Exposed. Kabul’s National Museum still lacks a roof.

Afghani Looting Rampant

WASHINGTON, D.C.--More than 18 months after the Taliban regime was overthrown, the country's ancient sites are being looted at an alarming rate, and its premier museum remains roofless. Some help is on the way, according to a senior Afghan official who visited the United States last week, but much more is needed. “Reconstruction is going very, very slowly,” says Omar Khan Masudi, director of the National Museum in Kabul.

Afghanistan is one of the world's most important centers of archaeology, reflecting the country's strategic location at the crossroads of several ancient civilizations (Science, 8 November 2002, p. 1195). But 2 decades of war, capped by a deliberate campaign of destruction by the Taliban, have left little of its ancient heritage intact. The National Museum was sacked and bombed during the 1990s before the Taliban wrecked some of what was left of its 100,000-item collection.

Speaking here last week at the World Archaeological Congress, Masudi says that the Afghan government has recovered 416 of approximately 70,000 objects stolen from the museum. Specialists are painstakingly restoring dozens of Buddhas and other sculptures that were smashed because they were deemed contrary to Koranic law. In May 2002, a host of nations pledged to help rebuild the National Museum, and some repairs have been done. But structural problems must be addressed before the roof can be replaced, says Jim Williams, a UNESCO cultural heritage officer in Kabul.

Outside Kabul, work will begin next month to stabilize the rock niches that once held the towering Buddhist statues of Bamiyan. A 5-year, $1.8 million grant from Japan will be used to rescue endangered wall paintings as well as to consolidate the areas blasted by Taliban ordnance.

But these and other scattered rescue efforts can't stem the widespread looting of ancient sites. “Illicit digging, if anything, is increasing,” says Osmund Bopearachchi, director of CNRS's archaeological research center in Paris. Williams estimates that the illegal revenues from the antiquities trade may rival or even surpass opium sales.

Posted in Archaeology