's shaft and ropes. The chariot has since been removed to the Archaeological Park of Pompeii's laboratory to complete its restoration.

"What we have is a ceremonial chariot, probably the Pilentum referred to by some sources, which was employed not for everyday use or for agricultural transport but to accompany community festivities, parades and processions," Massimo Osanna, the park's outgoing director, said in a statement. "This type of chariot, which has never before emerged from Italian soil, bears comparison with finds uncovered around fifteen years ago inside a burial mound in Thrace (in northern Greece, near the Bulgarian border). One of the Thracian chariots is particularly similar to ours, even if it lacks the extraordinary figurative decorations that accompany the Pompeian find."

As for the looters, authorities were able to trace the tunnel network back to a modern dwelling on the site of another plundered Roman villa, belonging to the masterminds behind the looting. According to chief prosecutor Nunzio Fragliasso, they are now standing trial for their crimes before the Court of Torre Annunziata. He said that he considers "the fight against the looting of archaeological sites, both inside and outside the urban area of ancient Pompeii" to be one of his office's primary objectives.


Ancient city uncovered in Afghanistan

Centuries-old shards of pottery mingle with spent ammunition rounds on a wind-swept mountainside in northern Afghanistan where French archaeologists believe they have found a vast ancient city.

For years, villagers have dug the baked earth on the heights of Cheshm-e-Shafa for pottery and coins to sell to antique smugglers. Tracts of the site that locals call the "City of Infidels" look like a battleground, scarred by craters.

But now tribesmen dig angular trenches and preserve fragile walls, working as laborers on an excavation atop a promontory. To the north and east lies an undulating landscape of barren red-tinted rock that was once the ancient kingdom of Bactria to the south a still-verdant valley that leads to the famed Buddhist ruins at Bamiyan.

Roland Besenval, director of the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan and leading the excavation, is sanguine about his helpers' previous harvesting of the site. "Generally the old looters make the best diggers," he said with a shrug.

A trip around the northern province of Balkh is like an odyssey through the centuries, spanning the ancient Persian empire, the conquests of Alexander the Great and the arrival of Islam. The French mission has mapped some 135 sites of archaeological interest in the region, best known for the ancient trove found by a Soviet archaeologist in the 1970s.

The Bactrian Hoard consisted of exquisite gold jewelry and ornaments from graves of wealthy nomads, dated to the 1st century A.D. It was concealed by its keepers in the vaults of the presidential palace in Kabul from the Taliban regime and finally unlocked after the militia's ouster.

The treasure, currently on exhibition in the United States, demonstrates the rich culture that once thrived here, blending influences from the web of trails and trading routes known as the Silk Road, that spread from Rome and Greece to the Far East and India.

But deeper historical understanding of ancient Bactria has been stymied by the recent decades of war and isolation that severely restricted visits by archaeologists.

"It's a huge task because we are still facing the problem of looting," said Besenval, who first excavated in Afghanistan 36 years ago and speaks the local language of Dari fluently. "We know that objects are going to Pakistan and on to the international market. It's very urgent work. If we don't do something now, it will be too late."

Looting was rife during the civil war of the early 1990s when Afghanistan lurched into lawlessness. Locals say it subsided under the Taliban's hardline rule, but the Islamists' fundamentalism took its own toll on Afghanistan's cultural history. They destroyed the towering Buddha statues of Bamiyan chiseled more than 1,500 years ago, and smashed hundreds of statues in the national museum simply because they portrayed the human form.

The opening up of Afghanistan did little to curb the treasure hunters. British author Rory Stewart, who made an extraordinary solo hike across the country in 2002, wrote how poor tribesmen were systematically pillaging the remains of a lost ancient city dating back to 12th century around the towering minaret of Jam in western Afghanistan.

State control is a little more pervasive in Balkh but still patchy. The provincial culture authority says it has just 50 guards to protect historical sites across an area nearly the size of New Jersey.

Saleh Mohammad Khaleeq, a local poet and historian serving as the chief of the province's cultural department, said the guards ward off looters, but concedes the only way to safeguard Afghanistan's rich heritage is through public education.

"People are so poor. They are just looking for ways to buy bread. We need to open their minds as they don't know the value of their history. We have to give them that knowledge and then they will protect it," he said.

Villagers hired as laborers at Cheshm-e-Shafa recall how they too used to be among hundreds of locals who would scavenge the site they are now paid 230 afghanis (US$4.60) a day to excavate.

"During the civil war everyone was involved," said Nisarmuddin, 42, who covered his face with his turban to block the dust that a stiff breeze whipped across the mountainside.

Nisarmuddin, a farmer who like many Afghans goes by one name, said people used to keep their finds secret so the local militia commander would not claim them. They could sell items of ancient pottery and glass for a few dollars to antique dealers in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, which lies an hour's drive down a bumpy track through the desert.

One of the Afghan culture officials working at the Cheshm-e-Shafa excavation was clearly anxious that media coverage could bring unwanted attention to the site, where archaeologists have uncovered a 6-foot-tall (2-meter-tall) anvil-like stone believed to have been an altar at a fire temple originating from the Persian Empire period around the 6th century B.C.

"Hezb-e-Islami and Taliban and other extremists might use explosives and blow up this stone," said archaeology department official Mohammed Rahim Andarab.

Many archaeologists remain wary of working in Balkh as Islamic militancy seeps into new regions of the country. Yet the sheer breadth of history to be unearthed is enough to lure Besenval and his colleagues.

They are also restoring an ornate 9th century A.D. mosque. Its stout, half-buried columns, decorated with abstract floral and geometric patterns in stucco, reflect local art but also influences from central Asia, Buddhism and Persia. Chahryar Adle, a Frenchman of Iranian descent with long experience in Afghanistan, said the mosque of Noh-Gonbad, or Nine Cupolas, is the oldest in the country and "undoubtedly it is one of the finest in the world of this period."

French archaeologists have a long association with the region. They first visited in 1924 to excavate a fortress in the nearby town of Balkh. They hoped to find an ancient city of Alexander, whom history recounts married a local princess, Roxanne, in Bactria, in 327 B.C., but left disappointed.

The mirage of Alexander also lurks over Cheshm-e-Shafa, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) away. The site had a strategic location at the southern entry point into Bactria with fortifications circling an area of about 1,000 acres (400 hectares), and its network of mountaintop lookout towers suggest it was well defended. A flat field the size of several football pitches that may have been a parade ground or barracks lies on the plain below. And the local nickname "City of Infidels" also suggests a foreign occupation at some time.

So could this have been Alexander's redoubt in Bactria, where he met the local princess Roxanne? The archaeologist allowed himself a rare foray into the realms of speculation.

"Who knows? Maybe they married in Cheshm-e-Shafa," Besenval said, smiling.


Extraordinary Buddhist Sculptures Unearthed in the Ruins of an Ancient City in Pakistan - History

Harappa (Urdu: ہڑپا) is a city in Punjab, northeast Pakistan, about 35km (22 miles) southwest of Sahiwal.

The modern town is located near the former course of the Ravi River and also beside the ruins of an ancient fortifed city, which was part of the Cemetery H culture and the Indus Valley Civilization. The ancient city existed from about 3300 BCE until 1600 BCE and is believed to have had as many as 40,000 residents—considered large for its time. Although the Harappa Culture extended beyond the bounds of Pakistan, its centres were in Sind and the Punjab.

In 2005 a controversial amusement park scheme at the site was abandoned when builders unearthed many archaelogical artifacts during the early stages of construction work. A plea from the prominent Pakistani archaeologist Ahmed Hasan Dani to the Ministry of Culture resulted in a restoration of the site.

