THE place for archaeological relics is a museum. If they are not there, they could suffer neglect or be stolen. At a Karachi police station some Gandhara-era pieces became logical victims of neglect: they were damaged and stolen. An ‘honest’ thief broke the news to our reporter and said he had stolen a Buddha bust from the Awami Colony police station, where a large number of illegally excavated artefacts belonging to the 2,000-year-old Gandhara civilisation were lying uncared for. The priceless pieces had been recovered earlier in two stages: first, a lorry containing the objets d’art was seized by the police; second, on further investigation, the trail led to a house where more such curios had been stolen and hoarded. Since the police recovered these artefacts, it is they who became their temporary custodians, and that’s where it became evident how ill-trained they are in handling objects which are a valuable part of Pakistan’s cultural heritage. The recovered lot was loaded and unloaded in a way that damaged many of them, and as the conscientious lifter said the bust was part of a statue that broke during the grossly unprofessional handling.
While the recovery of the stolen material was obviously police responsibility, archaeological experts should have been quickly brought on board. It would be unrealistic to expect the policemen to even appreciate the value of what had fallen to their lot. In any case, this is not the end of the story. While the artefacts still lying with the police need to be handed over to their rightful keepers, all sides, especially the archaeological department, should work out a plan of action for dealing with a repeat incident — as there almost surely will be when it comes to Gandhara art.