Ancient Pakistani City Crumbles
Preservation effort does not keep pace with alarming disintegration of Bronze Age ruins
ABOUT 4,500 years ago, Asia's first great civilization flourished on the banks of the Indus River. A contemporary of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Indus civilization dominated an area greater than these two Western cultures put together. Its ruins hold the roots of modern society in the Indian subcontinent.Skip to next paragraph
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But the excavated remains of the civilization's capital, one of the world's great archaeological treasures, are crumbling with alarming speed.
Preserved for millennia in the sands of Sind, buildings dug up and rebuilt less than 30 years ago have turned to tumbledown heaps of brick. And the bricks are quickly turning to powder. Salty ground water is seeping up into the bricks, where the salt crystalizes and literally explodes, explains UNESCO conservator Richard Hughes.
Though salty brick clay troubled Moenjodaro's ancient inhabitants, the problem of crumbling bricks has recently grown acute. A century of irrigating land without proper drainage is turning the Indus basin into a salty wasteland. Vast tracts of Sind virtually float on a sea of brine.
Observed New York University archaeologist Rita Wright upon seeing the salt damage at Moenjodaro: "I can't think of any other site of baked brick that has this salinity problem."
The Pakistan government held its second international symposium on Moenjodaro in February. At the first one, in 1973, participants helped hammer out the site's master plan, including a five-year conservation program.
Since then UNESCO, which lists Moenjodaro as a World Heritage Site, has contributed $7 million to preserve the ancient city. In addition, the Pakistan government has spent $5 million (at current exchange rates). Pressured by donors, the government archaeology department and the Authority for the Preservation of Moenjodaro convened the recent symposium primarily to review the plan. Members loudly criticized the two agencies.
The authority has built elaborate ground water and flood-control systems but has not done enough to conserve excavated ruins, observed UNESCO representative Hideo Noguchi. After 11 years, the archaeology department, which actually carries out the site's conservation, has completed work on only 30 percent of excavated remains, according to department reports. And much completed work is of questionable value. Neither the authority nor the department has seriously studied its effects, says Mr. Hughes.
When asked about conservative efforts at Moenjodaro, Ahmed Nabi Khan, the archaeology department's director general, refused to comment. authority director general Ghulam Khichi dismissed similar questions. "You cannot make us accountable," he said. "We are not accountable."
To protect underground ruins from salty water, the authority has ringed Moenjodaro with tube wells. The agency claims this system is holding groundwater at 10 meters (33 feet) below the surface. During the symposium, about 100 archaeologists and other guests toured the works. They were shown drainage pipes gushing water into already brimming canals. But archaeologists who frequently visit the site complain that this was all for show. The pumps are run only during official monitoring periods and for displ ay to visiting dignitaries, they say.