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After 30 Years, Looted Kushan Bull Sculpture Will Return to Afghanistan’s Kabul Museum

The artifact is one of thousands left destroyed, damaged or missing after civil war broke out in the 1990s

A sculpture of two bulls, originally carved in the second century A.D., looted from Afghanistan's Kabul Museum almost 30 years ago (British Museum)
smithsonianmag.com

For eight decades, Afghanistan’s Kabul Museum shone as a beacon of central Asia’s cultural history. The 100,000 artifacts that comprised its collections catalogued millennia of the region’s trade and exchange, from Indian ivories and Buddhist statues to an extraordinary cache of ancient coins.

But the civil war that broke out in the early 1990s quickly ushered in a prolonged period of destruction. Rocket attacks destroyed countless artifacts and left the building in ruins, allowing looters to plunder much of what remained. Within years, tens of thousands of artifacts had been damaged or had disappeared. Some were believed to have been covertly sold into illegal markets, sparking several ongoing investigations aimed at bringing the treasures home.

Last week, officials announced the most recent recovery: a limestone sculpture of two bulls that once adorned the inner sanctuary of a second-century temple in Surkh Kotal, an archaeological site in northern Afghanistan. First discovered in the 1950s, the bovine pair was stolen by art smugglers in the early 1990s, only to resurface nearly three decades later on a British auctioneer’s website, reports Dalya Alberge for the Guardian.

Spotted by the Art Loss Register, an illicit trade watchdog and stolen art database, the sculpture’s whereabouts were investigated by the Metropolitan police. The vendor, who had apparently acquired the sculpture innocently several years ago, immediately relinquished their claim to ownership, Christopher Wren of Timeline Auctions, the website where the sculpture appeared, tells the Guardian.

“This is a clear demonstration of the value of cooperation between various bodies in pursuing looted antiquities,” James Ratcliffe, director of recoveries at Art Loss Register, tells the Antiques Trade Gazette’s Laura Chesters.

To verify the sculpture’s identity, officials sent the piece to the British Museum, where senior curator St. John Simpson instantly recognized the “very well-known, unique piece,” per the Guardian. Though the bulls will soon embark on their long-awaited homecoming to the Kabul Museum, which has since been refurbished and opened to the public, they’ll first settle in for a three-month stint at the London institution.

Originally part of a large ceremonial frieze depicting humans and bulls, the sculpture is now the lone representative of the original work, which includes at least a dozen other blocks whose whereabouts are still unknown, Simpson tells the Guardian. Forged under the Kushan Empire, which once stretched across what’s now Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India, the frieze may have had ceremonial significance, according to the Antiques Trade Gazette. The depictions may even parallel art decorating Kushan coins, which also feature the buff bovines.

When the bulls return to the Kabul Museum, they will be reunited with another artifact uncovered from the same temple in Surkh Kotal: a sculpture of Kushan king Kanishka I. Badly damaged by the Taliban in 2001, Kanishka I’s image has now been restored. After 30 years of mystery, Simpson tells the Guardian, the bull’s rediscovery represents “another symbol of recovery.”

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University. Previously, she served as a Digital Editor at NOVA Next and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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