Indus Valley civilization was mainly an urban culture sustained by surplus agricultural production and commerce, the latter including trade with Sumer in southern Mesopotamia. Both Mohenjo-daro and Harappa were built according to similar plans of well-laid-out streets, “differentiated living quarters, flat-roofed brick houses, and fortified administrative or religious centers” Weights and measures were standardized throughout the area and distinctive seals were used for identification of property and shipment of goods. Although Copper and bronze were in use, iron was unknown. “Cotton was woven and dyed for clothing wheat, rice, and a variety of vegetables and fruits were cultivated and a number of animals, including the humped bull, were domesticated.” Wheel-made pottery—some of it adorned with animal and geometric motifs—has been found in profusion at all the major Indus sites. A centralized administration has been inferred from the revealed cultural uniformity however, it remains uncertain whether authority lay with a priestly- or a commercial oligarchy.

Educational site covering 9000 years of Pakistani history. From the Ancient Indus Valley, to all the major empires that arose in Pakistan Gandhara, Mughal Empire, Kushun Empire, and the more recent history of the Independence of Pakistan.


Mes Aynak: Afghanistan's Buddhist buried treasure faces destruction

I n the spring of 1963, a French geologist set out from Kabul to carry out a survey in Logar province in eastern Afghanistan. His destination was the large outcrop of copper-bearing strata in the mountains above the village of Mes Aynak. But in the course of boring for samples, the geologist stumbled on something much more exciting: an entire buried Buddhist city dating from the early centuries AD. The site was clearly very large – he estimated that it covered six sq km – and, although long forgotten, he correctly guessed that it must once have been a huge and wealthy terminus on the Silk Road.

Archaeologists in Kabul did a preliminary survey of the site, mapping it and digging test trenches, but before they could gather the enormous resources needed for a full-scale excavation, first the 1978 Marxist coup then the 1979 Saur Communist revolution and the Soviet invasion intervened. In the chaos of conflict that followed, the Soviets visited Mes Aynak to dig test tunnels into the hillside and investigate the feasibility of extracting its copper. Later, during the Taliban era, one of the abandoned Soviet tunnels became an al-Qaida hideout, while the remote valley became a training camp: the 9/11 hijackers stopped off here en route to New York. During the American onslaught of December 2001, US special forces attacked the tunnel: an unexploded rocket lodged in the roof and burn marks at the cave mouth still bear witness to the attack.

By the time French archaeologists returned in 2004, they found that the secret of the buried city was out. As had happened in many other sites in the country, a large and highly organised team of professional art looters, probably from Pakistan, had systematically plundered the mounds at Mes Aynak and, judging by the detritus they left, had found large quantities of hugely valuable Gandharan Buddha images: the remains of many painted stucco figures deemed too fragile or too damaged to sell were left lying around the looting trenches which now crisscrossed the site. Beside them, the archaeologists found empty tubes of glue and bags of fine plaster – evidence of attempts at restoration and conservation.

An archaeologist examines the remains of statues of Buddha at Mes Aynak. Photograph: Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

Things did not begin well. The first set of guards placed on the site in 2004 ended up shooting each other in a gun-battle indicating, presumably, that profitable looting was continuing long after the site had passed into Afghan government control. But it was now beyond dispute that Mes Aynak was a discovery of major significance. In the months that followed, the excavators uncovered 19 separate archaeological sites in the valley. These ranged from four fortified monasteries, a Zoroastrian fire temple and several Buddhist stupas (commemorative monuments), through ancient copper working, smelting workshops, miners habitations and a mint, as well as two small forts and a citadel. They also found a hoard of Kushan, Sassanian and Indo-Parthian coins, more than 1,000 statues, and several perfectly preserved frescoes showing donor portraits and scenes from the life of the Buddha.

As more data slowly emerged from the ground, it became clear that the site was a major Buddhist settlement, occupied from the first century BC and to the 10th century AD, at a time when South Asian culture in the form of the Buddhist religion and Sanskrit literature were spreading up the Silk Route into China, and when Chinese scholars and pilgrims were heading southwards to the Buddhist holy places of the Gangetic plain: Sarnath and Bodh Gaya, and the Buddhist university and library of Nalanda, the greatest centre of learning east of Alexandria. Mes Aynak was clearly an important stopping-off point for monks heading in either direction.

Then, in 2008, the Chinese returned, this time not as pilgrims or scholars but instead as businessmen. A Chinese mining consortium – Chinese Metallurgical Group and Jiangxi Copper Co – bought a 30-year lease on the entire site for $3bn (£2bn) they estimated that the valley contained potentially $100bn worth of copper, possibly the largest such deposit in the world, and potentially worth around five times the estimated value of Afghanistan's entire economy. Afghan president Hamid Karzai's government hailed the mine as a key component in bringing about a national economic resurgence that would not be dependent on aid and military spending – which, between them, currently make up 97% of the legal economy – or, indeed, the profits of the illegal opium trade. Some observers estimated that the project could bring in $300m a year by 2016 and provide about $40bn in total royalties to the Afghan government.

Gold and jewels discovered at Mes Aynak. Photograph: Jerome Starkey/FlickrVision

Copper had created the site and probably drew the Buddhist monks to the valley in the first place, but now it would imminently lead to its complete destruction. In order to retrieve what they could before the site was levelled, the archaeologists of the French Archaeological Mission in Afghanistan (Dafa) began a major rescue dig to which the Chinese contributed $2m, the US $1m and the World Bank $8m: by providing the cash, everyone hoped the mine would not be halted by protests – the press had already begun comparing the destruction of the major Buddhist site at Mes Aynak to the dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in the summer of 2001.

As well as 200 armed guards, there is currently an international team of 67 archaeologists on site, a mixed group of French, English, Afghans and Tajiks. Serious technology is being deployed to record the remains: ground penetrating radar, georectified photography and aerial 3D images are being brought together to produce a comprehensive digital map of the ruins. This effort is being backed up by more traditional techniques: the sweat of about 550 pick-axe wielding Logari labourers. This summer that number is due to increase to 650. This will make Mes Aynak the largest rescue dig anywhere in the world.

A Buddha head from Mes Aynak at the National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul. Photograph: MCT via Getty Images

To get to Mes Aynak you must make a mildly risky two-hour trip from Kabul. Logar is still the Taliban's principal route into Afghanistan from their Pakistani safehavens and the highway is frequently subject to IED attacks aimed at the Nato-led Isaf convoys.

I was driven to the site by Philippe Marquis, the ebullient director of Dafa, who is famed in Afghanistan not just for his bravery and archaeological prowess, but also for keeping the best table and the best wine cellar in Kabul. Marquis has masterminded the Mes Aynak project since its inception, and drives back and forth two or three times a week in his beret and dapper corduroy waistcoat, supervising both the digging on site and the fundraising and administration that takes place at the Dafa office in Kabul.

On a bright, cloudless spring day we drove together through the Kabul valley, past fortified mudbrick compounds surrounded by fields green with ripening barley and divided up with windbreaks of poplar. Eventually, we turned off the main road on to a bumpy track leading into the hills, in April still etched with drifts of snow. As we drew close, we found ourselves surrounded by the camouflaged and flak-jacket wearing guards of the Afghan army: an entire regiment armed to the teeth with heavy machine guns is at work in this remote valley to keep this lucrative Chinese investment safe.

Driving uphill past a succession of checkpoints, the small camp for the diggers and the huge Chinese mining compound with its conning towers, drilling pylons and lines of identical blue-roofed barrack blocks, we arrived at length in a high-altitude valley of stark magnificence. Here, the dark ruins stand out against the thick snowfields of the Koh Baba Wali rising behind. Barren grey-clay walls and mudbrick structures rose out of the ground, their original form eroded by 2,000 years of winter winds, so that from a distance all that seemed to remain, amid the diggers, wheelbarrows and string mapping grids, was a maze of brick walls. But Marquis could see order where I could not, and instantly identified the different sites and speculated on what they were once used for.

