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The Golden Hoard

An Ancient Afghan Treasure is Recovered

By Rachel Galvin | HUMANITIES, November/December 2004 | Volume 25, Number 6

A two-thousand-year-old Afghan treasure has come to light after a quarter century of rumors, legends, and speculation. Ibex figurines and jeweled scabbards and golden beasts--nearly twenty-one thousand pieces in all--have been found again.

Precisely where the treasure is, Afghan officials aren't saying in the interests of security.

The gold hoard from the ancient kingdom of Bactria has survived the years of chaos since it was discovered: the Soviet invasion, the warring among the mujahaddin, and the rise of the Taliban. Stories circulated that the golden objects had been carried off to Moscow, or sold on the black market, or melted down. In one account, just before the American forces arrived in 2001, the Taliban ran out of time trying to blow the central bank's vault. No one could say for sure what had happened.

Then in August of 2003, the government of Afghanistan announced that the Bactrian gold had been found and invited archaeologist Fred Hiebert to verify the fact. "I went over there to try and find out whether there was any truth to this rumor that the Bactrian gold was safe," says Hiebert, a specialist in ancient trade in Central Asia. "We were invited to inventory what collections they had, systematically, and do a verification."

Hiebert held the original field notes from the excavation by Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi in the 1970s. With support from the NEH and the National Geographic Society, he and museum specialist Carla Grissmann were in Afghan-istan last summer to conduct an inventory. The treasure, they determined, was intact.

The artifacts were uncovered in 1978 in the Mound of Gold, or Tillya Tepe, in a northern Afghan province that lies between the Hindu Kush Mountains and the Amu Darya River. The site was rumored to contain a golden man buried in a coffin of gold. Instead, Sarianidi's team found a four-thousand-year-old temple, and within its walls, the tombs of five women and one man. The archaeologists speculated that some time during the first century C.E., a tribe of Bactrian nomads had hidden the graves within the ruins of the abandoned temple.

Each person was interred with a dazzling array of jewelry, beads, buckles, coins, mirrors, and gold plaques that had trimmed their clothing--which, as was the nomadic tradition, the nobles had worn or carried with them in life. Four of the six nomads were buried with their heads facing north. Coins were placed in the mouths of two of the women: the toll for Charon to ferry them across the river Styx.

The necropolis dates from a time in Bactria about which little is known. "We call it a dark period in history, because it's very hard to find archaeological remains of these people," Hiebert says. "They have some dwellings, but they tend to be small. It's hard to get a handle on who the nomads were. So we can use this set of artifacts to help us understand what role they might have had in Silk Road trade, and what role they might have had in terms of the melding of cultures in this area."

Opening the safes that held the ancient treasure was no easy matter. In Afghan tradition, a talwildar, or key holder, takes responsibility for guarding a treasure, passing on the charge to the next generation. "He is bonded. The man with the key has pledged his family house, his land, if he has any land. His son will inherit the keys," says Grissmann.

Any safe, trunk, or vault, regardless of the number of locks it possesses, is also sealed with a piece of paper bearing the signatures of witnesses, all of whom are required to be present when the paper is slit and the locks reopened. The national museum has employed this process for decades, and it was by this same method that the museum accepted Sarianidi's find.

"This was a ritual that was performed every day at the Kabul Museum when I was working there," says Grissmann, who began working for the museum in 1973. "Every night at the Kabul Museum there was a procession--the people that signed, three witnesses, and the man with the glue pot. And the same thing every morning. The three people paraded down, opening each exhibition room. Each showcase had a little padlock with a piece of paper signed."

For the inventory of the Bactrian this year inside the Central Bank, five bank officials were needed to open the vault. But the talwildar required to open the safes containing the ancient collection had disappeared years ago and no one knew what had become of him or any member of his family. After much debate, the president of Afghanistan made a highly unusual decision, decreeing that a judge from the ministry of justice would be allowed as a substitute tal-wildar. The safes were cracked open, and the inventory was able to commence.

Inside the six safes was the entire Bactrian hoard, intact, just as Sarianidi had left it twenty-five years ago. Gold figurines, diadems adorned by trees with birds perching in them, jewel-encrusted daggers, scabbards, and buckles; silver Chinese mirrors, ivory Indian combs, leopards, panthers, griffins, and other beasts designed in chalcedony, turquoise, agate, and cornelian; gold shoe buckles encrusted in turquoise, depicting dragon-drawn chariots; and heavy pendant earrings bearing a scene in which a ruler struggles with a fierce dragon, in a fusion of Persian, Achaemenian, and Eurasian Scythian styles.

The nomads had been buried with every manner of rich adornment, from gold cutouts sewn to the bottoms of their shoes, to a collapsible, finely worked gold crown that could be packed up easily. In his account of the excavation, The Golden Hoard of Bactria, Sarianidi speculates: "Could it be so that, considering the nomad's traditional way of life, the crown could be safely stowed away in a saddlebag, without fear of damaging it during long treks or military campaigns?"

