Afghan Treasures
Afghanistan's Hidden Treasures

Photograph by: Richard Barnes, National Geographic June 2008

Afghanistan, a nation with a rich history and rare, ancient artifacts, has long been a cultural crossroads. After decades of war, however, many of the nation's treasures have been lost or destroyed, often intentionally—the Taliban regime ordered the destruction of all non-Islamic statues and tombs.

One bright spot is the Bactrian gold collection. Among Afghanistan's most prized treasures, it was thought to have been stolen and the pieces sold on the antiquities black market. But the gold was uncovered in 2003 and is currently on tour as part of a National Geographic exhibition.

The Bactrian objects were first discovered in 1978 by Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi, who’d gone to Afghanistan in search of Bronze Age pottery. Instead he found a royal nomad family’s hidden tombs filled with gold. Sarianidi unearthed more than 20,000 golden artifacts that date back some 2,000 years.

Before the Soviets invaded in 1979, the artifacts were moved to the National Museum in Kabul. Years of war followed, and the museum was bombed. But its director, Omara Khan Massoudi, and a handful of other museum officials secretly hid Afghanistan's ancient treasures, including the Bactrian gold, in vaults under the presidential palace.

In 2003, after the Taliban was overthrown, Massoudi thought the time was right to unearth the treasures again, and he invited National Geographic fellow Fredrik Hiebert to catalog them. These treasures, a reflection of Afghanistan’s magnificent past, will no doubt help bolster national pride when they finally return to the National Museum for all to admire.

Bibliography
Atwood, Roger. "Afghanistan's Hidden Treasures." National Geographic (June 2008), 130-145.

Lawler, Andrew. "Mending Afghanistan." National Geographic (December 2004), 28-41.

Sarianidi, Viktor. "The Hoard of Bactria." National Geographic (March 1990), 50-75.

Other Resources
Begram ivory and bone carvings.

Comiteau, Lauren. "Saving Afghanistan’s Art." Time (January 8, 2008).

Question
I saw the exhibit today at the National Gallery in D.C. -- it was breathtaking! I was particularly struck by a gold belt in the collection, from tomb IV, among the Bactrian gold. Between the medallions, the belt looks as though it was knitted from gold wire. Is this possible? This would be older than any known knitted textiles, as far as I know. Thanks for any information you have.
Answer
The Bactrian gold was discovered in 1978-79 and quickly inventoried and hidden away without any scientific study. It is on display internationally for the first time, and scholars only now have the opportunity to really examine these objects. National Geographic Society researchers will be studying the manufacture of the gold this month -- it is an exciting time! A preliminary study suggests that the goldsmithing is most similar to that of Scythian nomads (Kazakstan to Ukraine); a number of knitted-gold-wire objects have been found in ancient nomadic burials in Ukraine that slightly predate the Bactrian gold. Further study this month will shed more light on these fascinating collections. -- Dr. Fred Hiebert
Question
"Where can I get information on dates and times to view the Afghan Treasures on Tour in San Francisco?"
Answer
Your best bet would be to check directly with the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., in San Francisco. The museum’s number is 415 581-3500, and its website has a press release on the exhibit, which is scheduled to open October 24, 2008, and run through January 25, 2009. You can read the press release at http://www.asianart.org/pressroom/afghanpress.htm. For more information on the exhibit, including links to all the cities where it will be, please see http://www.nationalgeographic.com/mission/afghanistan-treasures/where_to_see.html. —David Wooddell, GeoPedia Editor
The Key to the Bactrian Gold

Some eight months passed between the moment the safes suspected to contain the Bactrian gold were found and when they were opened. The primary reason for this delay was that no one could find the keys—or at least their keeper. A vital member of an honor system for holding property that dates back to the Ottoman Empire, the talwidar, or keeper of the keys, was the only person allowed by law to open the safes. This system helped protect these treasures from an outsider's grasp.

But no one had known of this talwidar's whereabouts or that of his sons, who were next in line to assume responsibility for the keys, for at least a decade. Only after a lengthy appeal process was a decree issued stating that a representative from the Ministry of Justice could assume the talwidar's role. Then the safecracking could begin. —Karen C. Font

Bibliography
Font, Karen C. "More to Explore." (December 2004).

Last updated: April 17, 2008