May 7, 2007—In the remote highlands of Nepal, a local shepherd has made some unusual "additions" to his flock—an international team of archaeologists.
The sheepherder recently led researchers to an isolated complex of caves containing a massive treasure trove of Buddhist art, including a 55-panel mural of Buddha's life, one panel of which is seen above.
The shepherd had made the discovery by chance while seeking shelter from a rainstorm decades ago. But he had missed the significance until making a passing mention to scientists.
A full expedition of scientists, art experts, and climbers from the U.S., Italy, and Nepal then climbed high into Nepal's mountainous Mustang area, some 250 kilometers (160 miles) northwest of Kathmandu, locating the caves in March (map of Nepal).
It took ice axes and skillful mountaineering to clear a path to the caverns—set in a sheer 14,000-foot (4,300-meter) rock face in the Himalaya. But the results were more than worth it, experts say.
"What we found is fantastically rich in culture and heritage and goes to the 12th century or earlier," U.S. writer and conservationist Broughton Coburn told the Associated Press.
Included among the sprawling complex are manuscripts written in Tibetan, pre-Christian artifacts, pottery shards, and a number of smaller paintings.
The team plans to conduct limited excavations and search for additional archaeological sites nearby. But for now they have kept the site's exact location secret to prevent disturbances to the fragile artwork.
In the meantime there's still a lot of work to be done on the artifacts collected so far.
"Who lived in those caves? When were they there, when were [the caves] first excavated, and how did the residents access them, perched as they are on vertical cliffs?" Coburn said to BBC News.
"It's a compelling, marvelous mystery."
More Photos in the News
Today's Top 15 Most Popular Stories
Free Email Newsletter: "Focus on Photography"