Archaeology in a war zone
The Bactrian Gold
Perhaps Laura Tedesco's two biggest projects are the excavation and cataloging at Mes Aynak, an international effort, and the expansion of the National Museum in Kabul, said Matt Lussenhop, former public affairs consul at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.
The museum was shelled and looted in 1993 during the civil war. Many of its objects were stolen or destroyed, and many of its records were burned.
In 1976, just before Afghanistan became the stage for war between the Soviets and mujahedeen, Soviet archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi discovered a buried Bronze Age treasure in the Karakum Desert. Two years later, he found six undisturbed tombs at nearby Tillya Tepe, dating to the 1st century B.C., part of an ancient fortress and evidence of nomads who plied the trade routes between China and Rome.
The find -- 21,618 gold, silver and ivory objects -- became known as the Bactrian Gold. The collection was secured in 1985 and 1988, removed to the Koti Baghcha Palace, then a vault at the Central Bank, according to the catalog published by National Geographic.
In 2003, once the Taliban were relegated to the deserts and mountains of the country by American and NATO troops, the collection re-emerged, only to go on tour in Europe and the U.S.
Today, it awaits its safe return to a newly renovated and expanded National Museum in Kabul, a project Tedesco holds dear.
"The museum is the place where you go to see the narrative of the country," Tedesco said. "It's hugely important."
S.K. Vemmer/Department of State
Laura Tedesco, manager of the U.S. Embassy’s Afghan cultural heritage program, meets Oct. 26 with an Afghan archaeologist and workers at the Towers of Ghazni in Ghazni, Afghanistan. Tedesco, a Charleston resident, has worked in Afghanistan for 16 months.
Her first excursion to the ancient Mes Aynak site was interrupted by a land mine scare.
Located about 18 miles south of Kabul, in the desolate Logar Province of Afghanistan, the site lures historians to a treasure trove of buried Buddhist artifacts, one of the world's most important archaeological digs.
It also has a vast underground copper field worth billions of dollars.
Teams of scientists, eager to expand their understanding of an ancient and complex history, are rushing to uncover and catalog as much of the archaeological treasure as possible before a Chinese mining company begins its operations in three years.
Newly settled into her position as manager of the U.S. Embassy's Afghan cultural heritage program, Charleston resident Laura Tedesco arranged to visit the site for which she bore significant responsibility.
"It's an amazing site; it's a world-class archaeological site," she said. "But it's in a really bad neighborhood that's getting worse."
Taliban fighters, making their way through the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan, pass by the area, which sits along their supply lines.
The U.S. has invested many millions of dollars -- Tedesco won't reveal the exact figure, citing State Department rules -- in restoring Mes Aynak and other sites throughout the country in a selfless effort to preserve an incredible cultural legacy and a selfish effort to emphasize the benevolence at the heart of its Afghan adventure.
Besides being "the right thing to do," the 42-year-old Tedesco said, cultural preservation is a way for the U.S. to show Afghans that the American presence isn't only about fighting al-Qaida and the Taliban.
It also is about restoring a sense of national identity and pride to a war-torn country whose population is known to recount its links to Alexander the Great, the Silk Road and early Buddhism.
Cultural heritage and national identity are inextricably linked, said Matt Lussenhop, former State Department public affairs consul in Kabul.
"This was a way for the U.S. to show our support for, and respect for, Afghan society, history and culture in deeds, not just words," he said. "It's the sort of thing Afghans appreciated, not just at a utilitarian level but at an emotional level."
And to have a trained archaeologist in the country made a big difference, he said.
"The Afghans are a historically minded people," Tedesco said. "They are always talking about the past."
And so they make ideal allies in the quest to dig up and reclaim it -- "except for those … Taliban and Muslim conservatives who think that anything before the advent of Islam is unimportant," she said.
Conservative Islamists are responsible for looting and destroying many of the remnants of Afghanistan's distant past.
On the road to Mes Aynek during the summer of last year, Tedesco and her large security detail got word from Afghan police that the road was unsafe. Before leaving Kabul, embassy officials pored over maps looking for a less-traveled route that might be safer.
It was the time of year when members of the Kuchi tribe migrated through the area, and the convoy became entangled among herds of camels carrying small children, along with chickens and baby goats kept in makeshift containers.
"The women were all blinged out with amazing jewelry," Tedesco said. Gold flashed in the sun, ornaments dangled from their exposed hair. "It was like a scene from a movie."
When the warning came, the slow-moving convoy turned back for Kabul. Tedesco was taken back by helicopter.
Land mines are a serious concern in Afghanistan. The country was strewn with about 10 million of them, mostly during the 1980s when the Soviets fought their war against the rebel mujahedeen, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.
Many of the mine fields have been cleared in recent years, and it's possible that this road to Mes Aynek had been cleared too, Tedesco said. The warning could have been a ploy by Afghan police to chase the known-to-be-cautious Americans from the area, at least temporarily.
When she's not in Afghanistan, Tedesco lives in West Ashley with her French-born husband, Franck LeGrand, who makes and restores furniture. LeGrand said he's proud of his wife.
Skype calls and Tedesco's occasional visits to Charleston during her recent 16 months abroad have added a layer of balm to the long separation.
He has looked after the kids with help from family and a baby-sitter. When school is in session, he has spent his time in the workshop repairing expensive antiques.
One piece, an armoire, was worth $240,000, more than a lot the houses in the neighborhood, LeGrand said.
"I was sweaty, very sweaty," he said.
The couple relocated from New York City to Charleston in December 2006. They met on the New York subway in 2004. Their son, Leo, was born in July the next year, and their daughter, Eva, was born in 2009.
World exploration has appealed to Tedesco since her first anthropology class at Emory University in Atlanta, her hometown. She took the course reluctantly, to fulfill a science requirement.