A courtyard of a monastery at Mes Aynak. Photograph: MCT via Getty Images

With Marquis in the lead, striding forward holding a ski stick, we marched up the hill. Handles of ancient amphorae, painted fragments of geometric decoration lay strewn around our feet like autumn leaves – hundreds of broken shards poking out of the mud. At the top we dived into a succession of monastic complexes where lines of sitting Buddha statues faced onto small slate stupas with classical columns covered with plastic sheeting. On the walls, sometimes almost invisible, at other times startlingly vivid, were the outlines of delicate wall paintings on plaster. Some showed lines of standing Buddha figures holding lotus flowers the images were arranged four on each wall, 16 in total for each chapel. Others showed the seated Buddha surrounded by a body halo and nimbus, the Bodhisattva Maitreya in a cape or the evil child-devouring yaksha Atavika who the Buddha miraculously converted to his dharma. Several images showed the magnificently booted Kushan noblemen in red and white robes who originally paid for the complex.

The valley, emphasised Marquis, was an important centre of copper mining in antiquity. In one place he pointed out an ancient centre of crushing, refining and smelting, where the diggers had found a blanket of fused copper slag 12m (40ft) high. Marquis believes the copper workings to be central to understanding the ruins. Given the unusual grandeur of the Buddhist temples and palaces in the settlement, Mes Aynak might once have been a theocracy like Tibet, with the monks exploiting the copper reserves as a source of power and profit, not unlike the Cistercian monks who dominated the pre-industrial economy in many parts of medieval France and England.

A Buddhist stupa – commemorative monument – inside a monastery at Mes Aynak. Photograph: MCT via Getty Images

Mes Aynak seems to have remained a wealthy centre until a period of slow decline began in the eighth century the settlement was finally abandoned 200 years later. The archaeologists have found a layer of ash and charcoal and smashed statues, which seems to have coincided with the slow rise of the Islamic Ghurid dynasty in the area. Already, stories of Afghanistan's former wealth had entered folklore. When the medieval physician Abu Ubaid al-Jizani was writing in the early 11th century, it was widely known that Afghanistan's former rulers "have been famous and celebrated from the most remote ages for the abudance of their riches, the vastness of their treasures, the number of their mines, and their buried wealth. For that country is littered with mines of gold, silver, rubies and crystal, as well as lapis and garnets and other precious things."

However, 500 years earlier, when Mes Aynak was at the peak of its prosperity between the fifth and seventh century AD, Buddhism was spreading over the Hindu Kush and the region was the meeting place for the ideas and peoples of the civilisations surrounding Central Asia. Its mountains and valleys were a major intellectual crossroads where the Hellenistic, Persian, Central Asian, Tibetan, Indian and Chinese worlds met and fused. Today, of course, part of what is so fascinating about the civilisation of the cities of the Silk Route is the sheer remoteness of these exotic-sounding places. Yet what most distinguished Mes Aynak in the early first millennium AD was the opposite: the fabulously wealthy and cosmopolitan nature of the society that thrived there.

At this period, Afghanistan was the epicentre of classical globalisation: midway on the trade route from Rome to China, traders came to Afghanistan from all over the world, bringing painted glass from Antioch, inlaid gold vessels from Byzantium, porphyry from Upper Egypt, ivories from South India, carpets from Persia, horses from Mongolia and Siberia, and lacquers and silk from the China coast. It was through these now-remote valleys that ideas of art, decorum, dress, religion and court culture passed backwards and forwards, east to west and back again, mixing and melding to create the most unexpected conjuctions. The slowly decaying remains of the culture that emerged from this extraordinary clash and fusion of civilisations still litters much of Afghanistan and northern Pakistan.

One of the centres of this process was the region of Gandhara, whose centre lay around Peshawar in the North-West Frontier province of Pakistan. After the death of Alexander the Great in 323BC the Greek garrisons of India and Afghanistan found themselves cut off from their Mediterranean homeland, and had no choice but to stay on, intermingling with the local peoples, and leavening Indian learning with classical philosophy. The Bactrian Greeks survived for 1,000 years, long after Greek civilisation had disappeared in Europe. Kings with names such as Diomedes of the Punjab, Menander of Kabul and Heliochles of Balkh, ruled over a remarkable Indo-Hellenistic civilisation that grew up in what is now the Taliban heartlands of the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (Fata) and eastern Afghanistan. This civilisation was later cross-fertilised by new influences brought by the Kushans who succeeded the Bactrian Greeks as rulers of Afghanistan, while adopting much of their culture.

Kushan Gandhara was Buddhist in religion but worshipped a pantheon of Greek, Roman, Iranian, Hindu and Buddhist deities. It left behind it a legacy of finely constructed and richly designed Buddhist monasteries such as Mes Aynak. In the area between Kabul and Peshawar, one fifth-century Chinese traveller counted no fewer than 2,400 such shrines – as well as a scattering of well-planned classical cities, acropoli, amphitheatres and stupas. Gandharan art used motifs borrowed from classical Roman art, with its vine scrolls, cherubs and centaurs, but its principal icon was a handsome, languid, meditating Buddha, dressed in a Greek toga.

Afghan archaeologists at work. Photograph: Jerome Starkey/FlickrVision

The Hellenistic influence of Gandhara is immediately apparent at Mes Aynak – in the Corinthian capitals that support the plinths on which the Buddha meditates in the bearded tritons who seem to have wandered off some Mediterranean sarcophagus and in the terracotta figures of ascetics that closely resemble those found at the Bactrian Greek site of Ai-Khanoum with their pointed goatee beards and intense wide-eyed stares. There is much Indian influence too. Several black-schist figures have been dug up showing the Buddha standing, meditating, preaching and fasting. In one image, now in the Kabul Museum and known as The Pensive Bodhisattva, the young Prince Siddhartha is shown sitting under a Pipal tree, clad in dhoti, turban and necklaces. His muscles ripple beneath the diaphanous folds of the toga. The saviour's hair is oiled and groomed. His face is full, round and classical: the nose small and straight the lips firm and proud. Art historians believe the sculpture came from a workshop located at Bagram, under the US airbase whose notorious prison was recently handed over to the Afghans under pressure from Karzai.

Yet as time went on, Indian and western classical motifs increasingly give way to an ever-greater eastern influence, as the T'ang Chinese army moved along the sides of the Taklamakan desert and the Tarim basin to take over Xinjiang to the immediate north-west of Afghanistan. One of the most exquisite finds at Mes Aynak is a gilt Buddha head, with eyes half closed, poised on the threshold of enlightenment it feels more Burmese than Central Asian. Fabulous frescoes reveal the increasing influence of both Uyghur and Chinese mural techniques: the compositions look increasingly like the work uncovered by the great turn-of-the-century Silk Road archaeologist Aurel Stein at the Cave of a Thousand Buddhas in Dunhuang. The delicacy of the silks, the elongated eyes, and the lightness of the brushstrokes depicting white iris-like flowers show the growing influence of T'ang Chinese art.

"In this ground," wrote Stein of the Silk Road cities he excavated, "time seems to have lost all power of destruction." The same is equally true of Mes Aynak.

The same process that can be seen in the art dug out of Mes Aynak – a surprisingly strong western presence slowly giving way to Chinese influence from the east – is a story that is likely to be repeated all over the region in the next few decades. For there is a growing conviction these days in Afghanistan that China could end up the ultimate winner here, after the US withdrawal in 2014.

Although the Chinese maintained close contacts with the Taliban regime and their Pakistani ISI backers during the 1990s, they pulled back from interfering in Afghanistan after the US-installed Karzai regime in December 2001, and, until recently, even economic contact was modest: last year there was only $234m in trade between the two neighbours. But this is now beginning to change.

