Can a documentary really save an archaeological site from destruction?

One of the wonderful things about ancient sites is how they reveal how humans fit themselves into and are in turn affected by the environment. Our choice of the most sensible trade routes, site proximity to water or access to resources can reveal not only the long term patterns of human occupation but also the depth of human connection to place over time. And even when sites are forgotten, even after thousands of years, their discovery can reignite that connection once more. The problem then, is what happens when an ancient place becomes a victim of its own geography? When war, trade, corruption, and personal conflict intersect and the fate of an ancient site is left hanging in the balance, can there even be a positive resolution? Such is the crisis face by Mes Aynak.

The view over Mes Aynak in Logar Province, Afghanistan. Promotional Still (2015).
The view over Mes Aynak in Logar Province, Afghanistan. Saving Mes Aynak Promotional Still (2015).

Mes Aynak (also called Tepe Kafiriat) is an ancient settlement near Kabul in eastern Afghanistan. It’s a very impressive site: dating back to the Bronze Age about 5000 years ago, Mes Aynak peaked during the 5th and 7th centuries CE as an important Buddhist trading city along the silk road, possessing a citadel, forts, monasteries, temples, and – crucial to our story – a complex of copper mining and processing infrastructure. Overall Mes Aynak spread to a size of 40 ha (that’s about 2/3 the size of Pompeii) before its decline and abandonment in the 9th century. Although it was identified as an archaeological site in the 1970s by Afghan and Russian archaeologists, it was not until 2010 that intensive large scale salvage excavations kicked off. You see, in a tragic twist of fate, the copper that attracted the ancient settlers to the site in the first place may also be the seed of its destruction as Mes Aynak sits atop one of the worlds largest copper deposits (over 6 million tonnes of copper, worth an estimated US$100 billion) slated for open-cut mining to begin in late 2015. So which is more valuable to Afghanistan, the copper, or the heritage?

Saving Mes Aynak Promotional Poster (2015).
Saving Mes Aynak Promotional Poster (2015).

Saving Mes Aynak examines this heritage crisis by following the personal journey of Afghan archaeologist Qadir Temori as he and his 550-strong crew race against the clock to excavate as much of the site as possible before its destruction. Commercial archaeology is not an easy game in any country, but add to it the long term impact of war and poverty and the outlook for heritage preservation very quickly turns grim. The commercial conflict – deepened by a history of government corruption – is only one battlefront Temori must face. Daily Temori’s crew face reprisals from the local Taliban: one crew-member even tells us how he had a landmine explode in his face as he was pick-axing, partially blinding him but not deterring him from returning to work. Bureaucracy too proves to be a source of tension as half the crew is employed through the Ministry of Mines and the other half through the Ministry of Culture, and international aid funding – necessary for pay and equipment – at one point is delayed for 3 months, causing further friction between the local and international members of the dig team. Even the professional credentials of the archaeologists are drawn into question as some of the team resort to excavation with heavy machinery in their haste to expose the site, to the displeasure of their peers.

Huffman interviewing Temori on site. Promotional Still (2015).
Huffman interviewing Temori on site. Promotional Still (2015).

Unlike most archaeology documentaries this is very openly a social-justice story. Although there are interviews with French and American archaeologists, Afghan politicians, and even the director of the mining company, director Brent Huffman chiefly follows Temori’s perspective and the impact of Mes Aynak on his life (including his young family). By taking this angle Huffman makes the explicit argument that the real value of this site is its cultural significance to the local Afghan community. It’s a really nice example of how story structure can complement and amplify a more abstract argument about ethics and heritage. In keeping with this approach, whilst the cinematography is stunning, it does tend to over privilege the treasure-like quality of the finds and the crew’s personal response to them, and the subsequent dearth of more scientific analyses may rub some archaeologists and history buffs the wrong way. I do think however that given the lack of voice that Afghani archaeologists seem to have, that Huffman deserves a bit of leeway to tell this story this way – sometimes open bias is justified. I also really like his portrait of commercial archaeology as really being the frontier of archaeology as a discipline – both in terms of new discoveries as well as ethical debates – and I’d like to see more documentaries that put commercial archaeology under scrutiny given its dominance out in the field.

Huffman filming a Buddhist Stupa at mes Aynak. Promotional Still (2015).
Huffman filming a Buddhist Stupa at mes Aynak. Promotional Still (2015).

I also love how strategic Huffman has been about this production. Saving Mes Aynak aims to do exactly what it says on the tin: it is the flagship of a much larger activism campaign seeking to inspire viewers to get involved in saving the site before mining begins. By building an audience through crowd-funding (quick disclosure – I signed up too), spreading the word through social media, striking out with multi-platform broadcasting (you can currently watch it on Al Jazeera), and following the trend of providing free unlimited access within its country of production, Saving Mes Aynak is all about using documentary to make a real world impact. It comes from a good lineage too: Huffman is an award winning journalist and documentarist, and the production team (via the non-profit production company Kartemquin) are the makers of Hoop Dreams (1994), one of the 20th century’s most famous social justice documentaries. If anyone can pull this off, it’s these guys.

One of 600 Buddha statues recovered during excavations. Promotional Still (2015).
1 of 600 Buddha statues recovered during excavations. Promotional Still (2015).

But what now? Mes Aynak was scheduled for mining to begin this month, a deadline that has been delayed until later this year, but at the time of filming only 10% of the site had been uncovered, and the archaeological team estimate another 10 years will be required to fully excavate the site. Even if that were granted (slim chance), it seems guaranteed the site itself (and the mountain it sits upon) will be destroyed. So can a documentary really inspire an audience to activism in order to divert the powers that be? Time will tell, and tell us soon.

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