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Seismic Safety and Kathmandu’s Historic Urban Infrastructure

A research project of the Department of Archaeology


Funded by: British Academy-GCRF Cities and Infrastructure Programme £299,992.42 (CI170241)(2017-2019)

Kathmandu’s Medieval cities and shrines are exceptional architectural and artistic achievements underpinned by traditions of seismic adaptation developed over centuries. They host urban infrastructure of tangible and intangible value and play vital roles of cohesion in the life of thousands. Generating 7.6% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product through tourism, Kathmandu’s iconic skyline was dramatically altered by the Gorkha Earthquake in 2015. The earthquake was a human disaster, killing over 9,000 people and displacing 2.8 million. It destroyed 500,000 homes and undermined the sustainability of Nepal’s tourist industry and its 400,000 employees. It was also a cultural catastrophe damaging 403 monuments in Kathmandu’s historic urban infrastructure (Gautam 2015). Their collapse caused multiple fatalities and first responders demolished others fearing that they might also fall (Coningham 2016) and fences were built around damaged shrines, separating devotees from intangible foci. With Official Development Assistance (ODA) pledges of $2.5 billion, Nepal’s Government has approved the rehabilitation of Kathmandu’s historic infrastructure, but there is tension between Sendai’s Build Back Better framework and the obligation to preserve the authenticity and intangible values of its UNESCO sites.

Many risk reduction strategies are demolishing buildings and rebuilding them in modern materials; while others have been hybridised with metal bracing (Weise 2016). Mud mortars are frequently being replaced by cement/limes, although the resultant inflexibility is not necessarily advantageous for seismic resilience. Justified by expediency and cost, contracts go to lowest tenders, despite a lack of expert capacity. Despite concerns, many monuments are rebuilt without analysis of why they collapsed and their foundations, which preserve sequential experimental adaptations offering examples of practical seismic-resistant foundations which could be applied to other structures, are demolished without record (Coningham 2018). With donor liability fears, contractors privilege modern materials, despite successful histories of vernacular systems (Shakya 2012). Costly historic bricks are landfilled, causing supply chain delays and environmental impact from kilns. Residents, craftspeople and tour operators/business are frequently excluded from decisions but risk to them, and their livelihoods, remains.

Sponsored by the British Academy Global Challenges Research Fund Cities and Infrastructure Programme, this project addresses the UN's Sustainable Development Goals by building on previous British Academy-sponsored archaeological research at Pashupati, and from within the wider urban environment of UNESCO, National Geographic and AHRC-GCRF sponsored rescue archaeology in post-earthquake Kathmandu. This new project integrates archaeological and geoarchaeological research and evidence with 3D visualisation and geotechnical and structural engineering. Our interdisciplinary North-South partnership contributes to the United Nations Strategic Development Goal 17 by co-producing and disseminating a methodology to assess, evaluate and improve the seismic safety of historic urban infrastructure within Kathmandu's World Heritage sites, reducing direct risk to life and livelihoods and damage of gains towards SDG11, while preserving Kathmandu’s authenticity and traditions.


We piloted a co-produced ‘heritage ecosystem’ approach by combining geotechnical and structural engineering with (geo)archaeological outcomes from post-disaster missions at selected monuments within Kathmandu. Assessing historic construction practice, and traditional construction ability, we trialled the mapping of these onto rebuild initiatives with the objective of improving, and where appropriate, blending with modern low interventionist retrofitting strategies. We have also contributed to the analysis of construction materials, augmented by re-analysis of soil cores to model site amplification/earthquake motion. As many superstructure plans are incomplete, we also piloted the generation of 3D reconstructions from Multi-View Stereo/Structure-From-Motion photogrammetry with other contextual information integrated into a modified Potree viewer, combining extant photographic records, crowd-sourced imagery and web-scraping. Our collaborative publications stress the interdisciplinary nature of the project’s team and range from geotechnical modelling to the identification of ancient earthquake damage.

We sampled a set of monuments through more detailed building and ground penetrating radar surveys to evaluate the foundation depth and seismic vulnerability (and to ensure consistency with analysis of geotechnical core) before proving expertise to government, donors and contractors on rebuild strategies that require minimalist interventions. One of the most tangible impacts of the project has been the provision of expert information and data on the collapsed Kasthamandap in Hanumandhoka’s Durbar Square to the team of engineers and architects tasked with its reconstruction. The monument is now partly rebuilt with a target of the sixth anniversary of the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake for its formal completion.

On the third anniversary of the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake, we co-produced an exhibition in Kathmandu’s new earthquake museum in the Dhukuti with the Department of Archaeology (Government of Nepal), the University of Stirling and Durham University’s Oriental Museum. The exhibition, ‘Resilience within the Rubble’ highlights the challenges faced during the process of rebuilding World Heritage Sites in post-disaster situations and the tensions raised by the obligation to ensure that the heritage that survived the earthquake is not itself irreversibly damaged. Focusing on the experience of post-earthquake rescue archaeology, it explores the contribution that interdisciplinary research can make to understanding why individual monuments fell and how they can be rehabilitated with greater resilience but without triggering a second cultural disaster.

In addition to our exhibition in Kathmandu, the team collaborated with the Austrian Academy of Sciences in their 2018 International Symposium ‘After the Earthquake: research, protection and preservation of Nepal’s cultural heritage’. The programme included a keynote address at the Academy by Robin Coningham on ‘Seismic Safety: Interdisciplinary approaches for assessing resilience and pathways towards the rehabilitation of the cultural heritage of Kathmandu in post-earthquake Nepal’.

