View Full Version : "Lost" Afghan treasures found

Nov 18, 2004, 10:47 PM
This is great news! :bounce:

Ivory statues, Buddhist carvings, gold coins and thousands of other precious objects from the Kabul Museum feared stolen or destroyed under Soviet occupation and Taliban rule have been found, an American archaeologist said.

Packed in toilet paper and sawdust in iron safes and tin boxes, the treasure trove of 5,000 years of Afghan history had been hidden 25 years ago by museum staff in the Kabul presidential palace and other places, said National Geographic fellow Fredrik Hiebert.

"The majority of the items that were on display in the old Kabul Museum -- and that is the masterpieces -- are preserved," Hiebert told AFP by telephone from Philadelphia, where he holds a research position at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Most of the Kabul Museum's collection, which included Silk Road artifacts from China, Egypt, India, Greece and Rome besides ancient Afghanistan, disappeared following the 1979 Soviet invasion and the years of civil war which followed the 1989 Soviet withdrawal.

Statues and other artifacts considered "un-Islamic" were smashed by the Taliban after the fundamentalist Islamic militia took power in 1996.

But a total of 22,596 objects, including 2,000-year-old Bactrian gold jewelry and ornaments, ivory statues of water goddesses and Buddhist terra cotta sculptures and carvings, have been recovered in the Kabul stash, Hiebert said.

At the invitation of Afghan government officials and with the support of the US National Endowment for the Humanities, Hiebert carried out a National Geographic-led inventory of the items.

Hiebert said his team of 18 Afghans initially thought they would only be inspecting six boxes in the presidential bank vault containing the fabled collection of Bactrian gold discovered by Soviet archaeologists in northern Afghanistan in 1978.

"But when we finished with the six boxes they said, 'Well that's great, now what about these other boxes?'" he said.

"So it started with another 20 boxes which were in the presidential bank vault, and when we finished with that,they said, 'What about these other boxes' and by this time our heads were sort of whirling," Hiebert said.

"We're up to 120 boxes and there's still a few more," he said.

Hiebert said how the treasures were secreted from the museum and where they have been hidden for all these years remained shrouded in mystery. "Unfortunately, most of the people who were involved are gone," he said.

"When the Kabul Museum building itself was destroyed all the paper documents were destroyed, all the archival materials," he added.

"Any information about what these boxes contained was gone so by the time we got there 25 years later people didn't know what was inside. The boxes had never been opened. None of the boxes were labeled. None of them had keys.

"We'll never actually know the full story of how these boxes got to where they were," Hiebert said. "The boxes themselves are a fascinating little piece of history.

"You look at these boxes. Some of them are safes, some of them are tin boxes, some of them are steel boxes.

"But many of them are all dented up, have animal nests on them, have clearly been dripped on by water," he said. "They look like they were stored in barns, under roofs. They were a real mess and so we were extraordinarily worried about the contents.

"But we opened them up and despite the fact that the artifacts were packed in toilet paper and newspaper and sawdust and things like that they were in great shape."

Hiebert said the discovery of the secret museum stash explained what had puzzled archaeologists, historians and art experts for years.

"We in the museum community, we all kept watching the auction houses and the catalogues to see when the great masterpieces from the Kabul Museum would come on the market and they didn't," he said.

"You'd get these pieces -- a Buddha head or scrap of ivory -- but it wasn't the really great stuff," he said. "Certainly none of the Bactrian gold came on so we thought either the stuff had been completely smashed or melted down or secreted away to some private collection where we would never see it again."

Hiebert said the Afghan government was deciding what to do with the artifacts, which have been taken to a secret location. They may go on an international tour until a new museum can be built in Kabul.