Dangerous research: Leicester academic on digging up the North West Frontier
Dr Ruth Young from our School of Archaeology and Ancient History is co-director of a research project at Chitral in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan (formerly known as North West Frontier Province).
Bordered on one side by Afghanistan and on the other by Kashmir, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is one of the most volatile places in the world, where seismic activity from the collision between the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates is one of the lesser problems. Given the current political situation, the Foreign Office advises against Britons travelling to the region for any reason at all.
Dr Young has been regularly visiting Chitral for 14 years now, including a period of research for her PhD between 1998 and 2000. Her current work is part of a British Council-funded scheme called INSPIRE (International Strategic Partnership in Research and Education) and is a joint project between the University of Leicester and two Pakistani instituitions Hazara University Mansehra and Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan.
Because of its important strategic position, Chitral has always been a fought-over territory and much of its history prior to the arrival of Europeans in the 19th century remains unclear. Marco Polo travelled through the area and it was invaded by Chinese and Mongols; it was a Buddhist region before the introduction of Islam and there are (unsubstantiated) legends which claim that the Chitrali people are descended from the Greek soldiers of Alexander the Great. And now – it’s home to parts of al-Qaeda.
Chitral is known for its natural beauty and its wildlife – which in more peaceful times attracted hikers and mountaineers – but the cultural heritage of the region remains largely undocumented, even within Pakistan. Now the three universities are joining forces to study the archaeological heritage of the area and find new ways to manage and promote it.
The archaeologists are particularly interested in the Gandharan Grave Culture, a little-known culture which provides a missing link between the major urban Indus Civilisation in South Asia (c.2500-1900 BC) and the beginning of the second urban historic period (c. 1400-300 BC).
Having already explored and excavated passes in Lower Chitral, the project recently began a new phase in Upper Chitral. But because of the dangers of kidnap, none of the three principal investigators can remain in the field to direct excavations because they would stand out as important individuals – especially so with Ruth, as a European – and therefore be prime targets for kidnap.
But kidnapping to raise funds for terrorism is a now a commonplace occurrence and Ruth feels a great responsibility towards the students who are working in the field, whom she has helped to train in archaeological methods and technologies such as GPS (back in the somewhat safer environment of Hazara).
In this week’s Times Higher Education, Dr Young has written a first person account of the problems which she faces in her work, fully acknowledging that this is relatively unimportant compared with the dangers that the local people face every day. Her hope is that, at some time in the future, the cultural heritage of Chitral unearthed by this work can be used as the basis for sustainable tourism projects to bring people back to this fascinating part of the world.