Published: Thursday December 12, 2013 MYT 1:45:00 PM
Updated: Thursday December 12, 2013 MYT 3:12:24 PM

Thanks, stupid humans: 7 heartbreaking archaeological disasters

The Buddhas of Bamiyan, destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban.

The Buddhas of Bamiyan, destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban.

Some people believe ancient ruins and tombs stand in the way of progress. For the rest of the world, it’s called knowing where we came from.

The demolition of the 1,200-year-old candi 11 in Lembah Bujang, part of a massive Hindu-Buddhist temple complex in Kedah, rightfully caused an uproar but also highlights a vicious problem facing archaeological sites around the world. From the spectacular earth-drawings in Nazca, Peru, to the majestic Great Wall Of China, historical sites are proving irresistible to opportunists and vandals. Sadly, as the world hurtles toward an uncertain future, our past is inevitably falling victim to historical revisions. Here are seven heartbreaking archaeological disasters in recent times.

Buddha statues meet Taliban dynamite

In March 2001, the Taliban blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan – two huge Buddha statues measuring 53m and 35m carved into a cliff in central Afghanistan in 554AD and 507AD. The orders came from Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar after his government declared the carvings were idolatrous. Reports of the obliteration made headlines around the world and drew international condemnation. A team of restorers has since tried to put the statues back together, but critics argue it’s an exercise in futility. Good news is that the Taliban’s explosives opened up 50 caves and passages, 12 of which are covered in elaborate cave paintings never seen before.

Mayan pyramid pulverised for road gravel

A 2,300-year-old Mayan pyramid in Nohmul, Belize, was bulldozed and crushed by D-Mar Construction for gravel to build roads. Prior to the destruction in May this year, the pyramid occupied an area of 50m by 52m and was approximately 17m tall. More than 70% of the structure was destroyed, leaving only a small core at the centre. “This is one of the worst that I have seen in my entire 25 years of archaeology in Belize,” said John Morris, an archaeologist from Belize’s Institute Of Archaeology. Four people including a politician were charged in court for the crime, but it’s most likely that they’ll get away with only a fine.

Babylon redecorated by Saddam

Babylon, famed in antiquity for its Hanging Gardens, was taken to a new level of ruin when deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein claimed it from 1983 to 2003 so he could refurbish it. This included building new structures on the ruins using modern bricks, some engraved with “Saddam Hussein, the protector of Iraq, rebuilt civilisation and rebuilt Babylon.” Post-Saddam, the US and Polish military made it their base, digging trenches through layers of artefacts and filling sandbags with local relic-rich dirt. It’s not the first time Babylon has suffered ignominy, but modern warfare has reduced it to a sad, sad state.

Mecca’s destructive transformation

Since 1985, it’s been estimated that about 95% of Mecca’s historic buildings, most over 1,000 years old, have been demolished to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims and tourists. Historic sites wantonly destroyed by the Saudi government include five of the renowned Seven Mosques, initially built by Prophet Muhammad’s daughter and four of his companions; the house of Khadijah, the wife of Muhammad, demolished to build public lavatories; Muhammad’s birthplace, turned into a library; and the Ottoman-era Ajyad Fortress, levelled for the monstrous Abraj Al Bait Towers. There are now fewer than 20 buildings in Mecca dating back to Muhammad’s time – and they’re still under threat.

Dakar Rally’s damages in Chile and Argentina

When the notorious Dakar Rally shifted from Africa to South America in 2009 after fears of terrorist attacks, everyone rejoiced except local archaeologists. Despite warnings and signs put up informing drivers to steer clear of sites along the race route, the inevitable happened. Pelican Creek, where archaeologists found a pre-Columbus hunter-gatherer camp, incurred 4WD damage to its priceless trove of stone implements, fragments of ceramics, human bones, and rock structures dating between 9,000BC and 1,500AD. In 2010, the Chilean Monuments Council sued rally co-organisers for US$570,000 (RM1.8 million) worth of damages and won.

Ancient Chinese tombs bulldozed for IKEA

In July 2007, construction workers in Nanjing, China, uncovered 10 intricately decorated family tombs dating back to the second century AD. Did they stop to wonder at its historical significance? No, they just continued to excavate, turning the archaeological treasures topsy-turvy because the same plot of land had been earmarked for an IKEA store. Archaeologists from the Nanjing Museum tried to convince IKEA to delay construction and allow them time to catalogue the site and remove the finds, but nothing came of it – construction continued as planned and IKEA opened its store a year later.

French youths erase 15,000-year-old art

Good intentions don’t always translate to good deeds. When 70 members of a youth group armed with steel brushes descended on the Mayrieres cave in France in March 1992 to clean graffiti from the cave walls, little did they know they would go down in history as the world’s most blunderous clean-up team. Their crime: the partial erasure of the cave’s 15,000-year-old bison paintings, some of the earliest evidence of human art. “Absolutely stupid!” said Rene Gachet, the region’s director of cultural affairs and rightly so – the cleanup earned the youths an Ig Nobel Prize.

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, archaeological disaster, candi 11, Lembah Bujang, Buddhas of Bamiyan, Mayrieres cave, Mayan pyramid, Babylon, Saddam Hussein, Taliban


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