Satellite images reveal destruction of Afghan heritage

Chicago, Illinois. When they regained power in the summer of 2021, the Taliban committed to protecting Afghan heritage and cracking down on antiquities trafficking. A study of American satellite images reveals that several dozen archaeological sites have been illegally excavated since 2021, including with bulldozers. The “Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership” program, led by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, dates back to 2015 and aims to produce a map of the main archaeological sites from satellite images analyzed by artificial intelligence. To date, the project has identified nearly 29,000 sites, including previously unknown sites, according to researchers at the Chicago Center for Cultural Heritage Preservation, who are helping analyze the data. But they are alarmed by an accelerated evolution of looting, particularly in the region of Balkh, in the northwest of Afghanistan, that is to say ancient Bactria which was conquered by the Achaemenids (6th century). century BC) and Alexander the Great (4th century BC). The region, which became an important stop on the Silk Road, is also known as the cradle of the Zoroastrian religion (from the 1st millennium BC). Most of the sites looted with bulldozers are located in this area close to the border with Uzbekistan and already known for its intense trafficking activity of all kinds. According to program director Gil Stein, satellite images show “traces of bulldozers which appear on the surface of the sites” after that “trenches and holes dug by looters” : the bulldozers therefore roughly clear the site before the arrival of the looters. No stratigraphic study was carried out upstream and archaeologists thus lost valuable information on the periods of occupation of the sites.

Archaeological site in Balkh province in Afghanistan, before (right, April 2021) and after (left, October 2022) the passage of bulldozers. In 2022 the site is also riddled with clandestine excavation pits.

© Chicago Center for Cultural Heritage Preservation (C3HP)

Several Afghan archaeologists have reported that this region was already the subject of illicit excavations before the arrival of the Taliban, which Gil Stein confirms. Furthermore, Afghan archaeologists affirm that, in the Balkh region, no excavation could be carried out without the agreement of “local militias”, and that significant financial resources are required to rent bulldozers: everything indicates that this trafficking is the work of structured criminal groups. Several pieces stolen from Afghan sites were spotted by experts in private villas in the country, and even in hotels: it is therefore a real network which operates on a regional scale. Faced with these revelations, the Taliban responded that they had created a specialized team of 800 men to fight against this looting, and they highlighted recent arrests of traffickers. As a token of good faith, they recall that they have reopened the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul. Faced with the scale of the looting, archaeologists are not convinced.

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