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Tomb raiders: Smuggling of antiquities

March 12, 2013

PAKISTAN is a land of contrasts. While on one hand it is good to know that excavators have dug up new objects from the Gandhara civilisation near Taxila, it is also a matter of concern that efforts to smuggle antiquities out of the country continue. On Sunday authorities in Sukkur opened up an impounded container bound for Karachi and found 28 boxes filled with artefacts reportedly stolen from sites and museums in Punjab. The antiquities included pieces from the Gandhara and Muslim periods. A similar raid in Karachi last year uncovered hundreds of artefacts. The trade in illegally sourced antiquities is a profitable one; local smugglers find ready buyers in foreign countries willing to pay large sums for pieces of Pakistan’s rich history. Corrupt local officials let the smugglers excavate without hindrance once they are paid off. Hefty fines and jail sentences are on the books for those who illegally smuggle antiquities. Yet these have failed to deter the smugglers.

Though the state is making efforts, as the Sukkur raid shows, perhaps what is needed is more vigilance at the archaeological sites by increasing the number of guards. Better intelligence is also required in order to dismantle the smugglers’ networks. Illegal digging remains a problem in Taxila, a Unesco World Heritage Site. In fact Taxila is still virgin territory: there are said to be over 100 unexcavated sites in the area. This bonanza can either be tapped for the benefit of the people, or it can be whisked away for profit. The state must decide whether it wants to preserve these treasures, or if it prefers to look the other way as short-sighted criminals fill their pockets by shipping off Pakistan’s history piece by piece.