Dazzled at Afghanistan's Cross-Roads

By James, N. | Antiquity, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Dazzled at Afghanistan's Cross-Roads


James, N., Antiquity


Four 'treasures' from Afghanistan were displayed at the Musee Guimet, in Paris, from 6 December 2006 to 30 April 2007. Attended by queues, Afghanistan, les tresors retrouves sought to present an image of cultural integrity for that country so long and so often beleaguered by foreigners. Yet the striking exhibits begged questions both about Afghanistan's present prospects and about archaeological concepts and research.

The 'treasures recovered' come from that part of the National Museum's collection so wisely preserved, in 1989, beneath the presidential palace in Kabul and revealed again in 2003 (Carver 2004: 253). They comprised a selection of 228 pieces from five sites in northern Afghanistan.

The first exhibit was the gold cups from Tepe Fullol. The farmers who found them were dividing the cups up with an axe when the hoard was rescued but, during the disarray of the 1970s and since, it has been dispersed. The three shown in Paris are all that remain in public hands; another was recently recognised in the London antiquities market (Cambon with Jarrige 2007: 142; and see Carver 2004: 254). The catalogue (Cambon with Jarrige 2007) seeks to resolve arguments over how to cross-date the cups to the late third millennium BC with reference to Mesopotamia, the Indus and Central Asia; and thereby hangs the exhibitions principal theme.

The second set of exhibits was from the ancient city at Ai Khanoum, dug by the French Archaeological Delegation (DAFA) in 1965-78. It may be Alexander the Great's foundation of Alexandria-of-the-Oxus; epigraphy, statuary, capitals and antefixa, bronzes and silverwork, all are Hellenistic. Shown too was a Corinthian capital recovered by the DAFA in 2004 from near Balkh (Bactra). A good virtual reality reconstruction of Ai Khanoum, and of the palace and sanctuary where the finds were made, confirmed the impression of a foreign colony. Yet there was also an ivory from India; and some of the pottery looks more local, including forms interpreted as derived from Buddhist reliquaries. Was Hellenism here solely at the Greeks' behest?

The issue of outsiders stood out yet more in the third section of the show, and this was what transfixed the visitors: the treasures from graves discovered in 1978-9 by a Russo-Afghan team at Tillia Tepe, post-dating a complex of late Bronze or early Iron Age buildings at the town. Every finest technique of the age went into the bodies' fittings. The genre is familiar as Scythian: the turquoise and lapis lazuli, ivory, amethyst and amber, the garnets and the pearls, the fantastical animal art. Coins from Parthia, India and the Mediterranean, and imports or echoes from the Far East, dated the burials to about 2000 years ago (see Figure 1).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

To turn from such intense visions to the last part of the show seemed a relief. This was devoted to the 'treasure' from Begram, which is understood as either Alexander the Great's city of Alexandria-on-the-Caucasus and, or, the later Kushana capital. The treasure was found in two rooms dug by the DAFA in 1937 and 1939-40: Hellenistic bronzes and iconography, glassware, and ivories carved with utterly captivating intricacy in Indian style. Here again, then, arose the issue of whose this 'world art' was and what it was for.

The show's curatorship was a feat of international cooperation. By the same token, Afghanistan celebrated the DAFA; and the exhibits from Begram included work of the Museum's own as well (Cambon with Jarrige 2007: 288-93). With their Afghan colleagues, the conservators restored some of the startlingly brightly painted glass; and work on a bronze dish, showing Medusa's head amidst swarming fish with tails that move as the dish is tipped, revealed the ingenuity with which it was manufactured and perhaps repaired in antiquity. …

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