‘Secrets’ Worth Weight in Gold

Times Staff Writer

More than 22,000 treasures from the Kabul Museum in Afghanistan, long thought to have been lost in the war against the Soviet Union and the subsequent cultural purge by the Taliban, have been located in bank vaults and other safe places where they were hidden by museum officials.

The priceless Bactrian gold collection, precious ivories, bronze statues and other artifacts of 5,000 years of history on the Orient’s Silk Road were preserved despite the devastation engulfing the country, archeologists said Wednesday.

The discovery of the Bactrian gold was announced this summer, but a just-completed inventory revealed that virtually all of the museum’s most precious items are intact, Oxford University archeologist Fredrik T. Hiebert said.


During the resistance against the Soviets, a team of curators in the early 1980s boxed up the most valuable pieces in the museum’s collection, stashing them in various vaults around Kabul, the Afghan capital. The curators -- most of whose names are unknown -- used small safes, tin boxes, steel containers and anything else they could find.

They then went “dead quiet,” British archeologist Carla Grissman said, keeping their knowledge to themselves even as rumors circulated about the destruction and looting of the museum’s contents.

They kept their secrets for a quarter of a century.

“These are the real heroes of this story,” said Hiebert, leader of the team that has been inventorying the newly rediscovered artifacts.

Because the once-missing items come from so many different places along the Silk Road, he added, the find “has a significance well beyond Afghanistan and Central Asia. It’s of world importance.”

Now that the artifacts are reinventoried, they have been packed up and stored in a once-again secret location until the government can find a new home for them.

The Kabul Museum has been restored, but security there is not sufficient to protect the treasures.


Curators hope to build a state-of-the-art museum in the center of the capital, but no one is sure where the money will come from.

In the meantime, the Afghan Ministry of Culture may organize an international tour for the collection in an effort to reestablish the country’s historical bona fides.

The Kabul Museum was a small facility housed in a 1920s-era federal building about 30 minutes from the city center.

Although it was small, Hiebert noted, “it is said that every piece [it had] was a masterpiece.”

Kabul was a prosperous city throughout much of the Silk Road era, during which camel caravans transported textiles from China to Europe and art forms, gold and other materials in the opposite direction.

Bactrians, Kushans, Greeks and Buddhists conquered or traveled through the region, and the museum bore objects from these civilizations.

Unfortunately, the museum’s neighborhood became a front line in the fighting against the Soviets and the building was shelled into a windowless, roofless hulk.

Many of the artifacts that had not been removed were blasted to shards. More important, the inventory cards that described the museum’s contents were destroyed by fire and neglect.

That wasn’t the end of it.

The victorious mujahedin broke open storerooms and looted much of what was left. Antique dealers in New York, Tokyo and London began displaying artifacts bearing catalog numbers from the museum.

The final indignity came with the Taliban regime, which smashed many of the remaining statues in the museum and destroyed the monumental Buddhas in Bamian. The Taliban apparently tried to find the hidden artifacts.

Among the greatest treasures hidden away was the Bactrian gold, a collection of 20,457 golden objects dating back about 2,000 years that was excavated in northern Afghanistan in 1978 by Russian archeologist Viktor Sarianidi.

Excavating a crude burial mound not far from the city of Sheberghan, Sarianidi found that the coffins, skeletons and clothes of the six occupants had rotted away, leaving behind a collection of near-pristine golden ornaments.

The collection included appliques from cloaks, figurines, clasps decorated with cupids riding dolphins, pendants depicting scenes of war, a statue of the goddess Aphrodite and an elaborate crown.

After the gold disappeared during the early stages of the war, historians feared that it had been carried off to Russia or melted down.

As it turned out, the Bactrian gold was stored in an elaborate bank vault along with much of the country’s store of gold bullion, protected behind a shield of seven locks that defied the efforts of the Taliban to break in.

It was not until August 2003, when a team of locksmiths was brought in from Germany, that its existence became known.

Hiebert was brought in last spring to catalog the gold with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Geographic Society.

Using a portable laboratory carried in half a dozen suitcases, he and his team identified each piece, which was then photographed, cataloged and carefully packed away.

The team found that every piece of the Bactrian collection, from medium-sized statues down to fingernail-sized slivers, was present and accounted for.

When Hiebert finished that task, he was surprised to learn that some other boxes had to be inventoried. None of them were labeled, so he had no idea what they contained.

The team began opening them in August. The first set of boxes contained 2,000-year-old ivories from Begram, the Kushan capital, intricately carved and engraved with scenes of palace life.

Other boxes contained highly detailed glass goblets from Alexandria, Egypt, bronze statues and plaster busts of the elites from Rome and Begram, and early Buddhist sculptures.

“It was a very emotional experience watching these men [Afghan archeologists] as they saw their own heritage coming back to life,” Hiebert said.

He said the team had now found and inventoried all but about 100 of the most valuable artifacts from the museum.

He and his team have also re-created the original cataloging system, so that they know which items are missing from the collection.

Armed with that information, international authorities may be able to recover many of the items from dealers and collectors, he said.