Afghanistan's ancient jewels to sparkle in London

Rob Sharp
Tuesday 30 November 2010 01:00

The shimmering brightness of a collection of priceless artifacts from Afghanistan contrasts with the darkness in which they languished for most of their existence.

The Bactrian Hoard, forgotten for two millennia before being unearthed by archaeologists in the late 1970s, has since survived the Taliban and Afghan civil war. Now its key pieces are to go on display in Britain for the first time.

The hoard, comprising 20,600 gold artifacts, was uncovered by Soviet archaeologists in 1978 in a series of burial mounds in north Afghanistan but was hidden during the Soviet invasion of 1979. Feared lost, the treasures were found again in 2004, after the fall of the Taliban and the election of Hamid Karzai as Afghan President.

The collection's most priceless pieces, which include a gold crown, dagger and scabbard, shoe-buckles and a selection of jewellery, are to form part of the British Museum's Afghanistan: Crossroads Of The Ancient World exhibition from next March. "It's an extraordinary opportunity to see the highlights of the jewellery of central Asia in London," said British Museum curator Dr St John Simpson. "Hidden and concealed, excavated, feared lost and rediscovered; it's fantastic to finally see it here."

In 2003, the hoard was rediscovered in hidden vaults underneath a central bank building in Kabul. The Taliban destroyed Afghanistan's famous stone Buddhas of Bamiyan, and it was feared they would do the same with the Bactrian treasure. "The material is from six graves," added Simpson. "Many of the pieces are the ultimate accessories, personal ornaments worn on the body or stitched on to the clothing. It allows some reconstruction work to see exactly how the people's dress would have appeared."

Bactria straddled the trade routes of Asia and was conquered by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. The pieces are on loan from the National Museum of Afghanistan.

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