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PESHAWAR, Sept 10: The smugglers in the garb of builders are excavating archaeological sites of Gandhara Civilisation unchecked and robbing the province of its archeological riches, allege officials and experts.

Recently, a probe team, headed by Museums and Archaeology Director Nidaullah Sehrai and comprising members of Tourism Corporation Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (TCKP) and archaeology department officials, visited various archaeological sites in Mardan and Swabi districts to substantiate reports that relic hunters were engaged in unlawful digging at Gandharan Buddhist sites in these antiquity rich districts.

The team visited Sikri, Aziz Dheri, Baaja and Galla sites among others and confirmed that reports were true, officials said.

“Our finding confirm that well-organised gangs of smugglers are engaged in this criminal practice that threatens many ancient sites in the province”, said Mr Sehrai.

The modus operandi of these relic hunters is that after identifying a mound or a known archaeological site, tunnels are dug there and when digging reaches a wall of a monastery or stupa the underground burrows are extended further along those walls and the sites are robbed of all the relics, panels and statues that adorn the walls.

“Openings of the tunnels are a bit further from the sites and on the surface one cannot detect the illegal activity,” said archaeologist Dr Abdus Samad, who visited such a site in Baaja in Swabi district.

The team said that at Aziz Dheri site in Swabi, extensive tunnel systems were seen. The Galla site on the banks of the Indus River near Hund also bore telltale marks of smugglers' activities. “Fresh pits created by giant excavators and broken pieces of statues in the vicinity confirmed that the site had been robbed extensively,” it added.

Dr Samad said that judicial action was taken against the contractor, who was a relic hunter but apparently he was excavating soil for construction purpose in Baaja area. The court decided the case in the favour of archaeology department recently “The site has been declared protected now,” he said.

But relic hunters still lurked and it was not easy to keep them away in the given resources with the department, said Dr Samad.

There are 3,000 documented archaeological sites in the province and only 92 are protected. Sadly, only five or six sites have watchmen and the others are not well protected.

As far as legal action against such smugglers is concerned, only seven cases of artifact smuggling or illegal digging have been reported recently. “Six cases are in court while one case regarding illegal digging in Baaja area was decided recently,” he said.

Mr Sehrai said that people of the area were tempted to dig and destroy those archaeological sites because they heard about exaggerated prices of those artifacts in the international market. He said that the department was powerless to quickly and effectively take legal action against them.

The Antiquity Act prohibits transfer or sale of antiquities out of the country, as they are national heritage assets.

“Quite clearly there is a demand for these relics abroad and the officials are hand in glove with the smugglers otherwise this international racket would not be possible,” alleged Ali Jan of TCKP, whose department is focusing on promoting Gandhara Tourism.

He said that the team visited Sikri site in Mardan, renowned for the discovery of the now world famous Gandhara masterpiece of Fasting Buddha, now on display in Lahore Museum.

The site was discovered by Captain Harold Deane, who later became the first chief commissioner (equivalent to governor) of NWFP in 1903, in 19th century.

“We were shocked to see mining work being carried out at the site. The site had been badly disfigured by blasting and drilling work.

There were broken pieces of Gandharan sculptures lying in the vicinity, which confirmed that they had been freshly dug up and discarded by smugglers, who carried away the best pieces” he said.

Mr Sehrai said that they the Antiquity Act was not implemented and they were preparing a draft to amend the law so that archaeology department could be empowered to check the criminal practice effectively.

It is pertinent to mention here that these relic hunters are not only preying Gandharan sites. The organised rings last year stripped the historic Durrani Graveyard in Peshawar of all the 19th century tombstones and did not even spare the mausoleum of Ayub Khan, the Victor of Maiwand.