Field update on UNESCO mission of post-disaster surveys and rescue excavations at Kathmandu Valley World Heritage Site

Professor Coningham with DG of Archaology at Kasthamandap in Kathmandu

Archaeological experts from Durham University, including the UK’s UNESCO Chairholder in Archaeological Ethics and Practice in Cultural Heritage, Professor Robin Coningham, have been invited by the Nepalese Government to join an international team undertaking a rescue-survey of Nepal’s quake-damaged World Heritage Sites. Their UNESCO-funded mission is focused in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley. Professor Coningham provides Network Link with his latest field update on his team’s ongoing work in Nepal.


In addition to the human catastrophes of enormous proportions, the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal also generated 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. Prior to reconstruction, UNESCO sponsored a multidisciplinary team, including Professor Robin Coningham, UNESCO Chairholder in Archaeological Ethics and Practice at Durham University, to undertake a rescue archaeology mission between 5th October and 22nd November 2015.

Focusing on Hanumandhoka, Bhaktapur and Patan, the team used Ground Penetrating Radar to locate subsurface archaeology to better understand the development of their durbar squares and assessed damage to foundations through excavations. The surveys located archaeology under the pavements and excavations confirmed the presence of earlier buildings. At Bhaktapur they identified walls belonging to a monument which collapsed in the 1934 earthquake. The team also found that modern pipes and sewers had damaged the rich archaeological deposits below. These results, in combination with the GPR survey, have allowed the creation of Risk Maps, which will protect subsurface heritage by guiding new water, power and sewer lines.

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. The team also focused on the Kasthamandap and their findings indicate that its foundations were undamaged by the 2015 earthquakes or previous events but that the collapse of many monuments may be linked to poor superstructure maintenance. The team also identified a common design of cross-walls, braced against large squared foundation walls, across the cities.

The mission also demonstrated that whilst emergency rescue interventions had damaged some buildings, more recent damage had been caused by contractors. As a result, they recommended that all subsurface interventions, including the reconstruction of monuments, should be preceded by rescue excavations in order to characterise the presence of sub-surface archaeological heritage as well as to evaluate the stability of foundations.

These archaeological investigations have provided training to officers in urban and rescue archaeology through the use of traditional excavations in combination with geoarchaeology and Ground Penetrating Radar. This capacity building linked to these investigations has 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” stated Bhesh Narayan Dahal, Director General Department of Archaeology, Government of Nepal.

Christian Manhart, UNESCO Representative to Nepal added that: “These investigations have provided an exemplar in the role that archaeology can play in the post-disaster phase of the cultural response to a large natural disaster, such as an earthquake. 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”.

Professor Coningham stated that: “For the first time, archaeological investigations have been pivotal in the aftermath of a natural disaster, illustrating the role that archaeology can play in guiding post-disaster responses to reconstruction and rehabilitation of earthquake damaged heritage. 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”.

Looking forward, Professor Coningham also observed: “Whilst a human and cultural catastrophe, UNESCO’s involvement in the post-disaster environment of the Kathmandu Valley has the potential to both offer invaluable training for professionals as well as exemplars for the scientific documentation and recording of ‘in situ’ debris, archaeological risk mapping and structural sub-surface foundations in advance of reconstruction and rehabilitation. The resultant exemplars, supported by research into traditional construction technologies and the reuse of materials, provide the potential to offer robust methodologies and techniques for those tasked with the clear up and subsequent research, rehabilitation and rebuilding of damaged and destroyed heritage superstructures, particularly that of the Middle East.”

The archaeological work was undertaken jointly by the Department of Archaeology, Government of Nepal, 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 to develop debates, policies and methodologies to evaluate the economic, ethical and social impacts of cultural heritage, and particularly to strengthen the protection of heritage in crisis situations. The team is currently undertaking archaeological fieldwork in Tilaurakot, Nepal, one of the candidate sites of Kapilavastu, the childhood home of the Buddha.