Copper load of this! Company digging mine in Afghanistan unearths 2,600-year-old Buddhist monastery,
The ruins were discovered as labourers excavated the site on behalf of the Chinese government-backed China Metallurgical Group Corp, which wants to develop the world's second largest copper mine, lying beneath the ruins.
Hanging over the situation is the memory of the Buddhas of Bamiyan — statues towering up to 180 feet high in central Afghanistan that were dynamited to the ground in 2001 by the country's then-rulers, the Taliban, who considered them symbols of paganism.
No one wants to be blamed for similarly razing history at Mes Aynak, in the eastern province of Logar. MCC wanted to start building the mine by the end of 2011 but under an informal understanding with the Kabul government, it has given archaeologists three years for a salvage excavation.
More than 150 statues have been found so far, though many remain in place. Large ones are too heavy to be moved, and the team lacks the chemicals needed to keep small ones from disintegrating when extracted.
'That site is so massive that it's easily a 10-year campaign of archaeology,' said Laura Tedesco, an archaeologist brought in by the US Embassy to work on sites in Afghanistan. 'Three years may be enough time just to document what's there.'
Around 15 Afghan archaeologists, three French advisers and a few dozen labourers are working within the 0.77-square-mile area - a far smaller team than the two dozen archaeologists and 100 labourers normally needed for a site of such size and richness.
'This is probably one of the most important points along [[The Silk Road]],' said Marquis. 'What we have at this site, already in excavation, should be enough to fill the (Afghan) national museum.'
In July, two US sailors were kidnapped and killed in Logar. Around 1,500 Afghan police guard the mine site and the road.
When the Chinese won the contract to exploit the mine in 2008, there was no discussion with Kabul about the ruins - only about money, security and building a railroad to transport the copper out of Logar's dusty hills.
The mine could be a major boost for the Afghan economy. According to the Afghan Mining Ministry, it holds some 6 million tons of copper, worth tens of billions of dollars at today's prices. Developing the mine and related transport infrastructure will generate much needed jobs and economic activity.
Waheedullah Qaderi, a Mining Ministry official working on the antiquities issue, said MCC shares the government goal of protecting heritage while starting mining as soon as possible.