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Centre for the Ethics of Cultural Heritage


Second phase of work begins at Kasthamandap in Kathmandu

(14 November 2016)

The UNESCO Chair has started it's second phase of post-earthquake rescue and research work in the Kathamndu Valley, focusing on the Kasthamandap temple in Hanuman Dhoka Durbar Square. Prof Coningham and Dr Davis, along with colleagues from elsewhere in Durham, Stirling, Vienna and La Trobe are working alongside the Department of Archaeology, UNESCO and local government agencies. the work is sponsored by the Arts and Humanties Research Council and National Geographic. Read the full press release below.

PRESS RELEASE 11th November 2016

Department of Archaeology, Government of Nepal and Durham University Archaeological Team continue post-disaster rescue excavations at earthquake damaged monuments of the Kathmandu Valley UNESCO World Heritage Property, Nepal.

Kathmandu, Nepal and Durham, UK – 11/11/2016

A team of international and national experts from the Department of Archaeology, Government of Nepal and Durham University, will undertakepost-disaster rescue excavations at earthquake damaged monuments within the Kathmandu Valley’s UNESCOWorld Heritage Site, Nepal, continuing a UNESCO mission initiated last year. The team of archaeologists, soil scientists, historians and architects, co-led by Professor Robin Coningham, UNESCO Chair in Archaeological Ethics and Practice in Cultural Heritage, Durham University, UK, Kosh Prasad Acharya, former Director-General of Archaeology and Ram Bahadur Kunwar, Head of Excavations Branch of the Department of Archaeology, Government of Nepal.

The 2015 Gorkha earthquakes was a human catastrophe that devastated lives and livelihoods across Nepal, but also generated a cultural catastrophe, damaging and destroying much of Nepal’s unique cultural heritage, including monuments within the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage Site. Not only architectural and historical treasures of Outstanding Universal Value, these monuments represent a major source of income and economic growth through domestic and international tourism and are a key component of Nepal’s fragile economy. They are also of intangible value, playing a central role in the daily lives of thousands. For these reasons, the damaged heritage sites of Nepal are subject to an ongoing program of reconstruction and conservation. 

Last year, a team of local and international experts from Durham University and the Department of Archaeology, Government of Nepal, conducted archaeological investigations in three badly damaged squares, Hanuman Dhoka, Patan and Bhaktapur. In each square, the team combined the use of Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and excavation to identify and map subsurface archaeologicalheritageand evaluatethe foundations of key damaged monuments in order to inform engineers and architects tasked with reconstruction and conservation of collapsed monuments. Focusing on the Char Naryan Temple in Patan, the Kasthamandap in Hanuman Dhoka and the Vatsala Temple in Bhaktapur, their results illustrated that in many cases the foundations of these monuments were resilient and undamaged by the 2015 earthquakes, or previous seismic events, and that collapse may be linked to superstructure maintenance issues.

The team also recognised that with plans to swiftly reconstruct temples, detailed recording and scientific analysis of their foundations is of paramount importance as few previous studies of Kathmandu’s monuments have considered them. Indeed, their study has already begun to build the first scientifically dated frameworks for these key monuments, with preliminary dates suggesting that the Kasthamandap was constructed in the 8th century CE, 400 years earlier than traditionally thought. Furthermore, these surveys facilitated the creation of Archaeological Risk Maps for the three Durbar Squares, which will aid the protection ofsubsurface heritage by guiding developments that may threatenthis finite archaeological resource.

Focusing on the Kasthamandap in Hanuman Dhoka, the team will build on last year’s investigations, where the location of saddlestones supporting three of the monument’smassive central timber pillarswas identified, but a fourth, to the northeast, was missing. This indicated that the Kasthamandap’s superstructure rested on three locked joints and one mobile one, weakening the building. This season’s excavations will target investigation of the location of this missing saddlestone as this element is a critical feature, both in understanding the collapse of the monument and its successful reconstruction. The results of the larger excavation trench will also demonstrate the developmental phases of subsurface heritage andprovide architectural plans to further investigate the character of the foundations of this iconic monument.

The team will also strengthen their existing research links with the Pashupati Area Development Trust by undertaking post-earthquake assessment of the collapsed Guruju Sattal, adjacent to the western entrance of the Pashupati Temple Complex. Theexcavations at these sites will identify the presence of subsurface archaeological remains, identifying earlier cultural sequences and evaluating the foundations of this damaged monument.

The programme of investigations will be critical in the protection of the heritage of the Kathmandu Valley. Not only providing research results, the fieldwork will aid Government Organisations and heritage bodies in devising and developing methodologies, practices and protocols within post-disaster responses to damaged and destroyed heritage in this seismically active region, which can be transferred to post-disaster and post-conflict situations throughout the world.

Kosh Prasad Acharya, project co-director and former Director-General of the Department of Archaeology, Government of Nepal,stated that building on the pilot investigations of 2015 that “this project brings together expertise from Nepal and internationally and draws on the inter-disciplinary strengths of these participants to further safeguard Kathmandu’s heritage of Outstanding Universal Value, which was so severely damaged by the 2015 earthquakes, but also threatened by recent destructive post-disaster interventions”.

Bhesh Narayan Dahal, Director-General of the Department of Archaeology, Government of Nepal welcomed the continued collaboration of the added that “This project facilitates the building of capacity of officers of the Department of Archaeology in characterising and recording the archaeological heritage of the Kathmandu Valley, which has for many years been focussed on above ground architectural and art historical remains. Developing scientific excavation and geoarchaeological techniques within a framework of rescue archaeology paves the way for sympathetic and sustainable reconstruction across Kathmandu and Nepal”. 

Dr Govinda Tandon, Member Secretary of the Pashupati Area Development Trust, welcomed the application of post-disaster archaeological approaches to Pashupati, stating that “whilst the majority of monuments within Pashupati area were not destroyed by the 2015 earthquakes, some structures, such as the Guruju Sattal, did collapse, and many others were damaged by this natural disaster. Building on a partnership between this team initiated in 2014, we look forward to developing post-disaster heritage protocols at Pashupati, to not only preserve this unique cultural heritage during reconstruction, but also to help us guide future developments for sustainable pilgrimage and provide a greater insight into the archaeological past of this major ritual site”.

Professor Robin Coningham, project co-director and the 2014 UNESCO Chair in Archaeological Ethics and Practice in Cultural Heritage, Durham University stated that “the results from last year’s mission illustrated the very real threat to the subsurface heritage of the Kathmandu Valley and the risks posed by rapid redevelopment without the input of heritage professionals. The network of academics and practitioners involved in this fieldwork will provide evaluations and assessments of earthquake damaged heritage that will not only generate new understandings for the character and development of these iconic monuments, but also put in place protocols and methodologies for the protection and preservation of heritage in response to recent and future earthquakes in the region and throughout South Asia”.

The archaeological work will be jointly undertaken by the Department of Archaeology, Government of Nepal and Durham University, with financial support from the Pashupati Area Development Trust, an Arts and Humanities Research Council Global Challenges Research Fund grant and a National Geographic Society Conservation Trust grant. Further field support is provided by academics from the University of Stirling (UK) Austrian Academy of Sciences (Austria) and University of La Trobe (Australia). The rescue excavations and archaeological investigations form part of the remit of the 2014 UNESCO Chair in Archaeological Ethics and Practice in Cultural Heritage, at Durham University, to develop debates, policies and methodologies to evaluate the economic, ethical and social impacts of cultural heritage, and in particular to strengthen the protection of heritage in crisis situations.