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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In a nearby grave, the archaeological team found the remains of a woman in her 30s wearing signet rings with images of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, and a pair of matching jeweled pendants with gold figures grasping S-shaped dragons, as if to tame them. Another grave, that of a teenage girl, contained thin gold shoe soles (meant, says Hiebert, for the afterlife), along with a Roman coin minted in the early first century a.d. in Gallic Lugdunum (present-day Lyon, France). Schiltz says the coin probably came to southern India by sea before ending up with the woman through trade or as booty.

Schiltz also speculates that the nomads had migrated south from Central Asia or China and ended up plundering the Greco-Bactrian cities. The opulent jewelry that accompanied their burials, she says, indicates that the group belonged to a ruling family. The graves apparently survived intact because they were well concealed in the ruins of the Iron Age temple.

Archaeological evidence about nomadic groups is rare, for obvious reasons. The Tillya Tepe graves contained the first examples of nomadic art to be found in Afghanistan. Initially Hiebert thought the nomads had acquired the artifacts by "cherry-picking the Silk Road," he says. But after inventorying the objects, he was persuaded by their similarities that they all came from a single local workshop.

"That meant that these nomads took iconography from Greece, Rome, China, India, even as far away as Siberia, and put it together into their own unique and highly refined art style," he says. "They were creators, not merely collectors." He suspects that the workshop lies buried near the tombs.

In late 1978, just before the outbreak of widespread civil war in Afghanistan, armed tribesmen began threatening the dig. By February 1979, the political situation and the impending onset of winter caused Sarianidi to abandon the site before he could excavate a seventh grave; it would later be stripped by looters. Sarianidi crated up the artifacts he had found at the site and brought them to the National Museum in Kabul, where they remained until their removal to the bank vault in 1989.

Golden Bowls
The oldest pieces in the National Gallery exhibition, which date from 2200 to 1900 b.c., were found in Tepe Fullol, also in northern Afghanistan, in July 1966, when farmers there accidentally plowed up a Bronze Age grave, then began divvying up the priceless artifacts with an ax. Local authorities managed to salvage a dozen gold and silver cups and bowls (along with some gold and silver fragments), which they turned over to the National Museum. Jean-François Jarrige, director of Paris' Guimet Museum and a Bronze Age specialist, says that the bowls are connected to the craftsmanship of what is known as the Bronze Age Oxus culture, which existed within a large geographic area in Central Asia encompassing what is now Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. The geometric "stepped-square" motifs on one goblet, for instance, resemble designs uncovered in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and the gold itself likely came from Central Asia's Amu Darya River (known in antiquity as the Oxus). But although these bowls have something of a local character, says Jarrige, "they also show signs of outside influences...in particular the representation of bearded bulls reminiscent of a generally recognized theme from Mesopotamia." The designs on these bowls, write the curators, "include animal imagery from distant Mesopotamian and Indus Valley (present-day Pakistan) cultures, indicating that already at this early date, Afghanistan was part of an extensive trade network."

Greeks Bearing Gifts
One of the most important ancient cities in Afghanistan was discovered in 1964 at Ai Khanum, also in the northern region formerly known as Bactria. Founded around 300 b.c. by Seleucus I, a Macedonian general who won a power struggle to control the region following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 b.c., the city became the eastern outpost of Greek culture in Asia. Its artifacts reflect Greek and Indian, as well as local, artistic traditions. Works featured in the exhibition include a seven-inch-high bronze figure of Hercules and a gilded silver plaque that combines Greek and Persian elements. It depicts Cybele, the Greek goddess of nature, riding in a Persian-style chariot, shaded by a large parasol held by a priest.

Like Tillya Tepe and Tepe Fullol, Ai Khanum was also discovered by chance. While out hunting game in 1961 near the border with the then Soviet Tajik Republic (present-day Tajikistan), the last Afghan king, Zahir Shah, was presented with a carved chunk of limestone by local villagers. The king later showed the fragment to Daniel Schlumberger—then the director of a French archaeological expedition in Afghanistan—who recognized it as coming from a Corinthian, likely Greek, capital. (A similar capital is displayed in the show.) In November 1964, Schlumberger led a team to Ai Khanum, where, after digging up shards bearing Greek letters, he began excavations that continued until the Soviet invasion in December 1979.

Shaped like a triangle, roughly a mile on each side, the city, which was strategically located at the junction of the Oxus and Kokcha rivers, was dominated by an acropolis situated on a flat-topped, 200-foot-high bluff. Its huge entry courtyard was surrounded by airy colonnades supported by 126 Corinthian columns. Beyond the courtyard lay reception halls, ceremonial rooms, private residences, a treasury, a large bathhouse, a temple and a theater.

As in nearly every Greek city, there was a gymnasium, or school, and in it excavators found two sundials that appear to have been used to teach astronomy. Unusually, one of them was calibrated for the Indian astronomical center of Ujjain, at a latitude some 14 degrees south of Ai Khanum—an indication, says Paul Bernard, a member of the French excavation team, of scholarly exchanges among Greek and Indian astronomers.

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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