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Stolen gold antiquities

November 21, 2017

OUR country has yet to recognise that heritage when preserved helps us learn from the past while progressing towards the future. Because of our disregard for cultural heritage we are witnessing the tragic erosion of our architectural and historical legacy. This was evident in a report in this paper on Sunday noting the theft of gold antiquities in the form of exquisite jewellery worth millions of rupees from a Unesco world heritage site. Declared a protected site in 1980, Sirkap dating to the 2nd century BC is an ancient city in Taxila known for its enviable historical links to pre-Greek times. It is the site of a Gandhara-civilisation stupa dating back to Ashoka’s period — and in a state of terrible neglect. Despite financial allocations for preservation, the fast deterioration of Sirkap is due to the inability of Punjab’s archaeological department to get on with the task of preservation. Then, the theft of priceless artifacts is demonstrative of how dispassionate our champions of heritage actually are. Even if these artifacts were unearthed during restoration and allegedly pocketed by workmen removing wild grass near the ruins of a residential complex, Taxila’s custodial authorities should have ensured protection by not allowing conservation works to continue unsupervised.

Last year, Punjab’s archaeology department was given Rs70m to preserve Taxila. Surely this allocation will go at least some way in bringing in world-class archaeological expertise rather than local rogue contractors to work on centuries-old sites. Given that many excavators facilitate the global black market trade in antiquities, the authorities should have known better. In the case of the missing Gandhara cruciform relic casket excavated in 1962, the museum at the University of Peshawar has yet to take action which is telling of lack of national pride. Because heritage matters, the country should start talking about history again, calling for schools to emphasise heritage so our youth learn how cultures have influenced one another for centuries; and for better protection of our cultural heritage as a country.

Published in Dawn, November 21st, 2017