In September 2012, the Chinese security chief, Zhou Yongkang, visited Kabul and announced a turnaround in Chinese policy. As well as signing contracts for more mining and oil exploration, the Chinese announced plans for road- and rail-building projects linking north-east Afghanistan with western China through the Wakhan Corridor. A railway is now being planned from Kashgar to Iran via Herat another will run from Uzbekistan to Mazar-i-Sharif. China has also made a start on security co-operation with Karzai's regime, and is currently training a first batch of 300 Afghan policemen. The politics of this are delicate, but, potentially, extremely important. China is possibly the only country to which the Pakistani security establishment defers. If China continues to invest in Afghan mineral resources, and the roads and railways with which it can extract them, it will expect Pakistan to protect its interests and not allow the Taliban to disrupt these operations in Afghanistan. This could hold out the best hope for future peace in Afghanistan.

The potential is enormous. Geologists estimate that Afghanistan holds vast hydrocarbon and mineral deposits that could be worth $1tn – including oil, gas, copper, iron, gold and lithium that China will need in the decades ahead if its economy is to expand. Yet Mes Aynak shows the scale of the problems that will have to be overcome. Most of the mineral deposits in Afghanistan are in the south-east of the country, where the Islamist insurgency is strongest. Despite massive investment in the fortified camp at Mes Aynak, and enormous security, there have been several Taliban attacks on the Chinese mining camp and most of the 150 Chinese staff in residence recently fled back home. One British observer who worked with the Chinese at Mes Aynak remains sceptical about their resolution: "They are scared, confused, and have little understanding of Afghanistan," he told me. "They may well be regretting ever having got involved in Mes Aynak. Their workmen are attacked – there was another bomb last week, and they have no Dari or Pashto speakers. Rather than ruthlessly efficient, I have found them sweet and a bit hopeless." Certainly, their camp is currently empty except for security and caretakers.

In the meantime, excavations continue. Marquis says he has enough resources for a full rescue dig what is not clear is how much time he has. Mining was due to begin in January, but the Taliban attack has given him at least until the summer to continue. How long he has after that remains unclear.

William Dalrymple's Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-42 is published by Bloomsbury


5. Longmen Grottoes

Tourists view Buddhist sculptures at Longmen Grottoes on April 10, 2016 in the outskirts of Luoyang of Henan Province, China. (Credit: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

Longmen Grottoes is a collection of some 110,000 elegantly carved stone statues situated within 2,300 limestone caves in China’s Henan Province. The earliest pieces date to the fifth century A.D. and the Northern Wei Dynasty, but new works were still being added as recently as the tenth century thanks to commissions from emperors and wealthy individuals. The vast majority of the Longmen statues depict figures from the Buddhist religion. The massive Fengxian cave includes a 55-foot tall carving of a seated Buddha flanked by eight disciples and heavenly guardians, while the Wan-fo-tung cave is home to 15,000 individual Buddha statues, some as little as 10 centimeters tall. Other grottoes feature ceremonial figures, imperial processions and some 2,800 inscriptions carved on stone steles. There is even a “Medical Prescription Cave” inscribed with more than 140 ancient medical treatments and cures for diseases.


How a Historic Buddhist Site Has Eluded Destruction—for Now

Plans to open-pit mine the ancient city of Mes Aynak in Afghanistan have been put on hold, but the site is still far from safe.

A Buddha sculpture unearthed at Mes Aynak. | Photo courtesy Brent Huffman and Icarus Films

Saving Mes Aynak is Tricycle’s February Film Club pick, so subscribers can stream the film until February 29, 2020. Watch the film here.

Back in 2009, few seemed to know about or care about Mes Aynak, an ancient Buddhist city in Afghanistan. There was no mention of it in a New York Times story about a shocking and surreal investment in Afghanistan from China. A Chinese government-owned mining company, one of the largest in the world, was setting up an encampment in Logar province in an area controlled by the Taliban. The China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) had inked a deal with the Afghan government to mine $100 billion worth of copper buried at the site, which the MCC was able to lease for 30 years for a little less than $3 billion. The Times story was full of record-breaking details: the copper deposit at Mes Aynak was one of the largest untapped copper reserves in the world, and the MCC deal was the largest foreign investment in Afghanistan’s history. Not mentioned were the ancient ruins of a large Buddhist city a French geologist had stumbled across at the site in 1963 , forgotten for centuries. The MCC planned to extract the copper at Mes Aynak via open-pit mining, the cheapest, fastest, and most environmentally destructive excavation technique, which would have demolished the ruins, leaving a gaping crater in their place. In 2009, the MCC and the Afghan government were banking on the world not knowing what was at stake at Mes Aynak.

I am a documentary filmmaker and professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and I had worked in Afghanistan before. I decided to return to Kabul in 2011 to see if I could gain access to Mes Aynak and see for myself what was there. What I found was astounding and would change my life. I traveled to Mes Aynak alone in a rented taxi though rocky dusty roads rife with landmines. Mes Aynak was awe-inspiring. It was a sprawling Buddhist city over 450,000 square meters in size, around the size of 100 football fields, dating back 2,000 years. Only 10 percent of the site had been excavated. It reminded me of Machu Picchu and I immediately fell in love.

A Buddha statue at Mes Aynak | Photo courtesy Brent Huffman and Icarus Films

The ancient city of Mes Aynak contains over 600 Buddha statues, dozens of intricate and fragile Buddhist stupas, an enormous circular monastic complex, thousands of coins and pieces of jewelry, as well as numerous ancient manuscripts and human remains. According to archaeologists, Mes Aynak represents one of the most significant archaeological finds in Afghanistan’s history and one of immense global importance due to its rare, well-preserved Buddhist artifacts, and to its sheer size. Over two thousand years ago, the residents of Mes Aynak were already mining copper using primitive drilling methods and smelters, explaining their close proximity to the precious metal. Mes Aynak was also a major stop on the Silk Road. Buddhists from all over Asia made pilgrimages to worship there and to trade with the city’s residents. This often overlooked chapter of Afghanistan’s history rests within Mes Aynak’s sprawling ruins.

So far, archaeologists have found incredible objects from the Kushan period (around 30–375 CE), including rare hand-carved wooden Buddha figures in the Gandhara style, painted plaster and clay statues in a variety of styles, and fragile birch bark manuscripts in several languages. Archaeologists also have unearthed Bronze Age pottery and a copper smelter dating back 4,000–6,000 years. A stone stele discovered at Mes Aynak has been identified as a depiction of Prince Siddhartha before he founded Buddhism, and has been taken as evidence that a monastic religion dedicated to Siddhartha’s pre-enlightenment life once existed in the region. Mes Aynak’s priceless treasures also include some of the oldest manuscripts and oil-paint murals ever discovered.

Everything was set to be destroyed by this copper mine—the proposed dynamiting echoing the Taliban’s 2001 destruction of the giant Buddhas at Bamiyan. Then there is the environmental devastation from open-pit copper mining. As a result of copper extraction, Mes Aynak would become a toxic crater. Chemical byproducts would soak into aquifers that supply drinking water to Kabul (population of approximately 6 million) and neighboring Pakistan. To make way for mining, a dozen nearby villages were cleared without the consent of the villagers, whose families had lived there for generations. And with the MCC planning to bring in its own employees from China, Afghan citizens would see little benefit from this corrupt deal, the contract for which was never made public due to a lack of transparency in the Afghan government.

I was shocked and horrified. I rushed to get the word out, to spread awareness in an attempt to stop the mining. I wrote articles and did interviews for the New York Times , CNN, BBC, NPR, Al Jazeera, Huffington Post , and Tricycle I spread the word on social media and I partnered with an Afghan graduate student who began a petition to save Mes Aynak.

I quickly learned the true heroes of this story were the Afghan archaeologists risking their lives to excavate the site amid daily threats from the Taliban. The MCC gave these archaeologists one year to perform rescue archaeology at the sprawling ancient city after an international outcry, they extended the deadline to three years. A proper excavation would take more than 30 years. The archaeologists often went months without pay and were not given cameras or computers to document their findings. (I later raised money in a Kickstarter campaign to buy cameras and computers for them.)

