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Ancient Pakistani City Crumbles

Preservation effort does not keep pace with alarming disintegration of Bronze Age ruins

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ABOUT 4,500 years ago, Asia's first great civilization flourished on the banks of the Indus River. A contemporary of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Indus civilization dominated an area greater than these two Western cultures put together. Its ruins hold the roots of modern society in the Indian subcontinent.

But the excavated remains of the civilization's capital, one of the world's great archaeological treasures, are crumbling with alarming speed.

Preserved for millennia in the sands of Sind, buildings dug up and rebuilt less than 30 years ago have turned to tumbledown heaps of brick. And the bricks are quickly turning to powder. Salty ground water is seeping up into the bricks, where the salt crystalizes and literally explodes, explains UNESCO conservator Richard Hughes.

Though salty brick clay troubled Moenjodaro's ancient inhabitants, the problem of crumbling bricks has recently grown acute. A century of irrigating land without proper drainage is turning the Indus basin into a salty wasteland. Vast tracts of Sind virtually float on a sea of brine.

Observed New York University archaeologist Rita Wright upon seeing the salt damage at Moenjodaro: "I can't think of any other site of baked brick that has this salinity problem."

The Pakistan government held its second international symposium on Moenjodaro in February. At the first one, in 1973, participants helped hammer out the site's master plan, including a five-year conservation program.

Since then UNESCO, which lists Moenjodaro as a World Heritage Site, has contributed $7 million to preserve the ancient city. In addition, the Pakistan government has spent $5 million (at current exchange rates). Pressured by donors, the government archaeology department and the Authority for the Preservation of Moenjodaro convened the recent symposium primarily to review the plan. Members loudly criticized the two agencies.

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