September Issue 2015

By | Heritage | Published 9 years ago

I came across Javed sahib by chance. I was having tea at a friend’s place when he walked in, his frail frame struggling with the weight of the three large packages that he was carrying. After a curt “Assalamualaikum” he sat down, waiting for my friend’s father. His familiarity with the place suggested he was a regular visitor.

My attention turned to him again when he finally opened the packages. Out came what looked like relics. It was only later that I learnt he was carrying something special: pottery from Mehrgarh, one of the most important Neolithic sites in archaeology, dating between 6,500 BC and 2,500 BC. To put in perspective how truly valuable these antiques were, Moenjodaro was built around 2,500 BC.

“Most of the stuff today is fake,” says Javed sahib. He tells me this while sitting at my place, in a meeting I had to coax my friend into arranging. I suspect I’ll have to buy some antiques to get him talking even more.

“Maps and pagan pottery are my two interests,” I tell him. Javed sahib does not disappoint. He places in front of me the blueprint map of Charing Cross Lahore, made for the removal of Queen Victoria’s statue, dated 1949.  It was eventually removed in 1951 and replaced by a bronze replica of the Quran.

To settle my doubts, he also has an official looking document that came along with the blueprint. To my untrained eye, everything seems kosher. “My clients include some of the most renowned families in Punjab. I have been selling to them for years, and they know what they’re buying. If I sell them a fake once, my business will be over.”

To put his claim to the test, I visit a couple of the people whose names had been dropped by Javed. Their collections are vast. Huge unbroken pieces of Mehrgarh pottery, Buddhist sculptures from Gandhara, and more recently, old vintage maps of British India, adorn the walls of these lavish collections. “How much did this one cost?” I ask the owner, pointing to an especially large Mehrgarh piece. “Most of this came into the market while the excavations were going on, nobody really had a good grasp of the pricing then, so we paid a few thousand for artefacts that today would cost millions.”

“How do you know this is as old as you claim?” I ask. There is no conclusive answer and perhaps some offense is taken as well. It seems much of the black market relics business runs on goodwill.

But are such private collections made up of the country’s heritage among other artefacts which abound across Pakistan, and is the sale of these antiquities even legal? And are there any scientific methods available to ascertain the authenticity of the relics?

Yes and no.

“Any items that are part of a family heirloom or inheritance etc. can be kept privately, but apart from that, everything is the property of the state,” says Asim Dogar, currently serving as the Assistant Director Antiquities, Trade and Control in Punjab. “If there are any accidental discoveries, the citizen is bound by law to inform the state authorities, who will then take possession of the items for some compensation.”

The value of compensation is decided by a committee, but it is usually lower than market value, and since most of these ‘accidental discoveries’ are made in rural areas by lower-income people, they are looking to get its full value. This is where dealers like Javed come in.

Experts agree that there is rampant smuggling of antiques not only within Pakistan (movement of antiques within Pakistan is illegal), but abroad as well. Pakistan serves as a transit point for relics discovered in Afghanistan that are on their way out, and new discoveries continue to be made within the country, especially in Balochistan, interior Sindh and Swat.

However, the archaeology department is not authorised to conduct raids themselves. This is the responsibility of the customs and police departments. Officials from the archaeological department are only called in to verify the authenticity of the recovered goods. “In the last two years, there have been no such raids,” complains Dogar.  One possible reason, he claims, is collusion between the smugglers and those tasked with the raids.

The next challenge faced by the archaeology department is proving the authenticity of items in court.

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“The most accurate verifications are made by people with academic qualifications and experience,” says Professor Farzand Masih, currently the Chairman of the Department of Archaeology at the Punjab University in Lahore, who has previously served as the Curator of the Archaeological Museum in Harappa along with a slew of other positions. Unfortunately, such verification is not admissible in a court of law. Dogar adds that certain items such as terracotta and copper cannot be properly dated in Pakistan, however organic material such as wood or bone can be backdated.

This brings us back to the black-market dealers, and how, in the absence of scientific methods to ascertain the authenticity of items, it all boils down to faith — something that is routinely abused. “Our craftsmen are such experts that they could make a fool out of anyone,” says Dogar. “If anyone is selling Gandhara or Mehrgarh, I can safely say that more than 95 per cent of it is fake.” The lengths people go to fake authenticity, borders on the creative. Replicas are created, and then buried back in the earth, and six months later, ‘accidental discoveries’ are made. Some buyers are even given the privilege of witnessing the excavations first hand. All this comes at a cost, of course.

National heritage and archaeology became provincial matters with the passage of the 18th amendment. However, five years have passed and the provinces have not introduced any legislation to regulate the sale of antiquities.  At the same time, the federal department continues to exist, which creates a cauldron of confusion for those working in the provinces.  “Who are we working for, the federal or provincial government?” asks Dogar. There is also the matter of allowances, deputation and seniority, which vary depending on which level one is working on.

This no-man’s land situation also creates legal hurdles. Dogar speaks of a case in Sindh where the local department caught an antique on its way out of the country. However, the court called the raid ‘illegal’ as it was not covered by any provincial laws. The federal department then had to intervene and issue a letter of authority to ensure that the case was not thrown out of court.

In this confusion, the ultimate loser is Pakistan’s national heritage. “From the stone age onwards, Pakistan has a continuous stream of history, which is unheard of anywhere else,” says Professor Masih. Unfortunately, a deadly mix of state ignorance and rampant corruption is systematically destroying our heritage.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s September 2015 issue.

The writer is a journalist based in Lahore. He is the current managing editor of MIT Technology Review Pakistan, a bi-monthly science and technology magazine.