Meanwhile, I continued to make a film documenting everything that happened. The resulting documentary, Saving Mes Aynak , was in many ways a love letter to these Afghan archaeologists, to Mes Aynak, and to Afghanistan. I hoped to show the world how special and incredible this country is, both in its people and cultural heritage.

For the first three years I worked on Saving Mes Aynak solo, but others soon came to help save Mes Aynak. Legendary Chicago social justice documentary house Kartemquin Films joined me to help produce the film. The MacArthur Foundation awarded me a documentary grant and other foundations followed suit. The completed documentary went on to win over 30 major awards and has been broadcast on television in more than 70 countries, and was translated into Dari and broadcast for free in Afghanistan in 2015.

It sounds cliché to say documentaries can make a difference, but it is true in the case of Saving Mes Aynak . Five years after the film’s debut, Mes Aynak is still intact—but it still could be destroyed at any time.

Saving Mes Aynak played a significant role in causing the MCC and the Afghan government to delay demolition of the site that continues to this day. Nearly 90,000 people signed the petition to save the ancient city, and Afghan presidents Hamid Karzai (2001–2014) and Ashraf Ghani (2014–present) viewed the film and pledged support. In 2017, the general manager of the MCC, Shen Heting, was expelled from the Communist Party on corruption charges it’s possible that Saving Mes Aynak had even reached the Chinese government and influenced their decision.

In the early 2010s, archaeologists uncovered an important Buddhist manuscript written in Sanskrit on tree bark, dated to the 7th century, which suggests the site was a prosperous Buddhist city. According to this recently translated manuscript, Mes Aynak may have been the city described by 7th-century Chinese monk Hsuan-tsang (Xuanzang) in the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions , which recorded his journey to India. UNESCO is now officially advising on archaeological excavation and preservation at Mes Aynak, and plans are afoot for a new museum near the ruins to house and display findings.

Archaeologist Qadir Temori, lead Afghan archaeologist at Mes Aynak, was promoted to Director of the Archaeology Department at the Ministry of Culture and now oversees the protection of all endangered sites in Afghanistan. He works closely with the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago to map ancient sites via satellite to safeguard them from looting.

Qadir Temori, lead Afghan archaeologist at Mes Ayank, hard at work. | Photo courtesy Brent Huffman

But not all the news has been good. Tragically, in 2018 Afghan archaeologist Abdul Wahab Ferozi was killed by the Taliban in a bomb blast while traveling to work at Mes Aynak. Three others were also wounded in the explosion. This incident showed the peril archaeologists still face daily.

The Chinese government is working directly with the Taliban and has hosted them in Beijing as recently as 2019 to cease attacks on the MCC in Logar province and partner in the extraction industry in Afghanistan. The Afghan Ministry of Mines has been pressing the MCC to begin mining as soon as possible, despite the fact that mining would destroy the ancient city and pollute the area.

Mes Aynak, and everything still buried in the ground, could be destroyed at any time. A primary goal of Saving Mes Aynak was to make Mes Aynak a UNESCO World Heritage Site and permanently stop any mining from ever happening at the site. Though this has not yet happened, it is not too late.

No one should be allowed to erase a country’s cultural heritage and identity and permanently poison its people and environment. Mes Aynak’s cultural treasures must be preserved for future generations. But that has yet to happen. There is more work to do.


Discovery channels: How new finds are changing Buddhist history

Across Asia, geography is changing history. A slew of excavations and chance discoveries shows that the history of Buddhism, the belief system that flourished from 600 BCE until a decline in the 13th century CE, still contains many surprises.

Newly unearthed sites in Uzbekistan are evidence that it spread farther than previously thought. Stupas and sculptures dating back 2,000 years show that it flowed into new territories earlier. And magnificent monastery complexes are proof that the Buddhist institutions exerted greater influence over commerce, urban development, economic systems and everyday life than previously thought.

Emerging from the digs are stone structures, coin caches, copper plates, mantras punched on gold foil, inscriptions on palm leaf and ivory, colourful murals, and scriptures in at least 20 languages. How did Buddhism, which preached a renouncement of the material world, leave behind such a staggering wealth of physical evidence? KTS Sarao, former head of Buddhist Studies at the University of Delhi, says that a mingling of the sacred and non-sacred was inevitable. “Monks spreading the Buddha’s teachings would travel along the Silk Road with merchant groups for safety merchants, in turn, relied on them for spiritual support on these risky journeys,” Sarao says. Over time, shrines sprouted at rest stops, becoming a constant in an uncertain landscape. “They grew to include storehouses, factories, banks, and guesthouses, allowing monks to benefit not only from royal patronage but from local commerce too.”

In Bihar, where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment, efforts are on to unearth an administrative centre that until now only existed in texts. A monastery headed by a woman has been found there, and in Odisha, evidence of an unusual meditation complex open to both monks and nuns. In Afghanistan, monasteries located alongside copper mines reveal how rich monks wielded clout over the region.

Archaeology, then, is recreating parts of the story that aren’t found in the scriptures. Because of the Buddha’s renunciation of material possessions and the self — he told followers he shouldn’t be the focus of their faith — there are key questions that are still unanswered. Researchers are hoping to confirm whether Kapilavastu, the Buddha’s childhood home, corresponds to the town in Nepal or one of the same name, not far away, in Uttar Pradesh. They’re tracking how his teachings travelled clockwise out of central India, spreading through north-west Asia and then to China and further east over 1,000 years.

“Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar have done admirable jobs of preserving Buddhist monuments,” says Sarao. In India, however, unmarked Buddhist sites are often mistaken for Hindu temples by locals. Idols of Buddha are worshipped as Shiva, Ashokan pillars are taken for lingams. “We should work together to preserve the Buddha’s legacy,” says Sarao. “His teachings are more relevant than ever.”

In Ayutthaya, Thailand, the Wat Mahathat Buddhist temple site draws pilgrims from around the world. (Shutterstock)

For Buddhist pilgrims, a new global map

In Pakistan, a gem rediscovered

Across the arid Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which encompasses much of the north and northwest of Pakistan, lie some 150 Buddhist heritage sites. The area was a major centre for early Buddhist development under Ashoka’s reign 2,300 years ago.

Italian archaeologists were investigating the province’s northern Swat region as far back as 1930. But digs were abandoned before discoveries could be made. Local teams, back at the site last year, were luckier. They discovered a monastery and education complex, the largest found in the region, and believed to be between 1,900 and 2,000 years old.

Discovered thus far are stupas, viharas, a school and meditation halls, along with smaller cells higher in the mountains where monks could retreat into isolation. Also unearthed were a coin, helping date the site to the Kushan empire (30 CE – 375 CE), which spread across modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India and was instrumental in spreading Buddhist teachings. The bonanza: rare frescoes depicting figures in various poses, including the namaskar.

Pakistan’s Takht-i-Bahi site shows the early stops Buddhism made as it spread outside India. (Shutterstock)

Afghanistan’s chance to make amends

It’s been 20 years since the Taliban destroyed the Buddha colossi in Bamiyan. They still couldn’t erase signs of Buddhism, which had a large following here until the 11th century. Cave networks, paintings and statuary have been found at six major sites.

In 2008, when the Chinese bought over the world’s second-biggest unexploited copper mine in Mes Aynak, the site of an ancient Buddhist settlement, archaeologists raced to document and salvage the 2,600-year-old monastery that stands there, before it was lost forever. Mes Aynak was a spiritual hub along the Silk Road from the 3rd to 8th centuries CE, a peaceful cosmopolitan pitstop run by monks who’d become rich from the copper ore. Researchers unearthed monastery complexes, watchtowers, walled zones, jewellery hoards, manuscripts and close to 100 stupas. One statue of the Buddha, twice as tall as a human, still bore traces of red, blue and orange on the robes. Several copper coins featured an image of the Kushan emperor Kanishka on one side, and the Buddha on the other.

