Bling of the Bactrians

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Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Until 20 September

Museum staff hid this folding gold crown from Afghanistan's looters for years. Credit: MUSÉE GUIMET/T. OLLIVIER

Desire for gold has driven people out of their homes and out of their minds. So Soviet archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi cannot have been surprised when a crowd gathered to gawk at a mound he was excavating in northern Afghanistan in 1978. Tillya Tepe, the Hill of Gold, dates to the first century AD, when the land was known as Bactria, and contained the graves of six nomads — a chieftain and five women — buried with more than 20,000 golden and bejewelled belongings, some of which are now on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Sarianidi sent the treasures to the National Museum in Kabul and returned to Moscow. Then came the wars. The Soviet army invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the National Museum was nearly destroyed by shelling in 1994, and in 2001 it was ransacked by the Taliban. Yet museum guards had hidden the treasures in secret vaults in the presidential palace and kept their location secret for some 25 years.

Afghanistan portrays the tremendous challenges of preserving a country's heritage in the face of war. “All of these artefacts were supposed to have been lost,” says curator and archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert, who was invited by the Afghans in 2003 to catalogue the crates when they were rediscovered. “Every time we opened a box, it was like a miracle.” Along with the Tillya Tepe gold, the guards had concealed nearly all of the treasures from Kabul's museum.

The exhibition displays artefacts from four archaeological sites, each focusing on a major stage or civilization in Afghanistan's history. They reveal the multiple influences of the Roman, Indian, Greek and Chinese cultures that infiltrated the ancient nation. A second-millennium gold bowl unearthed at the Bronze Age settlement of Tepe Fullol in the northeast of the country is decorated with bearded bulls, a motif from distant Mesopotamia. The third-century-BC Greek-style city of Aï Khanum, founded after Bactria's conquest by Alexander the Great, yielded two sophisticated sundials: one, carved from limestone in the form of a throne balanced on two lions' legs, was designed for Aï Khanum's latitude; the other, a unique cylindrical design, was calibrated for ancient Syene (Aswan) in Egypt. Another mechanical marvel comes from Begram, a city on the Silk Road that thrived in the first and second centuries AD. A green bronze basin is filled with sinuous metal fish, their moveable fins and tails wired to small weights that would make them 'swim' when the bowl was filled with water.

But the gold of Tillya Tepe is the most alluring. Its pastoralist owners ploughed their profits from sheep- and goat-herding into shimmering trophies ornamented with symbols of diverse cultures: Aphrodite with an Indian dot on her forehead, a dagger handle topped with a Siberian bear, Chinese-style boot buckles, Roman coins, resplendent gold jewellery and a folding gold crown composed of five 'trees' adorned with rosettes and birds. That such valuables survived “is an amazing testament to the Afghans' ability to keep a secret”, Hiebert says. “The Communists came through, the mujahedin came through, the Taliban came through, and these poor underpaid museum people didn't tell them, ever. I want to tell that story to my children.”

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Glausiusz, J. Bling of the Bactrians. Nature 460, 800 (2009) doi:10.1038/460800a

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