Don’t look up, look down! Kathmandu, UNESCO, Archaeology and learning from the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake


The earthquake which struck Nepal in 2015 (the Gorkha Earthquake) was a humanitarian disaster. Not only did it inflict tragic loss of life and livelihoods, it also destroyed parts of Kathmandu's unique UNESCO World Heritage site. These monuments were not just ornate structures but living monuments playing central roles in the daily lives of thousands. Their rehabilitation was of economic importance as they represent a major source of tourist income and employment. Unfortunately, the social and political desire to rapidly reconstruct resulted in the swift removal of many traditionally constructed foundations and their replacement with modern materials without assessments of whether these contributed to the collapse of an individual monument. These actions, combined with the wholesale removal and dumping of mixed modern and historic debris, contributed to a second, equally destructive, cultural catastrophe – irreversible damage to Kathmandu’s medieval archaeology.

This talk outlines the impact of the earthquake before drawing attention to the series of damaging interventions by first responders, architects and engineers – activities which cumulatively contributed to Kathmandu’s second cultural catastrophe. It also describes the process by which a team mobilized by UNESCO and the Government of Nepal explored the potential of post-disaster archaeological interventions. This ranged from using geophysical survey to create risk maps of subsurface archaeological deposits for urban planners to undertaking a major post-disaster excavation in the debris of the Kasthamandap. Encountering hitherto unknown medieval construction techniques and sequences, this new knowledge has directly contributed to its reconstruction. The talk will conclude by reviewing the lessons learned from the cultural impacts of the Gorkha Earthquake and the remaining challenges facing heritage managers.

About the speaker

Robin Coningham is Professor of Early Medieval Archaeology at Durham and holds UNESCO's 2014 Chair in Archaeological Ethics and Practice in Cultural Heritage. He has worked across South Asia refining chronologies and investigating the region's urbanization, the genesis of Indian Ocean trade and the archaeology of Buddhism. He is committed to heritage protection and has joined over 30 UNESCO missions across the South Asian region. Since 2011, he has co-directed UNESCO's archaeological fieldwork within the Greater Lumbini Area of Nepal, including excavations at Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha. He was mobilized by UNESCO and the Government of Nepal in 2015 to co-direct post-earthquake archaeological interventions, which were followed by AHRC-GCRF and British Academy-GCRF Cities and Infrastructure Programme sponsored research and dissemination involving archaeologists, architects and engineers. He has published over 100 academic papers and chapters, as well as 10 books, including Archaeology, Heritage Protection and Community Engagement in South Asia in 2019. Robin is a member of UK’s National Academies Resilient Futures Steering Group and was a member of AHRC’s GCRF Strategic Advisory Group.

Further information

This evening meeting will be chaired by Sean Wilkinson (Newcastle University). Non-members of the society are welcome to attend. Attendance at the meeting is free. The meeting will take place online via Microsoft Teams*. To join the meeting, click on the following link:

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Event Details

Event Date 25/11/2020 6:00 pm

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