New archaeology treads lightly in dangerous lands

Posted on May 10, 2013


  The 65m high world heritage minaret of Jam in western Afghanistan which dates to c.1174-5

The 65m high world heritage minaret of Jam in western Afghanistan which dates to c.1174-5 Photo: David Thomas, 2005

La Trobe University archaeologist David Thomas recently invited people to join him on a ‘dig’ in Afghanistan at some of that country’s oldest and most exciting historical sites. Yet there was no need for flak jackets and armed guards.

That’s because Dr Thomas is one of a new breed of archaeologists who uses satellite images, available through Google Earth™ and other virtual exploration tools combined with conventional archaeological data, so we can appreciate the glories of ancient civilisations.

It’s a field he helped pioneer over the past decade and one he shared with archaeology enthusiasts and the public as part of the Melbourne Museum’s Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum Kabul exhibition which runs until 28 July.

In a talk titled Armchair archaeology’ in Afghanistan: the possibilities and pitfalls, Dr Thomas said satellite images provided an innovative way of exploring a nation’s past.

‘The detail in many of the images is astonishing, and allows archaeologists to investigate sites without leaving the safety of their offices. While this has obvious advantages, it also presents archaeologists with new problems and challenges.’

More than armchair geology

Dr Thomas on the ground in Afghanistan

Dr Thomas on the ground in Afghanistan. Photo: Alison Gascoigne, 2005

But there is a lot more to Dr Thomas’ work than armchair archaeology. He is one of few archaeologists world-wide who has carried out fieldwork in Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion in 1979, working at the World Heritage site of Jam. The minaret at Jam is Afghanistan’s most iconic surviving monument.

Sadly, many of the countries with some of the world’s most important archaeological remains, such as Afghanistan and more recently Syria, also have the most volatile security situations; hence, he said, there is a need for new methods.

Dr Thomas’ own research for his PhD battled the odds in Afghanistan and generated world-wide interest with reports on BBC radio and in The Economist, Der Spiegel and Libération.

His use of satellite images and fieldwork in 2003 and 2005 highlighted the extent of looting at the World Heritage site of Jam.

His team estimated that more than 1,300 cubic metres of archaeological remains, more than ten per cent of a 50 metre wide strip of the site they surveyed in detail, had been plundered and destroyed by robbers who left behind large holes.

Remnants of nomads’ camps

'Qala-i Hauz' a medieval fort in the Registan desert, probably more than  900 years old. It was the only previously known site in the desert studied by Dr Thomas' team using  Google Earth images

‘Qala-i Hauz’, a medieval fort in the Registan desert probably more than 900 years old. It was the only previously known site in the desert studied by Dr Thomas’ team using Google Earth.  Photo: Google Earth Mapping Services

Further research by Dr Thomas and his team included La Trobe students. This study, using satellite images available through Google Earth, revealed more than 670 sites in an area of some 2,600 square kilometers in the Registan desert and mountainous heart of Afghanistan.

‘We located the remnants of nomads’ camp sites and animal corrals, deserted villages centred on mosques, sand-filled reservoirs, dams, tens of kilometres of underground water channels and ancient fortified occupation mounds,’ he said.

Most of these sites were previously unknown and a significant number were probably occupied more than a thousand years ago.

Dr Thomas’ team has passed its findings to the National Afghan Institute of Archaeology in Kabul so that Afghan archaeologists can study and protect this recently discovered part of their past.

With the help of funds from La Trobe University’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and the British Embassy in Kabul, Dr Thomas has also produced a 60-page bilingual guide on archaeological fieldwork in Afghanistan.- Ernest Raetz