WASHINGTON—More than 22,000 objects from the rich cultural history of Afghanistan — including exquisite ivory statues, medallions from the summer palaces of kings and 2,500 years’ worth of gold and silver coins — have been found safe in vaults in downtown Kabul in an inventory project led by National Geographic.
The precious objects, which represent a Silk Road melting pot of artifacts from China, India, Egypt, Greece, Rome and ancient Afghanistan, were thought to have fallen victim to a series of destructive events in Afghanistan: bombing of the Kabul Museum, which stood at the front lines of the early 1980s civil war; wholesale looting by local fighters in the late 1980s; and intentional destruction of Afghan relics by the Taliban over the past decade.
“By the end of the Taliban’s reign, most of us thought there was nothing left — just destruction and despair,” said National Geographic Fellow Fredrik Hiebert, who led the inventory project with support from National Geographic and the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities.
Although untold numbers of Afghan artifacts have been lost forever, the recovery of the museum treasures offers a ray of hope.
“This project has been an enormous boost for Afghanistan — finding the treasures intact and then working with the outstanding team to inventory each one of them, preserving our heritage for our children,” said Afghanistan’s minister of information and culture, Sayed Makhdoom Raheen.
Traveling to Kabul earlier this year, Hiebert worked with the Afghan government to organize an inventory, beginning with the famed Bactrian gold pieces, one of the great icons of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. First discovered by Soviet archaeologists in 1978, the horde included more than 20,000 exquisite gold objects from a 2,000-year-old Silk Road culture. As reported earlier this year, an old-fashioned safe-cracking at a presidential palace vault in April revealed the entire trove to be intact, most of it having been spirited away more than 25 years ago by museum staff members as bombs started to fall.
“Anyone who had anything to do with Central Asia couldn’t believe these treasures were still intact,” said Terry Garcia, National Geographic’s executive vice president for Missions. “We are thrilled to contribute to the preservation of these precious relics of the world’s cultural heritage.”
After securing the Bactrian gold, Hiebert led a team of 18 Afghans, including longtime museum director Omara Khan Masoodi and American scholar Carla Grissmann, in making a full accounting of the entire collection, first describing each artifact in both English and local Dari, then photographing them, and finally repacking the thousands of objects. To the team’s delight, all of the artifacts were found in good condition. “It was marvelous to see the faces of the Afghan museum curators who had saved these priceless objects for all of these years, through their silence,” Hiebert said.
But the Bactrian gold was not all that had been spirited away during the wars and conflict. After the initial inventory was complete, Masoodi pointed the team toward a separate set of 20 boxes he thought might contain the precious objects that Silk Road camels once carried between China and Rome or maybe the ornate artifacts that blended artistry of Greece with that of ancient India.
He was right. First the team found nearly 2,000 gold and silver coins representing the whole numismatic history of Afghanistan, beginning in the 5th century B.C. “Put together, the coins formed a portrait gallery of Afghan kings,” Hiebert said.
Next were found three classical ivory statues, each nearly three feet tall, representing historic water goddesses, relics of the Kushan kings of the first century A.D; at least one published art book had said those sculptures had been looted long ago. Then came a series of plaster medallions that once adorned the walls of the Kushan kings’ summer palaces, along with large ivory palettes — furniture ornaments exquisitely carved with scenes of royal court life. The state of preservation was excellent. “Every box we opened was like a Christmas package,” Hiebert said.
Just when Hiebert and the team believed they had seen everything that had survived, they were told about some unopened trunks in another location. Believing that they would find only objects smashed by the Taliban, they opened the trunks and discovered yet another rich collection, filled with the Kabul Museum’s great Buddhist terra cottas — “hundreds and hundreds of sculptures and carvings from Buddhist religious structures,” Hiebert said. “The eyes on the sculpted clay faces are not Chinese or Indian — they are deeply Afghan.”
The final tally, including the Bactrian gold objects: 22,596 objects found, described in two languages, catalogued and repacked with care for eternity.
NOTE TO EDITORS: An article on the precarious state of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, including a sidebar on the rediscovery of the Bactrian gold, appears in the December 2004 National Geographic magazine. Hiebert’s work also will be featured in a National Geographic Special, “Lost Treasures of Afghanistan,” airing only on PBS in early 2005.