Scientists are trying to save a 5,000-year-old lost city in Pakistan by leaving it buried

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Take better care.
Image: EPA/Waqar Hussain
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Around 1920, Rakhaldas Bandopadhyay, an officer at the Archaeological Survey of India, was identifying a stupa in what is now Sindh, Pakistan, when he stumbled upon a flint that dated much further back than the Buddhist shrine. Over the next 50 years, large scale excavations unveiled a 5,000-year-old city, complete with a street grid and a sophisticated bath and drainage system. The buried city came to be known as Mohenjo Daro, meaning “mound of the dead” in Sindhi.

Beyond the evidence of architectural prowess, little is known about the city. So far, no clues have been discovered about who lived there or even what the place was originally called. The remains lack traces of palaces, temples or any monuments that could offer a glimpse into life in the Bronze Age metropolis. The region supposedly arose around 2500 BCE and ended with apparent destruction around 1900 BC. From Aryan invasion to nuclear explosions, or calamitous weather like a persistent drought, a number of legends try to explain the wipeout but the cause remains a mystery.

Finding out more will require study. However, for Mohenjo Daro’s archeologists, preserving history is proving to be a double-edged sword: On one side, uncovering the ruins of an ancient Indus Valley civilization is the only way to unlock the secrets of life from thousands of years ago. On the other, excavating the ancient sites makes the lost city vulnerable to damage and rapid ruin.

The scorching heat in the region is creating “enormous thermo-stress,” Dr Michael Jansen, a German researcher working on the banks of the Indus river in Pakistan, told AFP. In the summer, temperatures can climb well above 46 degrees Celsius (115 Fahrenheit). Jansen adds that salt from the underground water table is also damaging the ruins.

While the weather can’t be controlled, there’s another type of abuse that needs to be stopped: human erosion. “Pakistan’s bloody fight against militancy has also raised the spectre of destruction by an Islamist group, much like Islamic State destroyed the ruins in Syria’s Palmyra,” AFP notes.

What’s more damaging, though, are the ordinary citizens. As more visitors make their way to Mohenjo Daro, littering is becoming more commonplace in the once-pristine region. During the Sindh festival in February 2014, swarms of workers and electricians climbed all over the site to set up stages, put up tents and install huge lights—hammering them all into the delicate ancient ruins. “For the labourers, this was an open ground–they didn’t think twice about spitting paan or doing anything else if needed,” a cameraman at the event told the Express Tribune.

“It’s like you are jumping on the bed of a 5,000-year-old ailing patient,” Sardar Ali Shah, cultural minister in Sindh province, told AFP about the 2014 revelries.

Despite the many unanswered questions about the ancient society, scientists are not bidding to excavate more of the site until they can curb the abuse it faces. “It is actually preserved when it is buried,” Harvard University’s Dr. Richard Meadow says. Researchers would rather preserve the ruins than satiate their curiosity because, if the ruins wear away, Mohenjo Daro’s history will fade to dust with it.