As a result of Afghanistan’s poor infrastructure, mining work has stalled. Archaeologists couldn’t be happier. Their initial three-year deadline for digs has stretched to nearly 13 years already, becoming the most ambitious excavation project in Afghanistan’s history.

For Uzbekistan, old connections and new

The Termez Mural in Uzbekistan.

In 2016, when a mural was discovered in Termez in southern Uzbekistan, near today’s border with Afghanistan, few were surprised. Uzbekistan was, after all, once part of the Kushan Empire. Its residents were intermediaries as goods flowed west to Rome and east to China.

But the mural was unusual. It was discovered in a stone basement adjoining a pagoda and looked to have been made in the 2nd or 3rd century CE. Despite its age, its figures in blue and red were remarkably vivid, blending influences from East and West, its angled face shaded to mimic depth. It seemed to be part of a lost larger painting about the life of the Buddha. Researchers drew parallels with murals in Dunhuang, China, an eastern junction on the Silk Road. It was proof that the route didn’t just transfer things, it let art, religion and ideas flow in both directions too.

Nepal’s tryst with history

The Buddha disapproved of the idea of devotees focusing on him, and so little about him and his life is known. Followers believe that his mother, en route to her parents, went into labour and gave birth to him (grasping the branch of a sal tree) in the Lumbini garden in present-day Nepal. We know that Emperor Ashoka built the first Buddhist structure there — a pillar inscribed with his own name, the story of the Buddha’s birth, and a date corresponding to the 3rd century BCE.

That spot is now a UNESCO world heritage site. But in 2013, when British archaeologist Robin Coningham excavated inside the 3rd century BCE Maya Devi temple that also stands there, he found that the site (and Ashoka’s story) went deeper. Beneath the temple his team found a roofless wooden space, with signs of ancient tree roots over which a brick temple had once been built. Charcoal and sand fragments were carbon dated and found to be from 550 BCE, around the time the Buddha is said to have lived. If this was a Buddhist shrine, the timing would make it the first one ever built.

Indian archaeologists are sceptical, though. “Tree shrines have been part of Hindu worship much earlier than the time of the Buddha,” says KTS Sarao, former head of Buddhist Studies at the University of Delhi and a former classmate of Coningham at Cambridge. “It’s not unusual for temples to be renovated and there’s no proof connecting it to the Buddha.”

He adds a further blow: The government of India does not permit foreign archaeologists to dig here. So some scholars may exaggerate foreign findings to make them sound as important as the sites they can’t access, he says.

Meanwhile, work continues in Nepal. Coningham’s excavations in the Tilaurakot region, where the Buddha was believed to have lived as Prince Siddhartha, have unearthed the remains of an 1,800-year-old palace complex and walled city. There are courtyards, a central pond and stupas. But still no concrete connection to the Buddha.

In Bangladesh, monuments in a mango grove

When a storm tore through the village of Dalijhara Dhibi in south-western Bangladesh in 1988, it uprooted rows of trees in a mango orchard. The owners decided to plant banana instead, but found they couldn’t. Under the soil was a thick layer of brick. Thirty years later, they tried to plant mango again, and that’s when they decided to examine the bricks more closely. They unearthed a brick structure. The regional archaeological department was brought in.

Three months of excavation later, the orchard yielded an unusual harvest: a 1,200-year-old Buddhist monastic complex. Last year, continuing digs unearthed two temples and courtyards, and 18 residential cells. Fragments of ornamented bricks, terracotta plaques and clay pots show engravings of lotus flowers and geometric shapes.

There are other sites of note in the country. In Nateshwar in central Bangladesh, a 1,000-year-old temple was excavated in 2015. Researchers say the revered teacher and saint Atish Dipankar probably spent time there before his travels to Tibet and China. His life, like the Buddha’s, left no known material evidence. Perhaps that’s changing.

Stone carvings at the Somapura Mahavihara in Bangladesh. (Shutterstock)

Across China, a past that won’t stay buried

China is hardly short on historic treasures. Local traditions say that the first Buddhist temple there was established in 68 CE. The 339 Kizil cave temples in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region were built between the 3rd and 8th centuries CE and are the country’s oldest. They hold two kilometres of narrative murals, calligraphy and painted clay statues that borrow styles from across Asia.

And despite political efforts to minimise it, Buddhist history keeps popping up. Reservoir renovation work reveals a 600-year-old idol of the Buddha ancient statues are discovered built into what are now the bedrock foundations of residential buildings buried boxes in villages are found to contain cremated remains of scholars and monks — and these are just the biggest finds across the mainland from the last five years.

This year, researchers found that the artwork in Dunhuang’s famous caves isn’t 500 years old as believed but at least 700 years old, and it has an Indian connection. Text on an image from Cave 465 was found to be mistakenly pasted backwards. Researchers flipped it digitally. It turned out to be Sanskrit.

For Japan, a pillar of hope

Priests overseeing the renovation of a temple in the Shiga prefecture, north-east of Kyoto, found history hiding in plain sight last year. Two old pillars bore blurred, sooty images. Infra-red photography revealed images of eight Buddhist saints. Each pillar bears the images of four Bodhisattvas — monks who delay enlightenment to help others find salvation. The photographs indicate they were once painted in bright blue, green and vermilion. Researchers believe these could date to the Asuka period, which lasted from 538 CE to 794 CE, putting them possibly among the oldest known Buddhist paintings in Japan.

Across India: Buddha in your backyard, monuments on mountaintops

In Jharkhand, fortunes in the foothills

Idols unearthed during the Hazaribagh excavation. (Shutterstock)

In Hazaribagh, 110 km from Ranchi, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) identified three mounds last year as having possible links to Buddhism. One yielded a 900-year-old shrine and two subsidiary structures, two metres below ground level. In January this year, digging into the second mound revealed another shrine and monks’ cells. The site’s six sandstone sculptures depicted a seated Buddha and five likenesses of Tara, depicted as the female Buddha in the tantric-influenced Vajrayana Buddhism.

Historians believe the area may have been a religious hub, a stop between Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bodh Gaya in Bihar. But site security is a problem – two of the Buddha sculptures were stolen, and recovered by the police only a week later.

Gujarat’s season of plenty

In the past decade, archaeologists have unearthed a nunnery (India’s first record of a shelter for women monks) and metal workshops in the village of Vadnagar a massive 23-chamber monastery and a cache of artefacts on the banks of Sharmishtha Lake and a stupa, capped with burnt bricks and a chipped-stone entryway, at Taranga Hill.

Last year, Vadnagar discovered that its roots ran deeper. Excavations near a grain godown revealed a well-preserved semi-circular structure resembling a chaitya or prayer hall, and two stupas. All were built or repaired between the 2nd and 7th centuries CE – meaning that Hiuen Tsang, who mentioned 10 monasteries in Anandpura (the town’s old name), may have been right after all.

For Telangana, the past stands tall

Archaeologists digging at Phangiri in Suryapet in 2019 knew the area was once a bustling Buddhist site. What they didn’t know was that they’d unearth the biggest stucco statue in India there. The life-size Bodhisattva, made from a brick base and covered with sand, lime and other materials, stands alongside stupas, meditation cells, prayer halls, and sculptural panels with Brahmi inscriptions, that date from the 1st century BCE to the 3rd century CE. Later explorations have yielded coin caches, beads, iron objects and storage jars. The finds indicate that the complexes supported commerce and religion.

