Archaeology Department assists UNESCO Earthquake Excavation

The following is an article provided by Palatinate.

By Siena Morrell

There’s just a small chance that you remember exactly where you were on the morning of April 25, 2015. For one recent graduate, that day is unforgettable.

“I was in the shower! My first reaction was to think, ‘No, that’s not an earthquake, that couldn’t happen to me.”

After graduating from St John’s College, Flo Joly de Lotbiniere found herself in Pokhara, Nepal, on the day an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale struck just east of the Kathmandu Valley.

“I think the quake lasted for about 30 seconds but it felt a lot longer,” Flo said.

“We were quite confused when it stopped, perhaps because where we were, the buildings didn’t come down; whereas had I stayed in Kathmandu or the Kathmandu Valley where there was huge destruction, things might have been very different for me.”

Putting her travel plans on hold, Flo decided to volunteer to help the recovery efforts. She tried to get to Kathmandu, but the earthquake had caused landslides and enormous rifts had split the roads to the capital in two.

In a nation as poor and politically-paralysed as Nepal, the chaos was not limited to structural damage: the news that reached Flo in Pokhara was of extreme inflation, food shortages, looting and disease outbreaks in the capital.

After a few weeks, Flo made it to Kathmandu, where she realised the extent of the damage.

“Buildings either looked like dominoes toppled over, or had completely disappeared,” she said.

“Luckily I didn’t have to experience seeing bodies removed from buildings, but I’ll never forget the Nepalese people who shared their losses with me. A very simple conversation that would start with a woman showing me pictures of her grandchildren would often end with her saying, ‘They’re dead now.’”

With the help of other volunteers, Flo established the Free Nepal Kitchen in Balaju, a very poor area that had been badly hit by the quake and its subsequent aftershocks. Very soon, they were feeding over 800 people a day.

The immediate objective of international and national authorities was alleviating human suffering in the wake of the disaster, and emergency services were mobilised to recover victims and provide assistance to the injured.

Over 60 countries, as well as the United Nations and other international agencies, provided emergency relief and humanitarian assistance to the affected population.

The next step in the recovery of Kathmandu was for heritage specialists to stabilise the fragile monuments left standing and to undertake a Post-Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA).

The PDNA estimated that April’s quake caused about $169 million of damage to hundreds of sites of cultural or historic significance.

Now that the monsoon season has passed, plans are tentatively being made for the reconstruction of the city.

The Nepali government, in collaboration with UNESCO, has mobilised a team of archaeological experts to undertake rescue excavations in advance of the rebuilding.

The director of the project is Robin Coningham, UNESCO Chair in Archaeological Ethics and Practice in Cultural Heritage, and Professor of Archaeology at Durham University.

Kasthamandap, a temple in Kathmandu, with a rescue excavation plot. Photograph: UNESCO.

Kasthamandap, a temple in Kathmandu, with a rescue excavation plot. Photograph: UNESCO.

“We’ve been invited by both UNESCO and the government of Nepal to undertake a Ground Penetrating Radar Survey of the three main royal – or Darbar – squares of the Kathmandu Valley, followed by three rescue excavations at three monuments, one at each site,” Professor Coningham said to Palatinate.

The Darbar Squares are typically teeming with tourists, marvelling at the magnificent colourful temples, palaces and statues. Each year, hundreds of thousands of tourists would bring in enormous revenues for the restaurant and hotel industry of Kathmandu, and provide employment for tour guides. The Asian Development Bank estimates tourism accounted for about eight per cent of the Nepalese economy.

April’s quake and its many aftershocks have put visitors off, though, and an assessment by the Nepalese government and development partners reckons that losses to the tourism industry will total around 40 per cent over the next 12 months and 20 per cent over the coming two years.

The severely damaged ornate temples of wood, brick and tile in the capital city were not only of economic value, but they also were places of worship for locals who commune with their guiding goddesses and gods through these temples.

“There is some expediency here, both to meet the ritual needs of Kathmandu’s inhabitants as well as project the unique cityscape and skyline which foreign visitors to the Kathmandu expect,” said Coningham.

Durham and UNESCO have a longstanding relationship, and since 2008 staff from the Department of Archaeology have collaborated with UNESCO at a number of World Heritage Sites across South Asia, including Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva in Sri Lanka, Paharpur in Bangladesh, and Lumbini – the birthplace of the Buddha – in Nepal.

During this time, Durham students of all levels have been offered the unique opportunity to participate in the projects; at present, due to the scale of the cultural disaster in the Kathmandu Valley, the department is discussing the prospect of additional work in the future.

“Focusing on the royal and ritual hearts of the Kathmandu Valley’s three great mediaeval city-states, we are combining archaeological geophysics, geoarchaeology and excavation in order to assist future planning,” said Coningham.

In addition to the functional advantages of exposing the foundations of collapsed buildings to assist engineers and architects in the capital’s redevelopment, Professor Coningham hopes the excavations will provide a special historical insight.

“Much of the early history of the Kathmandu Valley is oral and our use of scientific dating will provide an additional source of evidence as well as tracing the development of the Valley’s pagoda architectural form.”

The excavations will also provide information on historical responses to previous earthquakes, and the resilience of the inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, something Flo said was easily identifiable during her time in Nepal.

“Nepali people astounded me. Although some were understandably saddened and at a loss, I found that because they had no choice, they just had to get on with living again. […] They tried as best they could to carry on as normal, despite living out of a tiny tent. […] Despite everything, their optimism was incredible and inspiring,” Flo said.

To continue supporting the street kitchen Flo worked for, and to keep updated with news from Nepal, visit the GoFundMe page here.

Photographs courtesy of Professor Robin Coningham. Copyright UNESCO.