Rescuing Mes Aynak

In Afghanistan a fortune in copper ore lies buried beneath a trove of ancient Buddhist artifacts.

Photograph by Simon Norfolk

The play of perspective makes an eight-foot-tall stone shrine at Mes Aynak, Afghanistan, appear much larger than it is. Archaeologists have uncovered only a fraction of the sprawling Buddhist complex, which dates from the third to the eighth centuries A.D.

Photograph by Simon Norfolk; panorama composed of three images

Archaeologists have unearthed a neighborhood of mud-brick houses, craft workshops, and possible administrative buildings. Shah Tepe, looming in the center, was fortified but bore few signs of violence.

Photographs by Simon Norfolk; photographed at National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul

Among the works of art rescued from destruction are the oldest known complete wooden Buddha (left), eight inches tall, and a painted clay figure of a rich female monastery patron, 32 inches tall. Both date from around A.D. 400 to 600.

Photographs by Simon Norfolk; photographed at National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul (left); photographed at Mes Aynak, courtesy Afghan Institute of Archaeology (right)

Since excavations began in 2009, thousands of artifacts have come to light, reflecting the wealth that copper brought to this religious and industrial site. Left: Bodhisattva schist, 15.3 inches, 3rd-5th century. Right: 11.4-inch fragment of 7-foot-tall Buddha, clay, 5th-6th century.

Photographs by Simon Norfolk; photographed at National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul (left); photographed at Mes Aynak, courtesy Afghan Institute of Archaeology (right)

Left: Dipankara, an earlier Buddha, schist, 3rd-5th century. Right: Warrior (originally on a horse), clay, 4th-5th century.

Photographs by Simon Norfolk; photographed at National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul (left); photographed at Mes Aynak, courtesy Afghan Institute of Archaeology (right)

Left: Buddhas in two tiers, schist, 9.8 inches, 3rd-4th century. Right: Horse, clay, 3.3 inches long, 3rd-7th century.

Photographs by Simon Norfolk; photographed at Mes Aynak, courtesy Afghan Institute of Archaeology (left); photographed at National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul (right)

Left: Coin issued in name of Hun King Khingila, silver, 5th century. Right: Seated Siddhartha Gautama, schist, 11.2 inches, 3rd-5th century.

Photograph by Simon Norfolk

Stained by copper in the soil, a skeleton lies next to a stupa at Mes Aynak. Whether the individual lived when the monasteries were functioning or in a later era is unknown.

Photograph by Simon Norfolk

A detail of a copper and gold bowl from Tepe Baba Wali at Mes Aynak depicts a snarling lion.

Photograph by Simon Norfolk

When this photo was taken in 2012, some 500 local laborers were employed at the site, hurrying to rescue its treasures before mining was due to begin. With mining delayed, a smaller crew works today in an area where insurgent influence is growing.

Photographs by Simon Norfolk; photographed at National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul (left)

The team of archaeologists working to preserve Mes Aynak uncovered a life-size gilded plaster head of the Buddha (left). A laborer on the team is shown at right.

Photographs by Simon Norfolk; photographed at National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul (right)

The faces of ancient local figures depicted in painted clay evoke a time when Mes Aynak was a crossroads of Central Asia. Left: A member of the archaeological team working to save the rich cultural heritage of Mes Aynak. Right: Patron, 2.8 inches, 4th-7th century.

Photographs by Simon Norfolk; photographed at Mes Aynak, courtesy Afghan Institute of Archaeology (left)

Left: Patron, 5.9 inches, 5th-7th century. Right: A member of the archaeological team.

Photographs by Simon Norfolk; photographed at National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul (right)

Left: A member of the archaeological team. Right: Patron, 2.8 inches, 4th-7th century.

Photographs by Simon Norfolk; photographed at National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul (left)

Left: Patron or bodhisattva, 3.9 inches, 4th-7th century. Right: A member of the archaeological team.

Photograph by Simon Norfolk

Searching for treasure, looters ravaged this larger-than-life-size Buddha. “Archaeology is the only way to protect the site,” says Philippe Marquis, who oversaw excavation until 2014.