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Afghanistan: British Museum Curious About 'Bactrian Hoard'

  • Ron Synovitz

The reported discovery in Afghanistan of thousands of gold artifacts dating back to the time of Alexander the Great is being treated with a mix of curiosity and cautious skepticism by experts at the British Museum who specialize in such antiquities. Curators tell RFE/RL that they are eager to see photographic documentation of the Afghan collection and will help to identify and catalog the material if asked.

Prague, 23 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai says 20,000 gold objects dating as far back as Alexander the Great's conquest of Afghanistan in 327 B.C. were found when he ordered that a sealed vault in his presidential compound be forced open.

The vault also reportedly contains other treasures from the Kabul Museum that were thought to have been vandalized by the Taliban or looted by the various militia forces that controlled Kabul during the past two decades of war.

Andrew Meadows, a curator for the British Museum's massive collection of ancient Greek coins, says initial news reports are too sketchy to verify from which historical periods the artifacts might date.

But Meadows says he and other British Museum experts are eager to see photographic documentation of the Afghan collection: "The British Museum will be delighted to help in any way we can in identifying and helping to catalogue this material if a request comes."

Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani says he was with Karzai in the vault when it was first opened in August. He says it was clear the vault had not been entered for decades -- despite the efforts of the Taliban and others to find the collection.

Ghani says the treasure probably was locked away for safe keeping when the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated shortly before Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

Significantly, the artifacts have never been publicly displayed anywhere in the world. Ghani has been quoted as saying he believes it may be the most important collection of antiquities outside of Egypt. It is said to include many gold coins and plates, weapons studded with precious jewels, a golden crown, and a solid gold pendant of Aphrodite.

The artifacts are believed to be those excavated in 1978 by Soviet archaeologist Viktor Ivanovich Sarianidi from six tombs at a necropolis in northern Afghanistan known as Tilya Tepe, or the Golden Hill.

Though Karzai has said the Sarianidi artifacts are "all there," the identity of the objects said to be in the vault have not been verified by experts outside of the Afghan government.

In an essay last year, Sarianidi lamented their supposed loss. Sarianidi wrote that the collection "threw light on the historic period of mankind which, until now, was called a 'dark period' due to the lack of sufficient information. The objects of the collection reflect the synthesis of different art styles and trends. For example, a single object could demonstrate the combination of artistic methods from ancient Greece, Rome, China, Siberia, and Central Asia."

Bactria is the name of an ancient kingdom in Central Asia that was conquered by Alexander the Great on his way to India. With its capital of Bactra, in the present day Afghan province of Balkh, the kingdom existed under Greek influence for decades after Alexander the Great passed through and set up Greek colonies nearby.

Coins from Bactria minted after the death of Alexander the Great sometimes depicted Alexander's head. Gold coins like those thought to be part of the so-called "Bactrian hoard" are rare and can fetch up to $10,000 each on the international market.

The British Museum curators who have offered to help catalog the Bactrian hoard have considerable experience with artifacts from the same era. The British Museum houses what is considered to be the most important publicly displayed collection of gold artifacts from the time of Alexander the Great that have been linked to Afghanistan.

That collection -- known as the Oxus Treasure -- includes 170 objects from the Persian empire of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., which stretched from Egypt and the Aegean Sea to Afghanistan and the Indus River valley.

British Museum curator Meadows says the Oxus Treasure was excavated during the 19th century from a site near the River Oxus in what is now northern Afghanistan. He says the gold vessels, jewelry, and coins seem to have been gathered together over a long period of time.

"It's really an interesting mixture of objects. It includes some things that go back to the Achaemenid Persian empire -- the empire that Alexander the Great conquered. It's a mixture of coins [and other objects] from right the way back to the Classical Greek period forward into the Hellenistic period -- the period after the death of Alexander the Great. So it seems to be a big accumulation of precious metal material, probably collected together precisely because it was precious metal, and buried, hidden sometime in the Hellenistic period. That is to say, a good deal after the death of Alexander," Meadows said.

Meadows says he and other British Museum curators are skeptical about press reports suggesting that the Bactrian hoard may be part of a legendary treasure that Alexander the Great collected himself and left behind in Afghanistan before advancing into the Indus River valley. Still, he said some of the Bactrian gold may be indirectly linked to Alexander.

"We have plenty of coinage of Alexander the Great here. And there was an awful lot of coinage issued by Alexander. He became very wealthy very quickly and had a big army to pay. So he issued large amounts of gold and silver coinage. Over and above that, the sort of gold that would have been sloshing around after Alexander moved eastwards [into India] could have been in a variety of forms. There will have been a lot of gold in the form of jewelry or other precious items of one sort or another which, undoubtedly, he found in the Persian royal treasuries as he moved eastwards," Meadows said.

Meadows concedes that the Bactrian hoard would dwarf the Oxus Treasure if press reports from Kabul can be believed: "It's very difficult to say without knowing the sorts of things they've found. If the reports are anything like correct, if there is this quantity of gold, then certainly it surpasses anything that's ever been found and kept together in one group before. The sort of size they're talking about eclipses even the Oxus Treasure in the British Museum."

Afghan officials say they are leaving the Bactrian hoard inside Karzai's presidential compound for now. They say it is the safest place to keep the treasure as long as the security situation in the country remains unstable.