Hidden Treasures from Afghanistan

The first lecture of the Afghanistan Lecture Program, delivered by Dr J. Patrick Greene on 26 March 2013.

In this lecture Dr. Greene discusses the stories behind the objects in the Hidden Treasures exhibition as well as the challenges and benefits of bringing this exhibition to Australia.

Dr. Greene is Chief Executive Officer of Museum Victoria. He is also an archaeologist who's visited and studied in many archaeological sites around the world.

Listen now to a recording of this lecture (28:56 minutes):


Download audio file (mp3, 13.5MB)

Download transcript (Word doc, 46KB)


The amazing story of Afghanistan’s hidden treasures

An article by Fredrik Hiebert, curator Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul

A unique exhibit of ancient treasures from Afghanistan’s National Museum makes a stop in Australia.  The Melbourne Museum is the first venue, where you can see artifacts from the center of the Asian “Silk Road” trade routes.  All found in Afghanistan, these objects reveal how complex and sophisticated the world was thousands of years ago.  The exhibition also comes with a fascinating back-story of discovery.

Two hundred and thirty ancient treasures from the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul are on display at the Melbourne Museum from March 22-July 28.  These treasures tell two stories: one the story of a brilliant ancient legacy, and the other of the heroism of the men and women who saved them.

These treasures were quietly taken off display for safekeeping by the Afghan staff of the National Museum during the turbulent years of the Afghan civil war.  The objects included some of the most important artifacts from the Silk Road trade that had crossed through the heart of Asia. The artifacts had been found during archaeological excavations in Afghanistan over the last 70 years.  Archaeologist and curator Fredrik Hiebert of the National Geographic Society was there when the vaults were opened in 2004. Here is his account of the artifacts’ odyssey:

The day that the first safe was opened after 15 years was one of the most significant days for Afghans and for the world, revealing for the first time what was saved from this important museum.

It is important to stress that Afghans themselves saved their own cultural heritage.  The 30 to 40 people involved in saving the treasures when the museum building was destroyed do not consider themselves heroes – they were just doing their jobs.  This noble character of Afghan people--despite civil war and uncertainty--is something I want to tell my children, and as many people as possible, about.  This sort of courage and sense of history and culture makes me very optimistic about the future of Afghanistan.

It is a miracle to see these thousand-year-old objects in front of our eyes.  As I look upon them, I still get tingles down my spine, thinking that these shouldn’t be here  (we thought they must have been destroyed, melted or stolen) and here they are to share with the world.

These artifacts represent more than just beautiful and finely crafted art.  They represent the best record of ancient Silk Road trade, trade that went from Rome to China, as well as from India to Siberia.  All of these artifacts were found during scientific excavations conducted by archaeological teams in Afghanistan.  The best pieces were put on display in the Kabul Museum.  The museum was small, but the fact that all of the artifacts were found in situ is particularly significant now.

The objects in the exhibit are a small sample of the more than 33,000 pieces that survive from the museum.  It took an act of the Afghan parliament to allow these treasures on international tour as an ambassador of Afghanistan. This is a good news story providing a balance to the daily news from Afghanistan.  This exhibition shows an ancient and multicultural side of Afghanistan that all Australians will have a chance to experience.

Before the exhibition could happen, the daunting task of picking up the pieces and making a record of what was preserved had to occur. “I actually did not believe it, when I first heard the rumors that some of the Kabul Museum treasures were preserved in Afghanistan.”

During the Afghan civil war, I, like so many of my western colleagues, had written articles in newspapers and magazines lamenting the loss of the artifacts from the Kabul Museum. When I first visited Kabul, I saw the museum building: no roof, no windows and inside, no artifacts. How could we have guessed that these treasures had been kept safe? No one divulged the secret during those 15 years.

By 2003, the museum director in Kabul was confident enough to reveal the truth. For the first time we heard that the fabled Bactrian gold was preserved.

The Bactrian gold is the single most important archaeological discovery made in Afghanistan in the last 50 years.  This collection of 22,000 pieces of jewelry comes from tombs of six members of a nomadic royal family from nearly 2000 years ago. Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi carefully excavated them in 1978-79.

