The gold still glistened after a more than 1,000 years underground; the gemstones glinted at their first touch of sunlight, undimmed by a millennium in the dirt. “It’s a necklace,” said a Polish archaeologist breathless with excitement. “They’ve found a gold necklace!”
As the fine grey sand of Afghanistan’s sun-bleached mountains was gently sieved away, there was treasure in the pan: tiny golden orbs adorned with even smaller gold beads, tulip-shaped pendants no bigger than a fingernail, red gemstones and swirling gold bowls, like acorn lids. Next to them were two spoons and a brooch made of copper, green from corrosion, and two copper hairpins embellished with gold.
Excavations at Mes Aynak have already unearthed three Buddhist monasteries and an ancient copper mine replete with statues, coins, reliefs and murals – which is more than enough to secure its place as one of the most significant archaeological digs in a generation.
Yet last week’s discovery was the first time since archaeologists started work in 2009 that anyone has found jewelery in the mountains, 35km south of Kabul, and with at least three more monasteries still to be explored, Afghan officials hope the discoveries will elevate Mes Aynak into the archaeological pantheon, alongside Tillya Tepe, home of the Bactrian hoard. The archaeological remains in Logar province date from the 1st to the 7th centuries; first settled by the Khushan dynasty and eventually abandoned by the Hephtalites, with the advent of Islam to Afghanistan.
“The gold, the wall paintings, the statues all suggest that the inhabitants of the site were quite wealthy,” said Hans Curvers, leading archeologist on site. “Not a surprise when you live in the place were the Khushan empire mines, its main financial resources.” But the treasure is both a blessing and a burden for the Afghan government, which is desperate to start exploiting its minerals as a source of income.
The archaeological sites sit directly on top of a world class copper deposit which a Chinese state mining company paid $3 billion (£1.9bn) to acquire, in 2008. It was Afghanistan’s largest foreign investment, and allegedly came with a $30m bribe to the then minister of mines. The Afghan government hopes to earn up to $350m a year in royalties – equivalent to 20 per cent of Kabul’s tax revenue – once the mine is operational, but recently agreed a 12-month delay, to give the archaeologists more time.
“The artifacts are right on top of the copper,” said Nasir Ahmad Durrani, deputy minister of mines. “Unless we remove them we can’t get to the mine.” The government has also spent $6.5m clearing Soviet-era landmines from the site. “The landmines and artifacts amounted to a force majeure,” Mr Durrani added. “The original timelines didn’t take into account the realities on the ground … but we believe that by 2014 we will be able to start commercial production.”
Western officials are less sure. The Chinese have improved the road to the mine and built a camp to house their workers but they are yet to start work on the railway or the power station, stipulated in their contract, which they will need to purify the copper and then export it. Omar Sultan, the deputy minister of culture, said he was confident the archaeologists would excavate the areas in immediate danger before the Chinese “start blowing it up”.
“We are not going to let anybody destroy our culture and I haven’t seen any intention to go and do that from the Chinese or anybody else,” he said.
He hopes to relocate the monasteries, block by block, in a purpose-built museum nearby.
“This was a crossroads of civilizations,” he said. “We have a cultural heritage that doesn’t just belong to Afghanistan. It belongs to all of humanity.”