In my flash fiction story, “In the Ruins of Shambhala” (published in audio format with 600 Second Saga), UN employee Amar Chatterjee encounters a booby trap while exploring an ancient Buddhist temple. But the trap Amar encounters is far from your typical Indiana Jones-style booby trap. It’s something much more real and sinister.
Indy might step on paving stones that shoot blow darts through slots in the wall and he might run away from giant rolling boulders, but these traps are unrealistic and not the kind I’m talking about.
While researching “In the Ruins of Shambhala,” I wanted to know more about the all-too-real dangers archaeologists actually face. But archaeology rarely involves greater dangers than you might encounter on a camping trip: snakebite, heatstroke, dehydration, and other environmental and health hazards.
However, there are some cases where archaeologists do run great safety risks. The difference here is that these traps typically use modern technology. I’m talking about landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) here.
Many countries with a rich distribution of archaeological deposits also happen to have endured highly destructive–and explosive–wars. Nations like Afghanistan, Cambodia, Iraq, Syria, and Georgia have extensive minefields that occasionally make archaeology a highly risky profession.
The landmine Amar defuses is much more than a new spin on a cliché. It provides a commentary on the issue of cultural heritage at risk–a theme I believe archaeological thrillers could explore more fruitfully.
Mes Aynak in Afghanistan, the site of an ancient Buddhist monastery, is one prominent example of a threatened cultural heritage site. Brent E. Huffman’s documentary Saving Mes Aynak tells the story of the bold Afghan archaeologist Qadir Temori, who leads an excavation of this monastery. The site itself is currently threatened by the development of a Chinese copper mine. To add to his difficulties, Qadir must endure repeated death threats by the Taliban to cease his excavations.
Landmines enter into it because the hill of Mes Aynak contains many of them, buried right alongside the artefacts. At one point in the film, the director interviews a digger who once swung a pickaxe directly onto a landmine, triggering an explosion. He was badly maimed, but other diggers were not so lucky.
What Saving Mes Aynak shows is that the real archaeologists who face danger in their jobs are not guys like Indiana Jones. They’re guys like Qadir.
Archaeologists working in war-torn countries, under the pressure of dictatorships, or in the presence of ongoing civil wars–those are the ones who run the greatest risks in their profession. The explosive legacy of present-day wars alone makes learning about the distant past a dangerous job. No tombs with pressure-triggered blow darts required.
Initiatives have attempted to correct the problem of unexploded ordnance in Afghanistan, notably in the region of Bamiyan. Bamiyan is the site of a medieval fortress and the gigantic niches where the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan once stood, before they were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. As Lindsay Aldrich, Suzanne Fiederlein, and Jessica Rosati report in The Journal of ERW and Mine Action, action was taken in 2008 and 2009 to demine the region.
This operation, led by the Mine Action Coordination Centre of Afghanistan (MACCA), in coordination with UNESCO and the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS), was an initiative that parallels my own fictional treatment of the demining of the mystical city of Shambhala in the aftermath of skirmishes between Tibetan insurgents and the Chinese army.
The Amar Chatterjees of this world are the kinds of people who work with organizations like MACCA and UNMAS, the ones who, like Qadir, face extreme danger for the sake of cultural heritage preservation. They are the ones who rally under the 1954 UNESCO Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which states that “cultural property has suffered grave damage during recent armed conflicts and that, by reason of the developments in the technique of warfare, it is in increasing danger of destruction.”
Amar is courageous, a workaday hero who preserves ancient antiquities at great personal risk, all while operating within the mission statements of international conventions. I hope you will listen to my story and enjoy my attempt to find an alternative to the fedora-swaggering heroes of yesterday.
If you would like to donate to help raise awareness about Mes Aynak, check out their donation page.
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