As 2013 draws to an end we are trying to project a forward view on where our company is and where it is headed professionally. In the past few years GRA has made a concerted effort to focus on international Heritage Management and Planning. In 2011 GRA, in conjunction with Dr. Rita Wright of New York University, was awarded a small State Department seed grant to assess the state of cultural heritage at the multi-component archaeological site of Mes Aynak in Afghanistan. The site is one of the most magnificent landmarks of ancient South Asia, known for its prominence along the classic Silk Route (facilitating trade between the Far East and Europe). Mes Aynak is the setting of monumental Buddhist shrines, structures, and magnificent statuary as well as the locus of the prehistoric copper and tin mining and distribution. It catapulted into prominence in the wake of the Taliban bombing of Bamiyan in 2001, an event that partially triggered the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. For the past decade Mes Aynak has caught the eye of preservationists and archaeologists world-wide because the site lies on terrain currently developed as a copper mine by a large Chinese mining consortium under contract with the Afghan government. One of our concerns in our 2011 trip was that the site was in danger of large scale destruction by the Chinese mining interests, because of an ostensible disregard of environmental and preservation regulations presumably enforceable by the World Bank, a key backer of the project.
Our discussions with the Chinese partially disabused us of those suspicions. The sad truth is that over the years archaeological and preservation initiatives have largely been disjointed, underfunded, and devoid of comprehensive management and planning. Almost by default, the French Delegation (DAFA) in Kabul had taken over the management of the site but they were overwhelmed by the scope of the venture and (wisely) concentrated almost exclusively on rescuing the Buddhist shrines and statuary. Other missions, whose charges included non-Buddhist site rescue work, were dispatched without much visible organization, management or collective purpose. After speaking with the Chinese, we came away with the impression that the mining consortium was neither anti-heritage nor even inclined to overlook the historic significance of ancient Mes Aynak. They were simply concerned that no one appeared to be in charge of the archaeology, that there was no timetable or planning protocols for site management—neither for the present nor future—and, basically that they did not have a single partner with the authority to negotiate heritage activities and timelines.
Dr. Wright and I authored a Cultural Management assessment that largely reviewed the problematic state of affairs at Mes Aynak and proposed some very general steps that might be taken to right the ship. We approached various international and government entities to help us move forward with a Cultural Resource Management Plan (CRMP). Its purpose was to develop a baseline strategy for moving forward with an initiative that would join Afghan scholars and planners with U.S. based technical teams to structure a plan that would be run and staffed by Afghans over the long term, long after the last U.S. troops left that country. Our attempts thus far have been fraught with false hope and frustration. In the process, GRA joined forces with Statistical Research , Inc. (SRI in Tucson, AZ) to explore ways in which a CRM approach could be utilized to design and implement a scientifically sound, but fast-paced, field, analysis, and teaching initiative. Needless to say…… easier said than done. We have been at this for two and a half years.
And yet……there may just be some light at the end of the tunnel. Over the past few months SRI head Dr. Jeff Altschul joined forces with the Drachman Institute of the University of Arizona that has been funded by the U.S. State Department to develop a cross cultural Heritage Education Plan in conjunction with the University of Kabul. Dr. R.B. Jeffery and Dr. Suzanne Bott have administered a long-term training grant for Afghan academics to teach Heritage Management in their home country. On December 2, 2013 our collective groups—U of A, the Afghan academics, SRI, and GRA— were brought together at a Symposium hosted by UA in Tucson. We discovered that we had a potential joint venture, specifically to merge the teaching and training program (at UA and the University of Kabul) with the initiation of a heritage management plan (through SRI and GRA) at a key site or series of sites in Afghanistan. Mes Aynak was one of the sites discussed. The meeting was extremely successful and brought out a shared enthusiasm to forge ahead on a variety of fronts.
Following the Tucson Symposium, the UA group and one of the principal Afghan academics, Dr. Muzghan Hamraz, flew to New York City on their way to meet with their State Department sponsors. Dr. Hamraz’s sister and mother had prepared a unique “Tapestry of Peace” that was to be presented to the 9/11 Museum in Lower Manhattan, the site of the Twin Towers tragedy. In a moving ceremony, Dr. Hamraz presented the tapestry to a relative of one of the survivors. The theme of the event was “Building Bridges to Peace between Afghanistan and the U.S.” That evening GRA hosted a festive dinner for all parties involved in these activities at a midtown Afghan restaurant.
The next day Dr. Bott and Dr. Hamraz met with State Department officials and briefed them on the activities of the UA cultural exchange program and the liaisons that had been forged between the UA team leaders, the Afghans and the principals of SRI and GRA. Apparently, these meetings went well and we are all hopeful that this initiative, merging Afghan academics, the UA cultural heritage training program and our private sector CRM groups, can form the foundation of a longer term project to bring peace through understanding and heritage pride between our two countries. Let’s hope that 2014 marks a tangible advance in our implementation of a serious plan for Heritage Management in Afghanistan.