Postdoctoral Researchers 

  • Dr Ashutosh Kumar (Engineering)
  • Dr Mark Manuel
  • Dr Christopher Davis


Professor Caroline Knowles, who leads the British Academy’s GCRF Cities and Infrastructure Programme visited our fieldwork and wrote about its impact in Kathmandu in 2018, highlighting that:

"In exposing traces of the city’s earlier-than-imagined origins, the research team have reanimated public interest in the monuments, and sparked a public debate about how relics of the past might live in the present, and have a future in local cosmology and as a resource in developing tourism. Which monuments should be rebuilt and which left so as to expose the city beneath? This and other questions are posed in a series of public exhibitions and most spectacularly in the gallery and museum built in the restored palace treasury. The ‘Resilience in the Rubble Exhibition’, which opened on the third anniversary of the earthquake on 25 April 2018, is in part funded by the British Academy. It displays photographs and recovered artefacts, and invites people to post their experience of the earthquake on the wall.

Prompting individual and collective memory is an opening salvo in promoting a closer alliance between the local people and their spectacular ancient monuments. Might they become involved in routine care and maintenance? How can local artisans play a bigger role in restoration and be properly rewarded for their skill? The master carvers who sculpt the open eyes of the gods must be properly acknowledged and rewarded. This creates tensions with those who favour modern engineering models and methods and low tenders for restoration work.

The earthquake allowed the team to investigate which monuments hold up and why. The strength of earlier restoration work is tested and ways to improve future seismic resilience offered by the team. Sustainability is important. Using traditional materials in restoration means reusing bricks and wood from the rubble, rather than using energy to fashion new materials and dispose of the old. Traditional building techniques favour mud mortar in place of lime and cement, because it is more flexible and thus more resilient.

The monuments are thousands of years old and so have survived many earthquakes. But this approach clashes with the modern engineering techniques favoured by most structural engineers, who consider concrete synonymous with strength, and connecting a strong material like cement with a weaker traditional material just causes further damage. Debates about the best way to save the past and face the future rumble on. The earthquake made it possible to learn about what works best, scale it up and roll it out in other cities facing similar disasters."

Read more of her observations in British Academy Review 33.

Project Partners

Published Results

Journal Article

  • Kumar, Ashutosh, Hughes, Paul N., Sarhosis, Vasilis, Toll, David, Wilkinson, Sean, Coningham, Robin, Acharya, Kosh Prasad, Weise, Kai, Joshi, Annie, Davis, Christopher, Kunwar, Ram Bahadur & Maskey, Prem Nath (2020). Experimental, numerical and field study investigating a heritage structure collapse after the 2015 Gorkha earthquake. Natural Hazards 101(1): 231-253.

  • Davis, C.E., Coningham, R.A.E., Acharya, K.P., Kunwar, R.B., Forlin, P., Weise, K., Maskey, P.N., Joshi, A., Simpson, I.A., Toll, D., Wilkinson, S., Hughes, P., Sarhosis, V., Kumar, A. & Schmidt, A. (2020). Identifying archaeological evidence of past earthquakes in a contemporary disaster scenario: Case-studies of damage, resilience and risk reduction from the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake and past seismic events within the Kathmandu Valley UNESCO World Heritage Property (Nepal). Journal of Seismology 24(4): 729-751.

  • Coningham, R.A.E., Acharya, K.P. Barclay, C.P., Barclay, R., Davis, C.E., Graham, C., Hughes, P.N., Joshi, A., Kelly, L., Khanal, S., Kilic, A., Kinnaird, T., Kunwar, R.B., Kumar, A., Maskey, P.N., Lafortune-Bernard, A., Lewer, N., McCaughie, D., Mirnig, N., Roberts, A., Sarhosis, V., Schmidt, A., Simpson, I.A., Sparrow, T., Toll, D.G., Tully, B., Weise, K., Wilkinson, S. & Wilson, A. (2019). Reducing Disaster Risk to Life and Livelihoods by Evaluating the Seismic Safety of Kathmandu’s Historic Urban Infrastructure: enabling an interdisciplinary pilot. Journal of the British Academy 7(2): 45-82.

Chapter in book

  • Coningham, R.A.E., Acharya, K.P., Davis, C.E., Kunwar, R.B., Simpson, I.A., Joshi, A. & Weise, K. (2019). Resilience within the Rubble: post-disaster archaeological responses to Nepal's 2015 Gorkha Earthquake. In Heritage Under Pressure: Threats and Solutions (Studies of Agency and Soft Power in the Historic Environment). Dawson, M., James, Edward & Nevell, M. Oxbow. 123-146.
  • Coningham, R.A.E. & Weise, K. (2019). Ruins and Debris: Cultural Heritage Practice, Resource Management, and Archaeology. In Philosophical Perspectives on Ruins, Monuments, and Memorials. Bicknell, J., Judkins, J. & Korsmeyer, C. Routledge. 275-290.
  • Wilson, A.S., Gaffney, V., Gaffney, C., Ch’ng, E., Bates, R., Sears, G., Sparrow, T., Murgatroyd, A., Faber, E. & Coningham, R.A.E. (2019). Curious Travellers: Repurposing imagery to manage and interpret threatened monuments, sites and landscapes. In Heritage Under Pressure – Threats and Solution: Studies of Agency and Soft Power in the Historic Environment. Dawson, M., James, E. & Nevel, M. Oxbow. 107-122.
  • Coningham, R.A.E., Acharya, K.P., Davis, C.E., Weise, K., Kunwar, R.B. & Simpson, I.A. (2018). Look Down, Not Up: Protecting the Post-disaster Subsurface Heritage of the Kathmandu Valley’s UNESCO World Heritage Site. In Evolving Narratives of Hazard and Risk The Gorkha Earthquake, Nepal, 2015. Bracken, L.A., Ruszczyk, H. & Robinson, T. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan. 159-181.


From the Department of Archaeology

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Scaffolding against buildings