Afghanistan Hidden Treasures

By Chrysanthou, Samantha | Queen's Quarterly, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Afghanistan Hidden Treasures


Chrysanthou, Samantha, Queen's Quarterly


The Bactrian Hoard, a fantastic collection of more than 20,000 gold ornaments, was unearthed in 1978 from a nomad burial site at Tillya Tepe. The objects' unique blend of Greek, Roman, Persian, Indian, Chinese, and Siberian influences makes this one of the most significant discoveries in the history of archaeology. About 100 exquisite gold pieces, many embellished with turquoise, pearls, and other gemstones, are on display at the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

In 1979, Afghanistan was thrown into a period of chaos. Since that time, the country, its inhabitants, its infrastructure, and its cultural heritage have suffered immense harm. Therefore, it is something of a miracle that a significant portion of this treasured legacy of artifacts survived over the past three decades.

The story behind this exhibition begins in 1978 as political instability threatened the country. A group of dedicated museum staff and government officials resolved to protect the precious contents of the National Museum of Afghanistan from looting and destruction. They risked their lives to secretly transfer thousands of artifacts and works of art to secure hiding places in the Ministry of Information and Culture, and in the Central Bank vault under the Presidential Palace. They locked the museum crates with keys and distributed them to trusted individuals.

In 2003, the government revealed the hiding place. At last, the museum crates could be opened and their dazzling contents revealed. A team of local and international experts witnessed the historic occasion, including National Geographic Society Fellow Fredrik Hiebert and Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi, whose team had excavated the Tillya Tepe site in the 1970s. Soon after, Afghanistan announced to the world that the Bactrian Hoard and other precious artifacts had been recovered, and assembled an international team to catalogue, preserve, and exhibit the collections.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Crown, Tillya Tepe, gold, 100 BCE--100 CE

[c] Musee Guimet / Thierry Ollivier

This crown was found in the tomb of a high-ranking nomadic woman. The ingenious design allowed the crown to be dismantled and easily transported. Golden birds appear in the upper branches of four of the five trees, which represent the Tree of Life, a common theme in nomad beliefs. This type of collapsible crown, with tree and bird motifs, has many parallels among nomadic peoples who occupied the steppes of northern Central Asia.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Sculpture Fragment, Ai Khanum, unfired clay, c. 150 BCE

[c] Musee Guimet / Thierry Ollivier

The use of clay and plaster in sculpture was a major Legacy of the Greeks to Central Asia, and was popular with Greco-Bactrian artists. These materials were less costly than bronze or stone, and were easily worked. …

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