Villagers from Thingkar, a small settlement to the north of Lo Manthang, Mustang, have barred a team of American scientists from carrying out historical research on Buddhist-era archaeology of the region.

"The fate of a study of the Kapte archaeological complex site now hangs in the balance as irate locals recently obstructed excavation work being carried out by a group of US scientists,"

Damodar Gautam, director general at the Department of Archaeology confirmed.

The research was being carried out by a team of five women archaeologists, including a representative of the DoA, under the direction of Mark Aldenderfer, the distinguished professor emeritus of anthropology at University of California, since mid-September.

In an exclusive interview with THT, lead scientist Aldenderfer, who is also Edward A Dickson Emeriti Professorship Endowed chair, said the study was halted after a group of villagers intimidated and verbally harassed archaeologists working at Kapte archaeological site in Thingkar.

According to him, the USbased Skydoor Foundation, in coordination with DoA, launched the project to carry out the first ever excavation in Upper Mustang at an open-air site while all previous works in this region were conducted in caves.

"In October, the mob of villagers, more than 30 in all, damaged one of the sites by pulling stones out of the excavation units and hurling them away.

Others invaded our camp, harassing the Nepali sirdar and his team, and demanding that our work be halted, while a few other villagers went to a second site under excavation, but only inspected the trenches our team had opened but caused no damage," the scientist recounted after returning from Mustang.

"Under their pressure, the team agreed to break camp and halt work at the site."

Despite vigorous efforts of the representative of the DoA to convince villagers and others that the team had permission to conduct excavation at Kapte, they became even more hostile and vociferous in their demands that archaeologists leave, he said. He added that under this unrelenting pressure, and with no attempt whatsoever by the authorities from Thingkar to defuse the situation, the study team agreed to give village authorities the material excavated and to leave the site.

Aldenderfer said they felt secure that they had consulted all authorities at all levels. He said all stakeholders concerned had said that the project was important and worthwhile in its goal to explore the ancient history of Nepal and Mustang.

"Lack of communication at the grassroots level caused this incident," Thingkar Youth Club President Tashi Nurbu said.

He added that locals thought that excavation in the area would ultimately bring bad luck. There was a religious as well as cultural perspective, he said, adding that locals would not allow further excavation of mounds.

"Once local people know that archaeologists have an interest in the sites, often the sites are looted.

"I know there is little the DoA can do about this, but perhaps helping the public to understand why research is important will be valuable," Aldenderfer said.

According to him, one solution would be to create a special permit for researchers that would allow them to spend time with locals before the start of the project. Another might be to have a government representative do sensitisation work among local populations before the project starts, he added.

"We'll be thrilled to return to Kapte to complete our work. However, given the current situation in the village characterised by disruptive actions of a vested group, the inability or disinterest of local authorities to prevent mob action at the site and in Lo, and the inaction of local police, leave us gravely concerned about our safety," Aldenderfer said.

According to him, he has done archaeological research in Nepal and Mustang in particular, since 2008 and his primary goal has been to learn more about the past in Mustang and to help local people understand their origins and their history.

"Over the years, our team has created two small museums in the region and structures have been built, but for many reasons, we have not been able to properly develop them. We have always consulted with local people and tried our best to be sensitive to local issues and concerns. We have followed local traditions for the storage of materials excavated from sites and most artifacts, aside from a small number of materials exported to the US and Europe for scientific analyses that cannot be conducted in Nepal, encountered by our project remain in the communities of their origin."

Key Points

* The Kapte site first discovered in 2018 by surface reconnaissance while the survey was conducted by Marion Poux, a graduate student in archaeology and Tibetan Studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris, France, as a part of her dissertation research on the Buddhist-era archaeology of the region.

* A goal with the project is to place the site of Kapte and associated mounds into a secure chronological framework so that that the materials recovered can be compared effectively to excavated open-air sites further to the south in Lower Mustang such as Phudzeling and Khyinga, both of which are found in the Muktinath valley.

* The mounds near the village site are of very great importance for developing a better understanding of the prehistoric past of Upper Mustang. In shape, size, and form, these mounds are very similar to those created by the Tibetan Empire on the Tibetan Plateau. There, mounds are known to date from the late 7th C AD to the mid-9th C. The mounds contained the remains of important people associated with the administration of the empire.

* Obtaining a firm date on these mounds and the village would have provided the first direct empirical evidence that the Tibetan Empire had a presence in Upper Mustang and which likely meant the mounds housed the remains of early administrators of the Tibetan polity.

* One of the buildings seems to be more important in size and located on a low hill within the compound. Animal pens and streets are still distinguishable. Local villagers suggest the site was visited by Milarepa, a Tibetan siddha, in the 11th C. Ceramics were found on the surface of the site during inspection.

A version of this article appears in the print on December 09, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.