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When French archaeologists cut into the site in the late 1930s, they found a cache of luxury goods suggesting a vibrant, trade-based economy that flourished while Rome crumbled. Buried under layers of soil were bronze sculptures from Italy, lacquer boxes from China, plaster medallions of muscular Greek youths, and a group of exquisitely painted Egyptian glass vessels depicting, among other things, the Alexandria lighthouse, an African leopard hunt, and a scene from the Iliad. Most strikingly, the diggers found stacks upon stacks of carved ivory and bone sculptures, more than a thousand in all, featuring placidly smiling women and mythical river creatures associated with the art of India.

Someone left this impossibly eclectic mix inside two rooms that, around A.D. 200, were bricked shut and abandoned. Dazzled by the find, archaeologists compared it to the discovery of King Tut's tomb 15 years earlier, believing it to be the remains of a royal residence. Researchers now think the structure may have been a warehouse for luxury goods being transported across Asia on the Silk Road or marketed to local elites.

Like Begram, the site of Tillya Tepe ("golden hill") in Afghanistan's northwestern corner yielded treasures - most famously the Bactrian gold - whose legend was only heightened when they disappeared from view. Found by Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi in the 1970s, the hoard tells a uniquely Afghan story of how nomads rode off the Central Asian steppes around the time of Christ, crossed the Amu Darya River, and created a civilization whose art reflects an amalgam of East and West, transience and settled life. From the wilds of Siberia come the animals, such as a bear depicted on a knife handle, dancing and holding a grapevine in its mouth. Greek and Hindu influences merge in a golden Aphrodite with wings and an Indian-style circle on her forehead.

Many objects show a strikingly Western naturalism, such as a ram sculpted in gold that decorated a nomad nobleman's headdress. Only under a magnifying glass can the masterpiece's splendid workmanship be fully appreciated. And a delicate, golden crown tells of a refined culture that had not given up its steppes roots. The crown can be disassembled into six pieces for easy transport, perhaps in a leather satchel on a two-humped Bactrian camel - a perfect accessory for a nomadic princess.

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