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‘You feel connected to the people of a bygone era’

Documenting and preserving rock art in the Pakistani Himalayas; this was the aim of the ‘Karakorum Rescue Project’ to which students at the Honours College Archaeology contributed. A Leiden exhibition visualises the project: ‘There is something magical about it.’

In one of the rooms of the National Museum of Antiquities, archaeology afficionados prepare for the opening of a new exhibition about the Karakorum Rescue Project (KRP). One of the masterpieces is a large digital drawing made by honours student Elliott Steixner, who did their internship at the KRP under the guidance of Marike van Aerde, lecturer at Leiden University and coordinator of the Honors College of Archaeology.

Multifaceted mission

As project leader of KRP, Van Aerde gets to introduce the exhibition. The Himalayas may appear to be impenetrable, she says, but they harbour some of the oldest rock art in the world. This shows that there already were trade routes through the mountain range centuries ago. However, the meaning of the drawings – and what they can tell us about the history of the area – has never been researched. This is problematic, because vandalism and the build of a Chinese dam threaten to destroy the rock art.

Marike van Aerde: 'We got in touch with local communities'

For this reason, Leiden University, supported by the Prins Claus Fund and the Aliph Foundation, established the Karakorum Rescue Project. The project does not only have an archaeological goal. We got in touch with local communities to stop vandalism,” explains Van Aerde. By explaining matters to them in their native language, the researchers managed to raise awareness about the historical value of the drawings. “They are safe for now.”

The second goal of the project – to collect as much data as possible – was reached as well. In two months’ time, the Pakistani archaeologists on the spot, in collaboration with their colleagues in Leiden, documented over five hundred transcriptions. This taught them about the activities of prehistoric men as well as biodiversity and the spread of Buddhism across the area. And in this phase of the project, Honours students were also put to work. They made an important contribution to the data processing of the project.

Digitisation of drawings

One of them was Austrian Elliott Steixner (22), third-year archaeology student and participant in the Honours College of Archaeology. Elliott had an internship at the KRP thanks to the involvement of their honours coordinator in the project. Elliott: “I'm interested in how Africa and Asia are connected. I asked Marike if she knew of any opportunities to do something with this - and she did.”

Honoursstudent Elliott: 'There is something magical about the drawings'

The honours student devoted themselves to the digitisation of the transcriptions, which required them to trace details very precisely. This was not an easy task because there was no workflow for it yet. “No one could tell me exactly how to proceed. It took me a long time to experiment with this, but it made me feel very zen”, Elliott jokes.


During their work they were impressed by the humanity of the images. “Sometimes they are so beautiful, or simplistic, that you feel connected to the people of a bygone era. There is something magical about it.” That this enchantment would also be on public display came as a total surprise to Elliott. “During a meeting, Marike suddenly said: by the way, the museum wants to organize an exhibition!” Elliott is happy about that. “Now more people will see it than if it were only in an academic journal.”

The exhibition on the Karakorum Rescue Project will be on display at the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden until 31 July 2022.

Text: Michiel Knoester
Translation: Lucia Langerak
Photos: Buro JP

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