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Archaeology: Treasure to go into melting pot: A massive coin hoard found in Afghanistan is under threat of destruction, reports David Keys

A MILLION ancient silver coins - the second-largest hoard ever found - is likely to be melted down to make tourist trinkets because nobody wants to buy them. The impending destruction will be one of the largest antiquities scandals the world has ever seen.

News is trickling out of Afghanistan of a vast amount of silver and gold treasure that has been discovered by tribesmen, 55 miles south of the Afghan capital Kabul.

It is understood that it consists of three tonnes of mainly silver coins, and 100 kilos of solid gold plates and jewellery. Whereas merchants and dealers have had no trouble in selling the gold items, the silver coins are proving impossible to dispose of.

They are in bad condition, and so collectors are not interested in them. However, they do have immense historical importance and, if studied properly, could unlock many of the secrets of central Asian history.

But the only organisations which would buy the coins for purely research purposes are large museums and other public institutions. However, they refuse to touch the material because it left Afghanistan illicitly. It is also understood that some of the coins have already been melted down and that the rest are likely to go into the furnaces shortly.

The coins date from the fourth century BC to the first century AD, and were issued by a succession of Greek, Persian, Scythian (central Asian) and Kushan (Turkic) kings of Afghanistan and western Pakistan.

Much of Afghan and central Asian early history remains a mystery, and proper study of the coins could yield up a great deal of new historical information.

The hoard is around 20 times the size of all the known collections of early Afghan coins in the world put together. Each coin has inscribed on it names of kings, details of minting sites, titles of rulers and other information. Proper academic study of the material would take years to complete, but would almost certainly solve a string of long-

standing historical mysteries.

It is known that Alexander the Great conquered Afghanistan and that Greek kings ruled the area for three centuries - but it is not known for sure who ousted them and became their successors. The hoard would provide an answer.

From the second century BC to the first century AD there were a bewildering number of local kings in Afghanistan, but although some of their names are known, historians do not know exactly when or where they ruled. Again, the hoard would probably provide many of the answers.

The region's early economic and social history is also fairly unknown, but proper statistical and metallurgical analysis of the coins would yield information on ancient inflation rates, population fluctuations and even trade patterns with the West.

In-depth study of the hoard would also probably double the number of known issues, and almost certainly reveal the identities of previously unknown kings.

Study of the hoard would also be likely to shed important new light on the apostle Saint Thomas's mission to India in around 45 AD. St Thomas - said in ancient manuscripts to have been Christ's twin brother - is believed by many scholars to have introduced Christianity to India.

The original story of his life and works in the early third century AD were later branded in part as heretical. The coin hoard is likely to give more details of an encounter which Thomas had with an Afghan king called Gondophares.

There are several local kings by that name and proper study of the coins should identify exactly which particular ruler St Thomas encountered, and where. The new information would help confirm the St Thomas story.

The coins and gold treasures were found buried in mud in a waterhole and spring at Mirzakah, which is 30 miles north-east of the small Afghan town of Gardez.

Information currently coming out of the region suggests that fighting broke out over the treasure, and that several local people were killed. Elders are then believed to have declared it to be tribal property.

The silver and gold from the mud is believed to have filled five large chests - at least one of which was subsequently bought by elements associated with one of the Afghan Mujahedin militias. Some of the treasure then found its way across the Pakistan border to merchants in the city of Peshawar.

The gold objects - worth an estimated USdollars 100m - include very high quality necklaces, bangles, spoons and plates dating from 400 BC to 200 AD. Some solid gold kitchen utensils dating from the third century BC are decorated with classical Greek figures, while some gilt silver tableware items are adorned with beautiful Greek-style reliefs.

The treasure also included many fourth- and fifth-century Persian gold coins. Most of the treasure was probably buried by local kings or princes in the mud of the waterhole for safe-keeping in two stages - Kushan invasions in the second century BC and the early first century AD.

The gold objects have now mostly been sold to collectors in the US and Japan, but tragically the coins - which are historically far more important - and their priceless information will almost certainly end up in the melting pot. In cash terms, the coins could probably be purchased for around USdollars 750,000, but would cost many millions to conserve.

The only move that could save them would be for the Afghan government to give its official permission to museums to purchase the entire hoard - but no museums or other institutions have so far made any moves in that direction. Much of Afghanistan's early history seems therefore doomed to the furnaces.