Robert Knox: The horror of cultural destruction

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The arid regions of north and north-west Afghanistan were, from about 2500 to 1500BC, home to one of the richest and most interesting cultures of the ancient world.

This was the Bactrian civilisation, a great Bronze Age urban culture with relations and origins shared with the ancient peoples of central Asia and Pakistan. This civilisation began to be recognised in the 1970s with the arrival on the illicit art market of great quantities of objects of unique character, mostly found in graves.

These objects, sold widely abroad, were made in fine stone and shell, precious metals and copper alloys, along with semi-precious stones such as lapis, carnelian and turquoise. There are small and valuable stone statuettes of seated deities, jewellery, gold, silver and alabaster vessels, seals, weights and long-turned and polished sceptres in stone, ceramics, pins, animal-shaped cosmetic jars, mirrors and elaborately decorated axe heads. The list is almost endless.

Archaeological work in Afghan Bactria began before Afghanistan was closed down by the Russian invasion of 1979 and later civil strife; there is left to us now only a limited knowledge of ancient life. The art and antiquities markets of Europe and America are full of material from looted sites across Bactria. With so many sites destroyed in this quest for saleable antiquities, all the information that could have been extracted from a systematic excavation is lost.

The physical context of the thousands of Bactrian objects now in dealers' hands is quite unknown. No site names can be put to these objects, no one will ever know what these objects mean apart from their value as objets d'art, and they will never be of any use to the process of building an accurate picture of life in the country.

The horror of cultural destruction continues. Venerable buildings are stripped of their marble decoration and inscriptions, ancient archaeological sites are dug up randomly and without mercy; and huge quantities of objects are removed from prehistoric sites.

Robert Knox is keeper, Department of Asia in the British Museum

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