In the inventory last summer, Hiebert and Grissmann worked for thirty-six days, eight hours each day, alongside eighteen members of the museum staff and under the eye of bank officials, security guards, and representatives from each ministry.

To preserve the Afghan talwildar tradition, Hiebert devised a new curatorial process. The judge, acting asthe Bactrian gold's talwildar, would remove an object and hand it to Hiebert, who measured and weighed it and assigned it a new number. It was described in English and in Dari and photographed digitally. The photographs were printed on the spot, attached to the English-Dari information sheets, signed by a newtalwildar, and placed in a new safe alongside the object. Copies of the inventories were given to the museum, the ministry of justice, and other institutions.

"For me, what's interesting about this system, which I respect deeply, is that it has transcended the different administrations that they've had in Afghanistan," says Hiebert. "There were talwildars during the king's days. There were talwildars during the Taliban times. There were talwildars during the Soviet period."

"I wanted to make sure that by introducing modern museum curation we weren't disrupting that system," he continues. "That was perhaps one of the most complex things that we had to do."

In preparing for the cataloging project, Hiebert and his team created a mobile inventory laboratory that can be packed or unpacked in thirty minutes. It contains three laptop computers, three printers, a scanner, a digital camera, lights, digital calipers, a digital scale, a humidity indicator, and other curatorial tools. Hiebert terms it a "first-aid conservation, first-aid curation" kit.

The treasure may eventually reveal new information about the mysterious span of time between the decline of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom and the rise of the great Kushan Empire. The trove contains many unusual objects. One gold coin resembles no numismatic collection in the world: it depicts a man resting on the Wheel of Dharma, and on the reverse, a lion with a raised paw. Sarianidi hypothesizes that it was minted by the Greco-Bactrian King Agathocles during the interval between Greek and Kushan control.

Another gold coin is stamped with the profile of the Roman emperor Tiberius, minted in Lugdunum in Gaul between 16 and 21 C.E.--the first coin of its kind found in all of Central Asia. Other provocative objects prompt questions about the mingling and syncretism of artistic styles: brooches and figurines depicting Aphrodite show a Kushan interpretation of the goddess's features--small-breasted, round-bellied, and more serious than her Greek counterpart--but she stands with one arm resting on a column, as was the Hellenistic fashion.

In his account of the excavation, Sarianidi writes of a pair of gold clasps decorated in high relief with cupids astride dolphins. "The lively, mischievous boy-god of love is pictured as an aging, waddling cynic. Further,in place of dolphins we see here the types of fish with which Asia's rivers--specifically the Amu Darya (Oxus), Bactria's main waterway--teemed. The clasps were undoubtedly made by local Bactrian goldsmiths, who had almost completely forgotten how dolphins. . . were depicted, let alone what they really looked like."

Sarianidi concludes, "This brief survey of Tillya-tepe jewelry incontrovertibly proves that Bactria had its own center of goldsmithing with its own established traditions harking back to the Bronze Age."

Only months after Sarianidi's preliminary inventory of the necropolis in late 1978 and early 1979, the Soviets invaded, Afghanistan was cast into turmoil, and the archaeologists were forced to abandon their work, storing the objects in the Kabul Museum.

"Imagine, this treasure never had a chance to be studied," Hiebert comments.

Between 1979 and 1989, the collections of the Kabul Museum were trundled between locations for safekeeping, while the museum building itself was occupied by the ministry of defense and shelled heavily. The top levels of the museum were destroyed and the building reduced to a husk. "There was no roof, there were no windows, there were no doors, there were no artifacts," says Hiebert.

In 1989 the Najibullah government closed the museum and apportioned its holdings to three locations. The six safes of gold from Tillya Tepe were secreted in the vault of the central treasury in the Arg, or presidential palace. For the next seven years, the Kabul Museum was rocketed and looted as mujahadeen groups battled for control of the city. The museum staff returned to the building as often as conditions would allow to sort through the debris. "We were working on the inventory of what remained in the Kabul Museum--mainly fragments," says Grissmann. "A lot of it we just picked up, knee-deep in rubble--mixed with cement, broken window panes, and collapsed ceilings. There were, of course, lots of objects that had been smashed."

In 1996, working by kerosene lamp light, the staff attempted to continue conservation and re-cataloging. They found a clay bodhisattva from Tepe Maranjan, inscriptions from Surkh Hotal, splinters of a demolished ivory Begram throne, and the left hand of a schist statue of a worshipping child from the Buddhist monastery at Paitava. There was no sign of the Bactrian gold. Throughout the Taliban regime, policies regarding Afghanistan's cultural heritage would fluctuate and worsen, culminating in the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas and the plundering of the beleaguered museum in 2001.

"In November, of course, the Taliban were ousted and that's when positive things began happening," says Grissmann, "the most positive being that we've been able to go into the bank vaults within the royal palace--now the presidential palace--where all these objects had been stored since 1989, and nobody really realized that these objects were there."

