Adventures in the Karakorum

Published on 17 October 2019 at 13:11

Last June, Alex Mohns, our team’s fieldwork technician, received a message from the project leader Dr. Marike van Aerde: ‘Would you be willing to go to Pakistan - at really short notice?’ There was only a moment’s hesitation before Alex’s archaeological curiosity got the better of him. He wrote his BA thesis on the Karakorum rock carvings from North Pakistan, so this offer was a great chance for him to widen his expertise. He applied for a visa immediately and only a few weeks later, he was off. After a few stressful flight connections, he spent a relaxing night in Islamabad before heading back out onto the road. The ancient Silk Road, to be precise!

Alex’s next stop was Gilgit, in the middle of the Himalayas, where ancient merchants used to cross from the Indian Subcontinent to Tarim Basin with their caravans, horses, camels, and all kinds of tradeware. In Gilgit, Alex found his way to the campus of the Karakoram International University, where he was to participate in a specialist workshop on applied methods for documenting rock carvings. His travels to the Himalayas were not particularly eventful, but he especially recalls the amazing sight of the towering mountains and the helpful Pakistani men in various ramshackle vehicles, which were decorated all over with beads and filled up with carpets. Once at the campus, Alex was sent meandering around several times, following different people around, before finally locating his host, Dr. Saranjam Baig. Once settled in, he met the workshop coordinators, Dr. Jason Neelis of Wilfried Laurier University (Canada) and Dr. Murtaza Taj from Lahore University of Management Sciences – and the real work was about to begin.


Over the course of the next days, Alex attended lectures about latest archaeological techniques for documenting rock carvings: GIS mapping and photogrammetry, 3D scanning, and Reflectance Transformation Imaging – alongside old-fashioned (but always reliable) hand drawing. To put these techniques into practice, field excursions were undertaken to areas containing rock carvings, some of which that had never before been scientifically documented. One of the first locations visited was nearby a park in the Gilgit. The ancient carvings there were visible to all passers-by. But it also became clear here that the preservation of the carvings is a tricky issue: a modern road was built right through the area.

Other field trips led into the heart of the rugged landscape of the Himalayas. Along the wild rivers, many rock carving locations were recorded. Many of these still wait to be scientifically recorded and studied, but unfortunately there are additional threats: future plans for dams in the region will flood many carvings, and Pakistani archaeologists are working hard to preserve them, as important cultural heritage, before this happens. Our project works closely together with these scholars and plans to organize several campaigns over the next few years to preserve as many carvings as possible.  Not only should they be saved as historical heritage, they are also a unique source about the ancient trade traffic that crossed these mountains in the early first millennium CE. Alex, as our fieldwork technician, will play an important role in these future campaigns in the Karakorum. He has already made important connections (and new friends along the way) among his Pakistani colleagues this summer, and can’t wait to go back there and apply some of his newly learned documentation skills.

Did you know? Alex's adventures in the Karakorum have already become quite famous: he was asked to write a blog post about his travels in Pakistan for the official Leiden University website. Check it out here:


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