Twenty years ago, Viktor had told me about his discovery. It was conducted during the winter months in windswept northern Afghanistan. 1979 was a difficult year to do archaeology in Afghanistan. Civil war had begun and Soviet tanks were lined up on the border. He couldn’t stop digging for fear of leaving some of the tombs undocumented. By March, Viktor had to pack up the finds and scramble in haste to the National Museum. He studied and counted the objects quickly before putting them in boxes – only able to see them one more time before they disappeared.

I went to Kabul in September of 2003 to ask the museum director if the Bactrian gold was safe or missing.  He told me a remarkable thing: “Yes, several safes from the museum were preserved in a bank vault, but that when the museum building was destroyed, so were the inventory papers.” He couldn’t say exactly what was in the safes but made an offer to me: “If you do new inventory of the artifacts, we will open the safes for you.”

That was the beginning of the new inventory. We engaged the National Geographic Society to fund a ‘mobile inventory lab’ and prepared to inventory anything and everything that might be left of the Bactrian gold.

By April 2004, the day had come to open the vault.  Dozens of security and museum personnel gathered in a dank basement room of a Kabul bank vault.  Viktor Sarianidi flew in from his excavations in Turkmenistan to witness the event.

The keys of the safes were, in fact, gone.  So how could we open them?  After several attempts to crack the first safe, a circular saw was brought in.  As the sparks jumped off the steel door, I worried, would the heat melt golden artifacts?  Was there even anything inside?

Finally the safe door opened.  Out fell dozens of plastic bags containing glittering gold decorations.  Each ornament was a miniature work of art that looked like it could have come from Rome, China or Egypt.

As I looked around the room at that moment, I didn’t see the euphoria that I was expecting. In fact, few, if any (aside from Viktor) had ever seen the Bactrian gold before, and the question was asked, how could we prove that this was actually the Bactrian gold?

It took some time, opening bags, sorting through the objects.  Finally, Viktor’s expression changed – he found something special.  He held up a flower-shaped ornament (a hairpiece from Burial Six, on display in the exhibition) and pointed to a small nylon repair.  He said “I made this repair in 1979, this is proof that this is the real Bactrian treasure.”  The veil of disbelief fell from the crowded room. The realization that Afghanistan’s cultural heritage had been saved burst forth – it was a scintillating moment.

It was also a daunting moment, because then the real work began of inventorying some 22,00 pieces of the Bactrian gold.  It took about three months, counting and recounting, weighing, measuring and photographing, but in the end all 22,000 pieces were recorded.  Not a single piece was missing.  This was reported to the President of Afghanistan, who visited the vault at the end of the inventory.  We laid out the best gold for the president to see, but he looked at the paperwork first and said “Nice work.”

We returned to the vault several more times over the next year to open more museum boxes than just the Bactrian gold. For example, we found fragile intact glass and bronzes from a 2000-year-old merchant’s warehouse, excavated in the 1930’s at Begram, Afghanistan. All of these artifacts had been wrapped in newspaper and cotton and were in wonderful condition, despite the boxes having bumped and scratched while they were hidden. Several hundred crates, boxes and safes of Kabul Museum artifacts came to light. It was like opening a wrapped present every day.

Today, we can tell the story: prior to the museum being destroyed in the early 1990’s, all of the objects on display in the museum had been quietly packed up and hidden – this includes 4000-year-old Bronze Age artifacts, 2500-year-old objects from a Greek city in northern Afghanistan, artifacts from the Roman era merchant’s warehouse in Begram, and of course, the Bactrian gold.

A small selection of these treasures are on display are on view for us in Melbourne due to the tenacity of modern Afghans whose courage and sense of self inspires us to care for the world’s cultural legacies.  “Look well on these artifacts, for each one tells a story – the heavy braided gold belt of a Bactrian nomadic prince, an intact glass goblet imported millennia ago from Egypt, a large stone block inscribed with the sage advice from the oracle at Delphi, Greece – all found in Afghanistan,” said Hiebert.  They will be in Australia for a short time before eventually going home to be on display in Afghanistan once again. 

Biography of Fredrik Hiebert: Archaeologist and National Geographic Fellow Fred Hiebert has traced ancient trade routes overland and across the seas for more than 20 years. His excavations span the globe, from ancient Silk Road sites across Asia to underwater archaeology projects in the Black Sea and South America. Fred participated in the opening and inventory of the hidden museum treasures of the Kabul Museum, Afghanistan from 2004 - 2006, and is curator of the exhibition, Hidden Treasures.

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