November 28, 2004

The Bactrian Gold

... sounds like the title of a thriller, but it's actually the name of an incredible collection of artifacts excavated from an ancient tomb in northern Afghanistan (Hellenistic Bactria) by Soviet archaeologists led by V. Sarianidi in 1978. They're beautiful pieces of art, displaying a high level of skill and a fusion of traditions which looks very odd to modern eyes, e.g., this stern winged Aphrodite (cache), classically draped and with a bindi mark on her forehead. (Actually, that sort of fusion wouldn't look the least bit odd to modern eyes accustomed to the right parts of world cities.) They were passed on to the Afghan National Museum in Kabul, photographed for a gorgeous book in the 1980s (sadly out of print), and then disappeared from view during the Soviet-Afghan war. The common presumption was that they had either been stolen by the Soviets, melted down to pay for the war, or been looted, along with much of the rest of the museum, when the mujahideen finally took Kabul.

In a very pleasing development, the gold --- miraculously, all of it --- was found in a vault in the royal-turned-presidential palace in Kabul in Agust 2003, carefully hidden away. It now turns out that much of the rest of the Museum's collection was also hidden, and there's a very nice story in the L. A. Times on the re-emergence of the collection (cache). These include the Bagram ivories (cache), from the old capital of the Kushan empire. (This is the same Bagram which is the main air-base in Afghanistan, used in turn by the Soviets, from their preparations for invasion in 1979 through the end of their occupation in 1989, and by the Americans.) Much of the collection has been destroyed, much of the rest has been looted, and there are essentially no resources to preserve, protect and display what's left; still, this is a good and hopeful development.

(Via Kris and Jay Han.)

Afghanistan and Central Asia; Writing for Antiquity

Posted at November 28, 2004 11:00 | permanent link

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