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We speak with David Thomas, author of The Ebb and Flow of the Ghurid Empire, about his interest in the archaeology of Afghanistan, digging robber holes and the future of archaeology.


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What sparked your interest in archaeology?

Travelling across Europe as a kid with my parents – we visited a lot of great museums. One year, they gave me a book called Archaeology of the World by Courtlandt Canby, which has a picture of Machu Picchu on the front cover – I was hooked after reading that.

What is it about the archaeology of Afghanistan that made you want to work there?

Afghanistan is at the crossroads of civilisations and continents; as a result its archaeology is incredibly rich and diverse. It’s fascinating.

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The site of Jam became Afghanistan’s first World Heritage Site in 2002. What’s the significance of Jam and of the iconic minaret?

The minaret is a stunning, 65 metre tall, masterpiece of Islamic architecture, and yet it’s apparently located in the middle of nowhere, with few visible remains around it. It’s an enigma.

What has been one of your most exciting discoveries?

I once found a tiny obsidian (black volcanic glass) tanged arrowhead, lying on the ground at Tell Brak in Syria. Thousands of years old, it glistened in the sun after overnight rain had washed the dust off it.

On a bigger scale, finding hundreds of archaeological sites in the satellite images of the Registan Desert in southern Afghanistan was pretty exciting – nobody even thought to look for sites there before we did.

Your ability to conduct fieldwork in Afghanistan has been beset by problems. What do you see as the major challenges facing archaeology in Afghanistan? What do you feel are the most important goals of archaeologists working in areas where the political, economic and social situation is complicated?

Oh, where to start? Resourcing is a major problem, and looting, but some American colleagues at the Oriental Institute in Chicago have recently shown that uncontrolled urban expansion and agriculture are destroying more archaeological sites than anything else.

I think the work the Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership in the Oriental Institute is doing, analysing satellite images and building the capacity of Afghan heritage workers, is really important.

You have used the robber holes in your fieldwork in innovative ways. Can you tell us more about it?

People don’t keep on digging robber holes if they’re not finding anything, so I had the idea of mapping the robber holes as a way of estimating how big the settlement around the minaret was. By using a combination of fieldwork and high resolution satellite images, I was able to establish that the Ghūrid summer capital around the minaret was about 19.5 hectares in size.

What can archaeologists do to help reduce the looting and illicit trade in cultural objects?

We need to educate collectors, mainly in the West and the Gulf states, about how destructive looting is, and what a dirty trade smuggling is – organised crime uses the same routes to smuggle drugs, people, weapons and antiquities. Looted objects are steeped in misery and suffering.

Your use of Google Earth in research was driven by the inability to conduct further fieldwork in Jam. Do you think that the use Google Earth for preliminary surveys should become a standard feature of archaeological research, especially in remote areas? Is this the future for archaeology? What will the practice of archaeology look like tomorrow?

It’s modern archaeology today, not the future. Many archaeologists around the world use Google Earth and other sources of satellite imagery before going into the field. Unmanned aerial vehicles (aka drones) are also becoming more widely used to generate 3D models of sites.

Greater access to higher resolution satellite imagery will allow archaeologists to monitor sites under threat more closely. Our geophysical survey techniques will improve even more, to enable archaeologists to see beneath the surface more clearly.

Do you believe that the past will continue to have relevance in the future?

Absolutely. History repeats itself. A friend, Cameron Petrie, is part of the Two Rains project, studying the effects of climate change on the Indus civilisation, over four thousand years ago. The need to learn from the past has never been greater.

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If you could conduct your dream project, what would it be?

I would love to survey and excavate the Ghaznavid (c. 11–12th century) fortress of Qal’a-i Hauz, in the middle of the Registan desert. It was discovered by a French explorer, François Balsan, in 1971 (the year I was born). I don’t think any other scholars have visited the site. It looks magnificent … But really, I’m happy digging a hole pretty much anywhere that’s hot and dusty!

What are you reading now?

I’m reading The Honey Thief, by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman – it’s a collection of Hazara folk stories a friend lent me. And I’m reading about Babur and Mughal gardens because I think I’ve found one in a satellite image of a remote part of Ghazni province.


David C. Thomas is an archaeologist and traveller, specialising in the Near East, north Africa and central Asia. When not venturing to ‘dodgy destinations’, he has a tendency to pour over satellite images looking for traces of lost civilisations.

The Ebb and Flow of the Ghurid Empire is available now.

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