Home > General Conservation > Construction for Sindh Cultural Festival threatens ruins at Mohenjo-Daro and Poses Preservation and Money-Making Questions

Construction for Sindh Cultural Festival threatens ruins at Mohenjo-Daro and Poses Preservation and Money-Making Questions

March 16th, 2014

Construction for Sindh Cultural Festival threatens ruins at Mohenjo-Daro and Poses Preservation and Money-Making Questions

Amy Morse 

            Mohenjo-Daro, one of the oldest cities in the world, was recently the site of a festival in honor of Sindh culture. Spear headed by Pakistan’s People Party, Balawil Bhutto Zardari, the event was highly contested among conservators and archaeologists. Heritage professionals worried for the preservation state of the ruins while platforms were built over the brick walls and open spaces of the city. A BBC photograph recorded workers hammering together a platform balanced on many, spindly wooden legs. Although the number of people allowed to attend was limited, the platforms had to hold 500 people in addition to the stage and entertainment. Colored lights, much like the lights shone on the Pyramids at Giza, were meant to illuminate the ruins and the festival, one can only assume, as night fell on the gathered crowd.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and the archaeologists in charge of the maintenance at Mohenjo-Daro are now subject to the scrutiny of Pakistani citizens and cultural heritage professionals. Conservators and Pakistani archaeologists have already spoken out against the plan and appealed to the United Nations.

Mr. Bhutto Zardari made his case for the festival at Mohenjo-Daro. A BBC interview with Zardari recorded his “passionate” interest in the preservation of history in Pakistan. The People Party leader also acknowledged the intense need for conservation efforts at the ruins. Despite the controversy over “hammering a nail” into ruins anywhere in the world, let alone Pakistan, I think Mr. Zardari’s choice of location held huge potential for garnering the interest of funders with deep pockets. Time in the limelight of the international media has enhanced international knowledge of the ruins. If the Sindh festival can garner attention from wealthy patrons willing to invest in preservation of culture heritage anywhere, the more advantageous to the continued care of heritage in Pakistan in the long run.

Although, I have to ask: why did Mr. Zardari have to have the festival on top of the ruins? Was there no nearby countryside that would have suited the occasion just as well?

The tenuous state of preservation at Mohenjo-Daro is compounded by the commonplace threat of flooding by the Indus river: ironic, considering the city is the first in world history with its own public drainage systems. For archaeologists, Mohenjo-Daro is a site of great interest to Southeast Asian heritage and also well-known for its extensive, fortified wall embankments and evidence of long-distance trade with Mesopotamian civilizations. Mohenjo-Daro, like many archaeological sites, pays the price of wear and tear from exposure to the elements for one specific reason: excavation and subsequent exposure to the elements causes rapid decay of archaeological materials.  Buried archaeological deposits are faced with their own set of unique preservation challenges, but by excavation, the exposed burnt-brick city walls and buildings are subject to the effects of severe salt corrosion. Gloomy predictions by some archaeologists predict the city’s complete disintegration in the next 20 years.

Salt corrosion is not an unusual problem for sites located in environments like Mohenjo-Daro. A study conducted in 1977 by A. S. Goudie in the journal of Earth Surface Processes, identifies and dissects the problem of disintegration by the formation of sodium sulphate – a more damaging cousin of everyday table salt.

The salt crystals, which spread over the faces of brick walls, are the combined result of a high ground water level, high level of salinity, rapid, daily changes in temperature, and corresponding evaporation of water. Water droplets that condense early in the morning are then subject to a sudden drop in that humidity, causing an increase in the aridity of the environment, and rapid evaporation of condensed water. Because the water droplets evaporate so quickly in the arid environment, by default, salt crystals are left behind. These sodium sulphate crystals can be observed on the walls at Mohenjo-Daro as small and needle like colonies so common, whole portions of walls appear white washed. It is the sulphate component of this compound, which causes the most damage and poses the greatest obstacle to preservation efforts (Goudie, 1977).

The UN originally named Mohenjo-Daro one of six of UNESCO’s important sites of world heritage. UNESCO, the culture heritage preservation organization will hopefully be likely to impose restrictions in the future to protect the ruins from unnecessary exposure. Despite these efforts, the festival was allowed to continue and was held on the 1st of February.  The damage, which can no longer be undone, can now only be minimized by the efforts of poorly funded preservation minded archaeologists and conservators. One hopes, the interest cultivated by Mr. Zardari’s festival will have the heads of people with money turning in archaeology’s direction.

I would suggest that archaeologists and other professionals specializing in the study, preservation and teaching of cultural heritage could benefit from tourism and the popularization of the study of history and archaeology. Profits accrued by tourism via important sites like the Pyramids at Giza, the Greek Pantheon, and Williamsburg, Virginia, while not a direct source of funding for archaeologists and conservators, retains vast, untapped potential. The kind of attention being drawn to Mohenjo-Daro by the Pakistani festival is another of these untapped monetary resources. The dilemma imposed by this tenuous situation is how cultural heritage professionals and stewards of cultural heritage like government institutions can take advantage of public interest for funding while simultaneously preserving the source of interest for that monetary well. Needless to say, no preservation means no archaeological site. If Mohenjo-Daro completely disintegrates by 2034 because of exposure to construction and the wearing of pedestrian feet, there will be no site to draw the gaze of the interested world public or the fascination of funders with deep pockets on which the site’s survival depends.

So what can archaeologists and conservators learn from this situation? Need for funds and the relationship allowed by professionals between the public and cultural heritage will always be pressing if this community of preservation minded individuals wants to keep educating the public. How can we do this without causing irreparable damage to a non-renewable resource? According to Farzand Masih at Punjab University and head of archaeology, “you cannot even hammer a nail at an archaeological site,” – at least, not in Pakistan, according to what the BBC references as the Antiquity Act (although they do not specify what institution enforces this legislation) (BBC, 2014).  So what can professionals do at sites of cultural heritage to bring tourism to Mohenjo-Daro without risking further damage? What about other sites around the world whose stewards fight for both dissemination of knowledge and preservation – could Pakistan and Zardari learn anything from their examples? Meanwhile, conservators will once again have to swoop in to salvage what remains of the day.

 

References

Goudie, A.S. 1977     Sodium Sulphate Weathering and the Disintegration of Mohenjo-Daro, Pakistan. Earth Surface Processes 2:75-86.

Mackay, E. J. H 1934    Further Excavations at Mohenjo-Daro. Journal of the Royal Society of Arts. 82(4233):206-224.

Dales, George F. 1965    New Investigations at Mohenjo-Daro. Archaeology. 18(2):145-150

BBC News: Asia. January 30-31st, 2014 Pakistan’s Mohenjo Daro ruins ‘threatened by festival.’Mohenjo-Daro: Protest over Pakistan Festival at Ruins

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