Lost & Found

Ancient gold artifacts from Afghanistan, hidden for more than a decade, dazzle in a new exhibition

Crown from the Tillya Tepe, Tomb VI, 1st century BC - 1st century AD. Crown is gold and imitation turquoise (Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet)
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Kabul, 2004
On a hot day in late april some 30 archaeologists, cultural officials and National Museum of Afghanistan staffers crammed into a small office at the city's Central Bank. Before them was a safe, one of six containing a cache of 2,000-year-old gold jewelry, ornaments and coins from the former region of Bactria in northern Afghanistan. Fifteen years before, the treasure, known as the Bactrian Hoard, had been secretly removed from the museum and stashed in the bank's underground vault under the supervision of Omara Khan Masoudi, the museum's director. The handful of museum employees responsible for hiding it had risked their lives to protect the treasure from warring factions and looters in the wake of the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. In the years since, conflicting rumors had circulated about the objects. One version had departing Soviet troops spiriting them away to Moscow. Another held that they had been melted down to buy arms. A third had them sold on the black market. Now that the political situation had improved and an agreement had been reached with the National Geographic Society to conduct an inventory, the Bactrian gold would at last be brought back into public view.

Since keys to the safe could not be found, a locksmith had been summoned. It took just 15 minutes for him to penetrate it with a circular saw. As sparks flew, Fredrik Hiebert, an American archaeologist working for the National Geographic Society, held his breath.

"I could just imagine opening the safe to find a big, hot lump of melted gold," he recalls. "It was an incredibly emotional moment."

Four years later, many of the artifacts—none of which were damaged in the opening of the safes—are the centerpieces of an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, with Hiebert as guest curator, "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures From the National Museum, Kabul" will travel to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (October 24, 2008-January 25, 2009), the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (February 22-May 17, 2009) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (June 23-September 20, 2009).

Unearthed from four ancient sites, the show's 228 works (including more than 100 pieces from the Bactrian trove) reveal the extent of links in the years 2200 b.c. to a.d. 200 among Hellenistic, Persian, Indian, Chinese and nomadic cultures along the ancient Silk Road—trading routes stretching 5,000 miles from the Mediterranean Sea to China. A knife handle embossed with an image of a Siberian bear, for instance, and a diadem (opposite) festooned with gilded flowers similar to ones found in Korea both indicate far-flung stylistic influences.

Afghanistan's deputy culture minister, Omar Sultan, a former archaeologist, says he hopes the exhibition will call attention to the beleaguered country's untapped rich archaeological heritage. He estimates that only 10 percent of its sites have been discovered, though many, both excavated and not, have been looted. "Afghanistan is one of the richest—and least-known—archaeological regions in the world," says Hiebert. "The country rivals Egypt in terms of potential finds."

Hill of Gold
Fashioned into cupids, dolphins, gods and dragons and encrusted with semiprecious stones, the Bactrian pieces were excavated in 1978-79 from the graves of six wealthy nomads—Saka tribesmen from Central Asia, perhaps, or the Yuezhi from northwest China—at a site called Tillya Tepe ("Hill of Gold") in northern Afghanistan. The 2,000-year-old artifacts exhibit a rare blend of aesthetic influences (from Persian to Classical Greek and Roman) and a high level of craftsmanship. The diadem, a five-inch-tall crown of hammered gold leaf, conveniently folds for travel, and a thumb-size gold figure of a mountain sheep is delicately incised with curving horns and flaring nostrils.

Viktor Sarianidi, the Moscow archaeologist who led the joint Soviet-Afghan team that uncovered the graves, compares the impact of the find to the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb. "The gold of Bactria shook the world of archaeology," he writes in the exhibition catalog. "Nowhere in antiquity have so many different objects from so many different cultures—Chinese-inspired boot buckles, Roman coins, daggers in a Siberian style—been found together in situ."

Sarianidi first came to the Bactrian plain in 1969 to search for traces of the Silk Road. After excavating ruins of a first-century a.d. city there, he stumbled across, and soon began uncovering, an Iron Age temple used for fire worship that dated from 1500 to 1300 b.c. While carting away earth from the temple mound in November 1978, a worker spied a small gold disk in the ground. After inspecting it, Sarianidi dug deeper, slowly revealing a skull and skeleton surrounded by gold jewelry and ornaments—the remains of a woman, 25 to 30 years old, whom he called a nomadic princess. He subsequently found and excavated five additional graves, all simple trenches containing lidless wooden coffins holding the remains of once ornately attired bodies. Over the next three months, he cleaned and inventoried more than 20,000 individual items, including hundreds of gold spangles, each about the size of a fingernail.

In the grave of a chieftain—the only male found at the site—Sarianidi's team uncovered turquoise-studded daggers and sheaths and a braided gold belt with raised medallions that bear the image, some say, of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, riding sidesaddle on a panther. (Others speculate it's the Bactrian goddess Nana seated on a lion.) Near the chieftain's rib cage, excavators found an Indian medallion that, according to Véronique Schiltz, a French archaeologist with the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, bears one of the earliest representations of Buddha. The man had been buried with his head resting on a gold plate on a silk cushion. Around him lay two bows, a long sword, a leather folding stool and the skull and bones of a horse.

About Richard Covington

Richard Covington is a Paris-based author who covers a wide range of cultural and historical subjects and has contributed to Smithsonian, The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, among other publications.

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