The Buddhist site of Mes Aynak in Afghanistan is doomed in its current state. It is one of the most important heritage sites of Central Asia, consisting of four immense monasteries with a rich inventory of relics including stupas, statues, reliquaries, and wall paintings. However, the Afghan government confirmed the impending destruction of the 4.8 million-square-foot site in April 2008 by leasing a copper mine directly beneath it to a Chinese company, forcing realistic conservators to factor the 30-year lease as a cold hard fact into the rescue of its artifacts. There is no stopping the mining: the Afghan government stands to gain considerable investment from the deal, which is worth US$3 billion.
While the site was technically scheduled for destruction in January 2013, persistent delays have allowed conservators with the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA) and the Afghan National Institute of Archaeology to relocate small statues and artifacts to the Kabul National Museum. There must be as little left behind as possible, so the murals will also need to go. The situation evokes, but is quite different to, the deeds of explorers like Langdon Warner, who in the early 20th century detached wall paintings from China’s Mogao caves 320, 321, 323, and 335, and remains reviled in the narrative of Chinese nationalism. Yoko Tanaguchi encapsulates the dilemma best: “It is therefore ironical that skills in detaching artefacts are now needed to save some of Afghanistan’s most important heritage” (Tanaguchi 2013, 136).
Removing sacred and historical objects from their original sites is a particularly sensitive prospect in Asia. Warner took his items from China to America in the name of “protecting” them in a politically stable country (prior to him, Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot provided similar justifications to Wang Yuanlu in their purchase of the Dunhuang scrolls, to which the latter agreed in the name of restoring the site). Self-reflective scholars in Europe and the United States have had to grapple with the fact that their research and careers have benefited from these ethically gray activities. Susan Whitfield, director of the British Library’s Dunhuang Project, very reluctantly came to Stein’s defense in her book Aurel Stein on the Silk Road (2004). Yet despite the postcolonial hand-wringing, Dunhuang Studies is now a flourishing field of archaeology and conservation in which Chinese conservators at the Dunhuang Academy are able to deploy Western methodologies and access Western talent.