The 2015 earthquakes that hit Nepal were not only human catastrophes of enormous proportions, they also triggered a cultural catastrophe damaging Nepal’s unique heritage. Playing a central role in the lives of thousands and forming a major source of tourist income, the heritage sites will be rebuilt.
UNESCO sponsored a multidisciplinary team, to undertake a rescue archaeology mission prior to reconstruction, between 5 October and 22 November 2015, targeting various monument zones across the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage property. The mission illustrated the role that archaeology can play in guiding post-disaster responses to reconstruction and rehabilitation of earthquake damaged heritage.
Focusing on Durbar Squares in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan, the team used Ground Penetrating Radar to locate subsurface archaeology to increase understanding of the development of the heritage sites, and assessed damage to foundations through excavations, offering invaluable training for Nepalese professionals.
The surveys located archaeology under pavements and excavations confirmed the presence of earlier buildings. “Our pilot investigations have illustrated the dynamic histories and developments of the three Durbar Squares as well as informing architects and engineers as to the integrity of the foundations of the collapsed monuments, illustrating the resilience of traditional construction techniques through the centuries within a seismically active region, providing information that will aid the sympathetic reconstruction of collapsed and damaged monuments whilst protecting subsurface archaeological heritage,” team leader Professor Robin Coningham, Durham University, stated.
In Bhaktapur, researchers identified walls belonging to a monument which collapsed in the 1934 earthquake. Additionally the team unveiled that modern pipes and sewers have damaged the rich archaeological deposits below. In combination with the Ground Penetrating Radar survey, these results have allowed the creation of Risk Maps, which will protect subsurface heritage by guiding new water, power and sewer lines in the years to come.
“Whilst illustrating the complex pasts of the monumental Durbar Squares, the Archaeological Risk Maps will also guide reconstruction and future development of these historic sites to protect the subsurface heritage that these investigations have revealed,” Christian Manhart, UNESCO Representative to Nepal, explained.
“Capacity building in urban and rescue archaeology and investigations through the use of traditional excavations combined with geoarchaeology and Ground Penetrating Radar have enabled the recording of the damage that the earthquakes caused, but have also enabled the refining of guidelines for the post-disaster recovery and reconstruction phase, highlighting the need for archaeological interventions to protect both standing architecture and subsurface heritage, especially at Nepal’s monuments of Outstanding Universal Value”, added Bhesh Narayan Dahal, Director General of the Department of Archaeology.
The team identified that the collapse of many monuments may be linked to poor superstructure maintenance and noticed a common design of cross-walls, braced against large squared foundation walls, across the surveyed cities. Excavating the foundations of damaged monuments, the team identified multiple phases, including an early timber and clay platform at Patan’s Char Naryan Temple and several phases of brick construction under Bhaktapur’s Vatsala Temple.
Findings at Kasthamandapa indicate that its foundations were undamaged by the 2015 earthquakes or previous events. The mission further demonstrated that whilst emergency rescue interventions have damaged buildings, more recent damage has been caused by contractors. As a result, experts recommended that all subsurface interventions, including the reconstruction of monuments, should be preceded by rescue excavations in order to characterize the presence of sub-surface archaeological heritage as well as to evaluate the stability of foundations.
The archaeological work led by Kosh Prasad Acharya, former Director-General of the Department of Archaeology and Professor Coningham, was jointly undertaken by Nepal’s Department of Archaeology, Durham University and Stirling University, with financial support from UNESCO and logistic support from the municipalities of Bhaktapur, Kathmandu and Lalitpur.
The rescue excavations and archaeological investigations are part of the remit of the UNESCO Chair in Archaeological Ethics and Practice in Cultural Heritage, at Durham University. The team is currently undertaking archaeological fieldwork in Tilaurakot, Nepal, one of the candidate sites of Kapilavastu, the childhood home of the Buddha.