In Bihar, the Buddha’s legacy continues

The Lakhisarai site and hilltop cells. (HT Archive)

Buddhism’s heartland made news this January, when digs at the administrative centre of Lakhisarai yielded the region’s first hilltop monastery and more evidence that the lost city of Krimila lay underneath. Clay seals from the 8th or 9th century CE bore inscriptions pointing to a Mahayana monks’ council, but shows, startlingly, that the vihara might have had a significant population of women too. The script on a previously unearthed sculpture indicates the monastery may have been headed by a nun, Vijayshree Bhadra.

There are plans to dig at 60 more sites in Lakhisarai. In Telhara, 100 km to the west, the remains of a university older than the 4th century CE Nalanda have been unearthed. One terracotta seal shows a chakra flanked by two deer and the university’s name. The government plans to open a museum there soon.

Across UP, change is underfoot

Workers building the Purvanchal Expressway in Mau district last year found a pocket of history along the way – a stone Buddha head, a hoard of coins, terracotta pieces and bricks that hadn’t seen the light of day since at least the 12th century CE.

The cache adds to the abundant evidence of the state’s Buddhist heritage. Scriptures mention the Buddha spending time in cities such as Sravasti and Saaketa. British archaeologist Alexander Cunningham’s surveys in the 1860s and 1890s, and AK Narayanan’s in the 1960s, corroborate the claims. The writings of Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang, who visited between 629 and 645 AD, record 3,000 monks and 100 monasteries in Ayodhya alone. Land-levelling work for the Ram temple in Ayodhya has revealed artefacts on-site too. Indian Buddhist groups have been petitioning the government to allocate a site for a vihara in Ayodhya too.

Andhra Pradesh is taking in the sites

The Thotlakonda, Bavikonda and Pavuralakonda complexes, discovered in the 1970s, have offered proof that the region was a hub of commerce and learning. More than 8,000 artefacts and antiquities have been found here in the last three years. In Guntur, 350 km to the south, locals found a polished cup, terracotta roof tiles and a broken parasol from the 1st century BCE. In the coastal town of Ghantasala, Buddhist-era remains have emerged from fields and school backyards. Locals say there’s enough to fill a small museum.

From Odisha, a twist in the tale

Buddhism was the state religion when the Bhaumakara kings ruled Odisha between the 8th and 10th centuries CE. Many believe that this was the home of the Buddha’s first disciples. But a surprise emerged in 2018 in Angul district, 120 km from Bhubaneswar. Archaeologists found a monastery dating from the Shunga-Kushan reign between 150 BCE and the 1st century CE. Bits of brick, sculptures, stupas and a sandstone pillar were found. The site is likely the monastery that is referenced in a copper plate found in the 19th century. The inscriptions mention a space for 200 devotees and habitation for monks and nuns.

In Jammu and Kashmir, they’re just getting started

Modern monasteries dot the state. The ruins of a Kushan-era temple and meeting hall at Harwan, on the outskirts of Srinagar, were discovered in the 1920s and lay forgotten. But in 2000, in Ambaran on the banks of the Chenab, archaeologists unearthed an even older Buddhist stupa. The site’s haul, dating from the 1st century BCE to the 4th-5th century CE, included monastery walls, decorative idols and ornaments. One casket at the base of the stupa contained ashes, charred bone, coins and part of a tooth believed to be from a saint.

Researchers concluded that the site may have been a transit camp for monks and pilgrims, and a spot from which the Buddha’s teachings were disseminated to local communities. It is believed to have been abandoned in the 7th century CE, after flash floods and the decline of Buddhism in the region.

In 2009, researchers cleaning the site discovered the stupa’s foundation featured fire-baked bricks, designed as eight spokes, much like the ones in Punjab and Andhra Pradesh — another indicator that it might have been built in the Kushan period. But there has been no further excavation since.


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On the mouth of the Indus River

Millennia after the event, it is hard to nail down the oldest cities and civilizations in the world. Intense settlement certainly began over 9,000 years ago, based on finds around the Mediterranean &ndash including in Israel and Turkey &ndash and the Indian subcontinent too. Settlements have been found in Balochistan, western Pakistan, that also date to around 9,000 years: they may have been the harbinger of the Indus Valley Civilization (also called the Harappan Civilization). That spanned today&rsquos Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India, and is thought to go back around at least 7,500 years.

Discovered by accident in the mid-19th century, the ancient city of Harappa is located in modern Pakistan. About 400 kilometers (250 miles) away from Bhanbhore in Sindh province are the spectacular ruins of Mohenjo Daro, dated to at least 4,500 years ago and one of the biggest known settlements of the Indus Valley Civilization. Mohenjo Daro was abandoned in the 19th century B.C.E. as that civilization declined, possibly due to climate change and drought. Interestingly, the site&rsquos original name was Moen Jo Daro, which in the Sindhi language means &ldquoMound of the Dead.&rdquo Later, when the qualities of the infrastructure left everyone slack-jawed, it was changed to &ldquoMohen Jo Daro&rdquo (&ldquoMound of Happy People&rdquo).

Bhanbhore was founded rather later, in the first century B.C.E., at the mouth of the Indus River, about 65 kilometers east of Karachi. Founded during the Scytho-Parithan period, it continued throughout the Hindu-Buddhist period and the Muslim period, until collapsing in about the 13th century. Its name was not lost, though: Popular Pakistani folklore names Bhanbhore as the hometown of Sassi, the &ldquoJuliet of Sindh,&rdquo and Punno, her Romeo, who was a trader.

The city&rsquos excavation began under Ramesh Chandra Majumdar in 1928, which was of course before the subcontinent&rsquos partition into Pakistan and India. Following partition in 1947, extensive excavation of Bhanbhore resumed, this time under the direction of famed Pakistani archaeologist Fazal Ahmed Khan from 1958 to 1965.

Excavating Trench 9 at Bhanbhore Muhammad Qaseem Saeed

For all that Bhanbhore isn&rsquot directly on the open sea, its strategic location on the Indus River delta apparently made it a major port and commercial hub in antiquity, trading with peoples around the Indian Ocean and the Far East. Bhanbhore also featured a large fortified citadel around 14,000 square meters in area. Previous excavations found buildings and streets beyond the walled city as well.

The city has also been tentatively identified as the starting point for the spread of Islam in Sindh during the Early Medieval period.

In 711, Sindh province was conquered by Arab forces under the command of Muhammad bin Qasim. Piacentini of the Sacred Heart university has suggested that Bhanbhore is the &ldquomissing&rdquo town of Debal through which bin Qasim entered Sindh. His theory is based in part on the theoretical unsuitability of alternative sites due to climatic conditions and unfavorable terrain. Not everybody agrees with his interpretation.

A broken pawn

Ancient Bhanbhore evidently had a brisk economy and, based on the evidence now found of the vast ivory industry, Mantellini thinks that working elephant tusks may have been a central pillar of its prosperity. He adds that earlier excavations in the 1950s and &rsquo60s did find some finished ivory pieces.

The Bhanbhore industry couldn&rsquot possibly have been making goods just for the locals, even if they decked themselves out in elephant teeth from head to toe. The volume was simply too big, and there is ample evidence of far-reaching trade.

Beautifully decorated redware pottery vessel with spout, Bhanbhore Sindh Cultural Dept

What were they making? It&rsquos hard to know just from the junked fragments, but Mantellini thinks Bhanbhore&rsquos main industry was ivory ornaments. Among other things, the archaeologists found corners knocked off squares &ndash in other words, if you join the corners together, you get a shape like a square-shaped donut. This looks like detritus from the making of ivory rings, he suggests.

They also found what seems to be an unfinished pawn from a chess set. &ldquoMaybe it broke during processing and was discarded,&rdquo Mantellini postulates.

Where might the ivory for all this industriousness have originated? The townsfolk were unlikely to have husbanded vast herds of elephants. The ivory was probably brought in, possibly from India, Mantellini suggests.

