Rescued Afghan treasure trove comes to UK

Curators smuggled priceless objects to a secret vault before their museum was shelled. Amazingly both objects and curators survived.

Some of the most exciting treasures in the world will go on display at the British Museum this Thursday. Thousands of people will visit them between now and July 3rd, when the exhibition closes. It is said that for those who see them and understand, life will never be quite the same again.

Why so exciting? First: because these treasures are from Afghanistan, a country known for war but in truth the cradle of an ancient civilisation. Second: because they are like time machines whisking us to a place in history where we find people with thoughts and feelings like ours, yet also utterly different. Third: because they force us to rethink a world where people were more connected 2,000 years ago than we thought possible without phones, planes and the internet. Fourth: because of the heroic secret rescue operation that saved these treasures from being destroyed.

The treasures include objects of stunning delicacy and feeling. There is a 4,000-year-old golden bowl decorated with bulls, and from 2,000 years ago, a goblet showing women harvesting dates and ivory carvings of swaying, sensuous dancers.

In 1978, at a place called 'Golden Hill' or Tillya Tepe, a team of Soviet-Afghan scientists stumbled upon 21,618 gold, silver and ivory objects from the first century AD inside the tomb of five men and one woman – nomads who worked the trading currents from Europe, China, India and Asia converging in Afghanistan on what is known today as the Silk Road (because it was used to transport silk to Europe).

For nomads, everything had to be carried on horseback, so the gold crown that is on the British Museum's exhibition poster can be divided into six pieces and flat-packed for travel.

Desperate measures
To some people, objects like these are just objects. During the past 33 years of almost continuous war in Afghanistan, the museums have been shelled and ransacked by multiple armies. The Taliban smashed over 2,500 artefacts in one museum alone.

To others, they are worth risking life for. In 1988, Afghan curators took huge risks to smuggle the most important items to a secret vault in the capital, Kabul. They then 'disappeared', working as potato sellers or cart drivers. Only in 2004, when it was judged safe, did they come out of hiding to reveal their secret. The treasures were unpacked and, against all odds, were still in excellent condition.

This week, watched over by the team that saved them, they go triumphantly on show in London.

You Decide

  1. Two thousand years ago, some people made beautiful ornaments, wore great jewellery, travelled widely. Given the chance, would you volunteer to spend a year as a first century nomad in Afghanistan?
  2. If an art gallery was on fire, would you consider risking your life to rescue a painting?

Activities

  1. Imagine a modern golden bowl. Draw the images you would have on the bowl for archeologists to discuss in 4,000 AD?
  2. Look at the British Museum website and write down a list of your favourite three treasures from Afghanistan, saying what you like about them.

Some People Say...

“A priceless work of art is worth more than an ordinary human life”

What do you think?

Q & A

Which armies shelled the Afghan museums?
Firstly the Soviet army. The great museum at Hadda, near Jalalabad, was plundered in 1981. Then different Afghan militia groups. One of them hit the main Kabul museum with rocket fire in 1994 and destroyed the building completely. About 70 per cent of the collection was looted.
What about the Taliban?
Yes, they also took their turn. In 2001 they tried to destroy all images for religious reasons. They blew up sculptures of Buddha and smashed objects in the storerooms. Museum staff rebuilt as much as possible. One statue was reassembled, smashed once more and then restored all over again. (It is in the exhibition).
Did anyone catch the looters?
No. Experts found treasures for sale in the souk and quickly bought them. Today they are also in the exhibition.