Museum specialists speculate that more than two-thirds of the museum's collection was destroyed in the past thirty years of turmoil. "A reason that this treasure was kept safe was because people kept their mouths shut about it, or they would make up some story," says Hiebert. "That's why there are all these different versions of what happened circulating. They were very brave people. Obviously, there were a lot of people grabbing them by the shirt collar, saying, 'Where is the gold? Where is the gold?'"

"No one will ever know the truth, ever, ever," says Grissmann.

The contents of the six burials offer some answers, and prompt an even greater number of questions about the silk route and the culture of Bactria in the first century. It is impossible for archaeologists to determine, at this point, why the nomads died and why the ancient temple was chosen for their burial site. Hiebert suggests that a calamity of some sort--a famine, a wave of disease, or a raid--may have occurred. "Having found a lot of excavations on Bronze Age archaeological sites, I'd have to say I've rarely encountered two-thousand-year-old burials in a four-thousand-year-old site. It's pretty unusual."

In ancient times, Bactrian civilization rivaled that of Mesopotamia. It was a fertile agricultural oasis and a thoroughfare on the Silk Road. Iranian, Indian, Central Asian, Chinese, Greek, Roman, and nomadic cultures encountered one another on the plains and in the capital of Balkh, which the Arabs called "the Mother of Towns." Artistic and cultural styles fused. Zoroaster first preached monotheism there and King Kanishka commissioned the first human representations of the Buddha there. The poet known as Rumi wrote verses there, and Marco Polo traversed the city on his path to China.

The region was colonized repeatedly. Alexander the Great came to conquer this easternmost outpost of his empire, the last Persian province to fall, and made it his base; his inheritor later traded it to the Indian Mauryan dynasty for five hundred elephants and a princess. Genghis Khan destroyed it with his horde of ten thousand men in the early thirteenth century. "With one stroke a world which billowed with fertility was laid desolate," the chronicler Juvaini wrote three decades later. And Babur, the founder of the Moguls and a descendent of Genghis Khan, seized the region before he moved on to conquer India.

"I went into this project just having looked at the photographs, and I assumed that these objects came from all over the place," Hiebert reflects. "Maybe these people were raiding the Silk Road and takingartifacts from China, artifacts from Siberia, artifacts from the Greco-Roman settlements nearby.

"But now," he says, "having actually handled each one of these twenty-one thousand pieces, I have a completely different idea. I see a tremendous similarity, not only within one burial, but amongst all six of them. Of the twenty-one thousand objects, there was a series of hundreds and hundreds of appliqués that were obviously made from a mold. It's a really astonishing collection."

The fact that the appliqués were crafted from one mold suggests that they were cast by a single local artisan in Bactria. According to Hiebert, some of the artifacts reveal a continuity of artistic style from the Bronze Age world of four thousand years ago to the nomadic period. "It makes you think that maybe the Silk Road isn't just driven by the two end markets. It's not just a thoroughfare for goods to go from east to west and west to east. Maybe it's part of the engine itself generating this trade."

Central Asian nomads of the time are known to have been sheepherders and agriculturists, but Hiebert contends that their mobility made them important Silk Road traders as well. "The fact that they are getting wealthy in the first century C.E. is a clear bell for me they participated in trade."

"When you find burials intact, all the beads on a garment can be reconstructed," Hiebert continues. "We have such a full array of artistic objects that we've really got an in-depth view of a nomadic culture."

Afghanistan possesses a wealth of archaeological sites dating back to pre-history. But the Ministry of Culture is concerned that looters are pillaging the sites, smuggling out artifacts, and selling them across the globe on the underground antiquities market. "I wish this country were not so rich, so that people would stop looting our sites. Just within eighty kilometers of Kabul, there are ten major sites," says Sayed M. Raheen, minister of culture and information for Afghanistan. "The looters don't care how much they destroy when they dig. If they destroy eight statues to uncover one, they don't care," says Raheen. "Sometimes they will buy land knowing that it's a historical site, block it off with fences around the site, and then begin digging. It is my worst problem."

Grissmann echoes his concern in a recent report for the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage. "These illegal diggings are an integral part of the disastrous plight of Afghanistan's cultural heritage. Sites are attacked and devastated by bulldozers, tractors, pickaxes, and the strata are destroyed forever."

As the country begins to recover from decades of conflict, the government is working to rebuild cultural institutions. "We are trying to revive the museums, public libraries, and public monuments of Afghanistan," says Raheen. "We need training for our younger staff. In the last twenty-five years, many have gotten killed, left the country, and many are too old for the work."

"The younger staff have never seen a museum," says Grissmann. "For them, a museum is a gray building with the roof gone, although it's been repaired just a few months back."

"I wonder all the time. The Bactrian hoard was just one find," Hiebert says. "It makes me optimistic that as things stabilize in Afghanistan, we'll be able to go back and find more wonderful things."

About the Author

Rachel Galvin is a freelance writer in Princeton, New Jersey.

Funding Information

Fred Hiebert is archaeology fellow at the National Geographic Society, which received an NEH Chairman's Emergency Grant of $30,000 to document the Bactrian gold.