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In Pakistan, Secrets Of A 3,000-Year-Old Cemetery

The graves were apparently opened and reopened multiple times, serving more than one generation. (Courtesy of ACT Project)

High on a hill overlooking Pakistan's scenic Swat Valley sits a recently excavated cemetery. Italian archaeologist Luca Maria Olivieri walks across the site and lays a sun-beaten hand on a clay slab jutting out from a high, dun-colored wall. It's an ancient grave.

Olivieri says the remains still have to be carbon-tested, but archaeologists believe the graves contain members of a Dardic community, which dominated this part of Pakistan 3,000 years ago.

It's believed Alexander the Great fought one of his battles here, in the village of Udegram.

The grave site was discovered when a landowner started to develop the area. Olivieri is one of several archaeologists working with the local Archaeology Community Tourism Project. He says his group made a deal with the landlord to stop building for one year so they could excavate the cemetery.

The archaeologists discovered a collection of 32 sealed graves. Olivieri says the site reveals the community's burial and post-burial rituals.

"So these graves were opened, reopened, reburied and filled and emptied and refilled several times because [they belonged] to families who were using it for more than one generation," he says.

In one small corner of one grave, Olivieri shifts two small stones and gets a glimpse of some remains. It's a femur. He says most of the graves contained two skeletons: male and female, facing each other.

A Wealth Of Artifacts

The archaeologists discovered hairpins and spindles, beautifully preserved pots, ornaments made of copper and bronze, and some pieces of iron. Olivieri says carbon-testing may prove the fragments are the oldest traces of iron on the subcontinent.

What they didn't find in any of the graves was a weapon. Olivieri says the contents seem to be carefully chosen to show the ancient community's values.

"If we consider this ... cultural assemblage as a positive proof of what this culture wanted to show, even to themselves, this was the most important thing for them," he says.

Olivieri says Swat Valley is a paradise for archaeologists and anyone interested in ancient culture. He's been coming to this area for some 25 years, mostly to work on the excavation of Barikot, an ancient city nearby.

Olivieri says Barikot is a much more important archaeological site, but it's the Udegram cemetery that has captured attention lately here in Pakistan.

In a country plagued by insurgent attacks, electricity and gas shortages, and a plummeting economy, the Udegram grave site has become a good news story.

"It's like something amazing for us to have major excavations all around, especially in ancient sites that belong to the time of Alexander the Great," says Niaz Ali Shah, the curator of a provincial museum. "A great experience, in fact, for the younger archaeologists of our province."

Olivieri says the biggest concern is finding enough time, expertise and financing to excavate all of the Swat Valley's buried treasures.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In northern Pakistan, there's a place called the Swat Valley. And just a few years ago, this area was under the control of the Taliban. Despite the conflict, archaeologists have been digging in the region for decades. The recent discovery of an ancient cemetery has revealed more clues about a civilization some 3,000 years old. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

LUCA MARIA OLIVIERI: I will show you one grave section.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRAVEL CRUNCHING)

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Luca Maria Olivieri walks across an excavation site and lays a sun-beaten hand on a clay slab jutting out from a high dun-colored wall. It's part of a recently discovered gravesite believed to date back 2,500 to 3,000 years ago.

OLIVIERI: This is a grave section, you see. This is the bottom of the floor. This grave is defined by on the top by this set of slabs. Both sides, we have walls made of beaten clay.

NORTHAM: The recently excavated cemetery sits high upon a hill in the ancient village of Udegram, overlooking Pakistan's scenic Swat Valley. Olivieri says it's believed Alexander the Great fought one of his battles here. Olivieri says the remains still have to be carbon tested, but archaeologists believe the graves contain members of a Dardic community, which dominated this part of Pakistan 3,000 years ago. The grave site was discovered when a landowner started to develop the area. Olivieri is one of several Italian archaeologists working with the local Archaeology Community Tourism project. He says his group made a deal with the landlord to stop building for one year so they could excavate the cemetery. What they discovered was a collection of 32 graves. Olivieri says the site reveals the community's burial and post-burial rituals.

OLIVIERI: So, these graves were opened, reopened, reburied and filled, emptied, refilled several times because were belonging to families who were using it for more than one generation.

NORTHAM: In one small corner of one grave, Olivieri shifts two small stones, and you get a glimpse of some remains. What is that?

OLIVIERI: I think this is a - I don't know the English term for that one, so.

NORTHAM: A femur?

OLIVIERI: Yes, a femur, exactly.

NORTHAM: So, that's a femur right there?

OLIVIERI: Yes, it is. You want to excavate this? It's at your disposal.

NORTHAM: Olivieri says most of the graves contained two skeletons - male and female - facing each other. The archaeologists discovered hairpins and spindles, beautifully preserved pots and ornaments made of copper and bronze. And there were some pieces of iron. Olivieri says carbon testing may prove the fragments are the oldest traces of iron on the subcontinent. What they didn't find in any of the graves was a weapon. Olivieri says the contents seem to be carefully chosen to show the ancient community's values.

OLIVIERI: If we consider this assemblage, cultural assemblage as a positive proof of what this culture wanted to show, even to themselves, this was the most important thing for them.

NORTHAM: Olivieri says Swat Valley is a paradise for archaeologists and anyone interested in ancient culture. He's been coming to this area for some 25 years, mostly to work on the excavation of Barikot, an ancient city nearby. Olivieri says that's a much more important archaeological site, but it's the Udegram cemetery that has captured attention lately here in Pakistan. In a country plagued by insurgent attacks, electricity and gas shortages, and a plummeting economy, the Udegram gravesite has become a good news story. Niaz Ali Shah is the curator of a provincial museum.

NIAZ ALI SHAH: It's like something amazing to us to have major excavations all around, especially in ancient sites that belongs to a time of Alexander the Great. A great experience, in fact, for the younger archaeologists of our province.

NORTHAM: Olivieri says the biggest concern is finding enough time, expertise and financing to excavate all of the Swat Valley's buried treasures as they deserve. Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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