In the ancient and medieval worlds, ivory was akin to gold and silver in value. It was a luxury item, from the Indus Valley and the Mediterranean to the Roman world. The sheer extent of the Bhanbhore ivory industry indicates that during the Islamic period, and certainly during the 12th and early 13th centuries, the town was prosperous &ndash an impression bolstered by the imported items they got in exchange for their precious ivory.

Made in China

One of the surprises modern archaeology has sprung is the sheer extent of trading in antiquity. It seems to have started even before anybody could engrave a cuneiform order into a tablet. For instance, obsidian from Anatolia was found at the 9,000-year-old Neolithic settlement in Motza, by Jerusalem. The shiny volcanic glass may not have been traded directly, but may have wended its way over years or even centuries from its origin to its deposition point. Even so, people and goods were clearly getting about more than we might have expected in the Neolithic period, and within a few thousand years merchandise was being briskly traded by sea and land throughout the ancient world.

So ancient Bhanbhore evidently exported worked ivory and in exchange seems to have gotten a wealth of items &ndash including glassware, which may have been imported.

A more definitive hallmark of international trade is foreign pottery. Huge amounts of pottery were found in Bhanbhore from the Islamic period, from the early eighth century to possibly the late 12th or early 13th centuries, Fusaro tells Haaretz. Some is simple, coarse ware, but some exhibits more skillful manufacturing technique, such as decorated water pots with spouts.

Some pottery was apparently made locally &ndash the redware, found throughout the excavation area. &ldquoThe most interesting thing is that the shapes [of redware] continue to this day,&rdquo Fusaro enthuses. &ldquoWe can see a very interesting continuity of tradition throughout the centuries.&rdquo

She herself coined a name for another apparently local product, &ldquograyware,&rdquo which exhibited a higher standard of manufacturing than the redware. Producing grayware required technological prowess, Fusaro explains: &ldquoYou have to control the atmosphere and temperature perfectly during the firing process in the kiln.&rdquo

Common decorations on the grayware included engravings and rouletting &ndash a kind of stamp decoration. The potters would also burnish the pottery surface to make it shiny, practically metallic in appearance. Clay vessels would have been markedly cheaper to produce than prized actual metal, she points out.

But other pottery was imported, including from India, qualifying that the origin isn&rsquot sure at this stage. Yet other pieces originated in Iraq and Iran: the Iranian pottery has been dated to the 10th and 11th centuries.

Pottery "basket", Bhanbhore Sindh Cultural Dept

Possibly the finest pieces came from China. The archaeologists found vessels made of porcelain, a fine-grained white clay that can be fired very thin. They also found a few dozen Dusun jars, which were like a packing crate in the ancient Asian world, Fusaro explains to Haaretz.

Dusun jars were used to transport goods &ndash rather like amphorae were used in the Levant and Europe to move olive oil, wine and garum. (A whole hold-full of Changsha jars and other Chinese ceramic items was discovered in the &ldquoBelitung shipwreck&rdquo &ndash an Arabian dhow that apparently foundered off Indonesia while sailing from China toward Africa around the year 830. The Dusun jars found in that wreck in 1998 were made in China but decorated in Islamic fashion.)

There may also have been a major earthquake in the late Islamic period: the Indian subcontinent is seismically frisky and there is some evidence that Bhanbhore was stricken from time to time and was all but destroyed in around 280. If so, it was rebuilt.

In the late 12th century, however, Bhanbhore seems to have entered into its final decline.

Apparently the river delta was silting up, as river deltas do, and the locals began fixing pottery, Fusaro says &ndash an indication that trading had also dried up. As drought struck the land, the Indus River changed course and Bhanbhore found itself sitting on a silted creek. And its people left.

Nobody lives there anymore and the site is protected by the Sindh government. Bhanbhore may possibly gain protection from UNESCO too: the discovery of the gigantic ivory industry may well have boosted its chances of gaining coveted World Heritage status. For now, it&rsquos on the tentative list.

Built on the mouth of the Indus River, Bhanbhore had been a busy port before the delta silted up Muhammad Qaseem Saeed />Ruins at Bhanbhore Muhammad Qaseem Saeed


The ‘Lamborghini’ of Chariots Was Just Unearthed Near Pompeii

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Photograph: Luigi Spina/The Archaeological Park of Pompeii

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Archaeologists in Italy have unearthed an elaborately decorated, intact four-wheeled ceremonial chariot near the ruins of the Roman city of Pompeii, famously destroyed when Mount Vesuvius catastrophically erupted in 79 CE, BBC News reports. The archaeologists believe the chariot was likely used in festivities and parades—possibly even for wedding rituals, such as transporting the bride to her new home, given the erotic nature of some of the decorative motifs.

This story originally appeared on Ars Technica, a trusted source for technology news, tech policy analysis, reviews, and more. Ars is owned by WIRED's parent company, Condé Nast.

The find is extraordinary both for its remarkable preservation and because it is a relatively rare object. "I was astounded," Eric Poehler, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who is an expert on traffic in Pompeii, told NPR. "Many of the vehicles [previously discovered] are your standard station wagon or vehicle for taking the kids to soccer. This is a Lamborghini. This is an outright fancy, fancy car. This is precisely the kind of find that one wants to find at Pompeii, the really well-articulated, very-well-preserved moments in time."

Other archaeologists weighed in on Twitter. "My jaw is on the floor just now!" tweeted Jane Draycott of the University of Glasgow. "Still wrapping my head around the latest incredible discovery," Sophie Hay of the University of Cambridge tweeted in an extensive thread about the surprising find. "The details are extraordinary."

As we've previously reported, the eruption of Vesuvius released thermal energy roughly equivalent to 100,000 times the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, spewing molten rock, pumice, and hot ash over the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in particular. The vast majority of the victims died of asphyxiation, choking to death on the thick clouds of noxious gas and ash. But there is also some evidence that the heat was so extreme in some places that it vaporized body fluids and exploded the skulls of several inhabitants unable to flee in time.

The sudden eruption covered the remains of the city in a thick layer of ash, preserving many of the buildings and daily ephemera of the doomed city—and the bodies of its former inhabitants. There have been several exciting archaeological finds among the excavated ruins in recent years. In December, for instance, archaeologists unearthed a termopolium, or “hot drinks counter,” that served up ancient Roman street food—and plenty of wine—to the people of northeast Pompeii in the days before Mount Vesuvius erupted. Painted bright yellow and decorated with detailed frescoes, the counter would have been a quick stop for hot, ready-made food and drinks. And the small shop still held the remains of its proprietor and perhaps one of its last customers.

Late in 2018, the remains of a horse—saddled up and still in its harness—were uncovered in a stable at the Villa of the Mysteries just outside Pompeii's walls. Previous finds at the site include wine presses, ovens, and frescoes. The remains of two additional horses were also discovered, although archaeologists were unable to make casts to preserve the scene due to damage done by looters. After the initial excavation of the site in the 20th century, it was reburied for the sake of preservation. But looters dug an elaborate network of tunnels around the area—running some 80 meters and more than 5 meters deep—to illegally gain access and remove artifacts.

The ceremonial chariot was found in the ruins of the two-level portico facing the stable where the horse remains were found in 2018. Archaeologists had carefully removed the carbonized wood ceiling and determined that it had been constructed from oak, while the carbonized door had been made of beechwood. On January 7 of this year, archaeologists found an iron artifact in the volcanic material filling the portico, followed by the ceremonial chariot, which was remarkably well-preserved, given that the walls and ceiling of the room had collapsed and the looters had dug tunnels on either side of it.

The archaeological team spent the next several weeks meticulously unearthing the find, making plaster casts of any voids to preserve the imprint of any organic material that may have once been there—including the chariot's shaft and ropes. The chariot has since been removed to the Archaeological Park of Pompeii's laboratory to complete its restoration.

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