But a good teacher got her hooked. She opted to study early hominid fossils from Africa, and during the summer of her junior year, she traveled to Cyprus to work on a dig. It was physical work, under the sun. She loved it.
At New York University, Tedesco earned a Ph.D. in anthropology with a focus on Near Eastern archaeology. Her trip to the Mediterranean and her work on fossils had fueled her interest in travel to unusual places and the sort of research that leads to a better understanding of human societies and economies, she said.
While at NYU, Tedesco landed a fellowship to do research at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After she finished her degree studies, she was hired full-time to work in the Met's education department, overseeing student research projects.
"It was a groovy job," she said.
Then it came time to move. Her husband, who grew up in rural Normandy, wanted to leave New York to launch a furniture-restoration business. Tedesco had family in Charleston, including her mother, who was ill at the time.
She was an adjunct professor at the College of Charleston for a while, then worked for a private firm that assigned her to real estate development projects for which she checked to see if an old, unmarked burial ground or historical structure might get in the way of building new housing tracts.
But the job was "soul-crushing," she said. In Charleston, there just weren't a lot of exciting opportunities for a globe-trekking Indiana Jones.
In late 2009, Tedesco saw a posting by the U.S. State Department: Archaeologist wanted, in Kabul, for the position of cultural heritage project manager. She applied.
Only two U.S. embassies have on-site staff archaeologists: Baghdad's and Kabul's. It's a sign of U.S. intentions to help local people reclaim their heritage after years of war and destruction.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban blew up two enormous Buddha statues in March 2001, horrifying onlookers throughout the world. The 6th-century Bamiyan Buddhas, measuring 180 feet and 121 feet tall, had been carved into the side of a sandstone cliff along the ancient Silk Road, a popular trade route that carried not only goods but cultural and religious practices between the Near East and Far East.
The region was a crossroads, its mountain passes linking Afghanistan to Pakistan and the lands beyond. Trade began in earnest during the Bronze Age, Tedesco said.
Alexander the Great came from Macedonia to the area, establishing a Hellenized empire that produced some of the historical landmarks Tedesco is working to preserve, such as the great Citadel in Herat. To this day, many Afghans are named Iskender, after Alexander.
Tedesco calls the country a "cultural roundabout" where traditions ancient and modern, Eastern and Western, have mixed to produce Afghanistan's unique identity. Today's tribalism and religious fanaticism are part of a relatively recent phenomenon, she said.
"Older-generation Afghans who were educated before the Taliban (emerged as a political force during the 1990s), they will say they never knew who was Pashtun, who was Tajik," she said, referring to the country's ethnic groups.
Intermarriage was common. The cultural heritage was shared.
Reclaiming the past
Omar Sultan, Afghanistan's deputy minister of information and culture and one of the country's leading intellectuals, met Tedesco when she arrived there a year and a half ago.
Sultan said his American colleague is playing an essential role in the rebuilding of Afghanistan after more than 30 years of war, a period that has seen the destruction of much of the country's cultural inheritance.
"She is a wonderful person, a very hard worker," he said. "She helped change policy. … She changed the whole way people were thinking about Afghanistan and its culture."
Sultan, a dual citizen whose wife and children live in Raleigh, is a musician who was trained as an archaeologist.
Because of his American experience, he is less suspicious of U.S. efforts abroad, Tedesco said. And because of his science background, Sultan is an excellent partner who shares many of her goals and helps navigate the bureaucracy quickly.
"It was not a hard sell to him," she said. "He helped me do my job expansively."
This is a unique moment in Afghanistan, where "a confluence of circumstances" have conspired to make cultural restoration possible, Tedesco said.
The U.S. Embassy provides critical logistical and financial support, and Afghans are clearing the way for teams of archaeologists and historians to reclaim the past. The U.S. war there is winding down, even as its humanitarian efforts ramp up, she said.
Once the Americans leave, though, it's hard to say what will happen.
Philippe Marquis, director of the French archaeological delegation in Afghanistan, part of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has been working with Tedesco since August 2010.
"We had always a very good relationship with the people working for the U.S.' cultural heritage program and always had good cooperation, but until the arrival of Laura we had no archaeologist to discuss (issues) with, so it had been a very positive fact to have Laura," Marquis wrote in an email.
Lussenhop now works in the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, but for a year beginning in August 2010, he was public affairs consul at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
By the time he got there, Tedesco already was hard at work on various projects.
"We had never had an expert eye like Laura's to look at what we were doing and look at what were the opportunities and look at what other people were doing," Lussenhop said.
It took a trained archaeologist to identify opportunities for research and cooperation -- "not just with Afghans but with the international community as well."
During her 16 months in Afghanistan, Tedesco has seen the effects of shoulder-mounted rocket grenades and roadside bombs.
She watched a car with a large family packed into it explode when it hit a roadside bomb.
She felt the concussive blow of rocket fire Sept. 13 when the U.S. Embassy was attacked, and sought safety in a bunker, where she remained for 13 hours.
In the field, she must don body armor and a helmet if she is in Taliban territory. She travels with a security detail.
But the projects are all-consuming and fill her with wonder. Tedesco is working on the oldest mosque in the country, an 8th-century structure in Balkh. It's a beautifully decorated monument no longer used for worship, but still a destination for Afghans and Tajiks who can't afford to travel to Mecca for the Hajj.
She is working on excavations at the Towers of Ghazni, the nearby Citadel and an ancient Buddhist site, Tepe-e-Sardar.
In a few months, Tedesco and her family will move to Washington, D.C., where she will oversee the State Department's cultural projects in the Mideast and travel regularly to Afghanistan, a land with a still largely undiscovered history.
"It's far more rich and complicated and beautiful than the last 30 years of war would suggest."