CHESHM-E-SHAFA, Afghani-stan — Centuries-old shards of pottery mingle with spent ammunition on a wind-swept mountainside in northern Afghanistan, where French archaeologists believe they have found a vast ancient city.
For years, villagers have dug the baked earth on the heights of Cheshm-e-Shafa for pottery and coins to sell to antique smugglers. Tracts of the site that locals call the "City of Infidels" look like a battleground, scarred by craters.
But now tribesmen dig angular trenches and preserve fragile walls, working as laborers on an excavation atop a promontory. To the north and east lies an undulating landscape of barren, red-tinted rock that was once the ancient kingdom of Bactria; to the south a still-verdant valley that leads to the famed Buddhist ruins at Bamiyan.
Roland Besenval, director of the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan and leader of the excavation, is sanguine about his helpers' previous harvesting of the site. "Generally, the old looters make the best diggers," he said.
A trip around the northern province of Balkh is like an odyssey through the centuries, spanning the ancient Persian empire, the conquests of Alexander the Great and the arrival of Islam. The French mission has mapped 135 sites of archaeological interest in the region, best known for the ancient trove found by a Soviet archaeologist in the 1970s.
The Bactrian Hoard consisted of exquisite gold jewelry and ornaments from graves of wealthy nomads, dated to the first century A.D. Its keepers concealed it from the Taliban regime in the vaults of the presidential palace in Kabul. It finally was unlocked after the regime's ouster.
The treasure, currently on exhibition in the United States, demonstrates the rich culture that once thrived here, blending influences from the web of trails and trading routes known as the Silk Road, which spread from Rome and Greece to the Far East and India.
But deeper historical understanding of ancient Bactria has been stymied by the recent decades of war and isolation that severely restricted visits by archaeologists.
"It's a huge task because we are still facing the problem of looting," said Besenval, who first excavated in Afghanistan 36 years ago and speaks the local language of Dari fluently. "We know that objects are going to Pakistan and on to the international market. It's very urgent work. If we don't do something now, it will be too late."
Looting was rife during the civil war of the early 1990s when Afghanistan lurched into lawlessness. Locals say it subsided under the Taliban's hardline rule, but the Islamists' fundamentalism took its own toll on Afghanistan's cultural history. They destroyed the towering Buddha statues of Bamiyan, chiseled more than 1,500 years ago, and smashed hundreds of statues in the national museum simply because they portrayed the human form.
The opening up of Afghani-stan did little to curb the treasure hunters. British author Rory Stewart, who hiked across the country in 2002, wrote how poor tribesmen were pillaging the remains of a lost ancient city dating to 12th century around the towering minaret of Jam in western Afghanistan.
State control is a little more pervasive in Balkh but still patchy. The provincial culture authority says it has just 50 guards to protect historical sites across an area nearly the size of New Jersey.
Saleh Mohammad Khaleeq, a local poet and historian serving as the chief of the province's cultural department, said the guards ward off looters, but concedes the only way to safeguard Afghanistan's rich heritage is through public education.
"People are so poor. They are just looking for ways to buy bread," he said.
Villagers hired as laborers at Cheshm-e-Shafa recall how they too used to be among hundreds of locals who would scavenge the site they are now paid $4.60 a day to excavate.
"During the civil war everyone was involved," said Nisarmuddin, 42.
Nisarmuddin, a farmer who like many Afghans goes by one name, said people used to keep their finds secret so the local militia commander would not claim them. They could sell items of ancient pottery and glass for a few dollars to antique dealers in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, which lies an hour's drive down a bumpy track through the desert.