Bactrian Treasure: Mystery of the Disappearing Treasure

by Michael Bernzweig

The Mystery of the Disappearing Treasure

Few treasure troves had been found in human history that are as spectacular as the so-called Bactrian Gold. This enormous hoard of 2,000-year-old gold artifacts and other valuable objects contains over 20,000 individual pieces. And yet its modern history is as strange as the collection is valuable. The hoard has only been discovered in the last fifty years, but since then, it has disappeared again…twice! The latest incident occurred in the autumn of 2021. In between, parts of the treasure have been put on display at exhibitions all over the world. So how does a priceless hoard of over 20,000 artifacts simply disappear? Here we examine the history of the Bactrian Gold and the mysterious multiple disappearances of it in recent times. 

1989 was the year. Afghanistan was at war with the Soviet Union, and the Kabul Museum, which originally housed the wealth, had been bombarded several times in prior years in central Asia. Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai, Afghanistan's then-president, formally closed the palace museum and its hidden treasures in 1989 and relocated its collections to three places. One of them would safeguard the Bactrian Hoard for more than a quarter-century.

The Excavation of Tillya Tepe 

The Bactrian Gold was first discovered in 1978 as part of an archaeological excavation undertaken that year in Afghanistan by archaeologists from the Soviet Union. The dig was overseen by the Uzbek archaeologist of Greek descent, Viktor Sarianidi.  Born in 1929, Sarianidi studied for a master’s degree from the Institute of Archaeology of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Moscow during the 1960s and then went on to complete a doctoral dissertation in 1975 on ‘Afghanistan in the Bronze and Iron Ages. The very next year, he began undertaking a fresh excavation of Bronze Age sites in the Karakum Desert stretching through Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Then two years later, an opportunity arose to conduct fieldwork on site in Afghanistan, with which so much of his previous work had been concerned. In

April of 1978, the Saur Revolution occurred there, which led to the overthrow of the military dictatorship of General Mohammed Daoud Khan. The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, or PDPA for short, now came to power. This was a Marxist-Leninist political movement that allied itself closely with the Soviet Union.  Consequently, Sarianidi was now most welcome to enter Afghanistan and begin excavating in the northern Afghan province of Jowzjan, a few kilometers north of the provincial capital of Sheberghan. This site had been identified as the center of a major Bronze Age settlement as early as 1969, but Sarianidi and his team were to make the most significant discoveries made there during their dig in 1978. Shortly after they began their work Sariandini and his team uncovered six burial mounds that almost certainly dated to the first century AD. These were the tombs of six influential individuals of the time, five of them women and one man. The site became known as ‘Tillya Tepe’, meaning ‘Golden Hill’ or ‘Golden Mound’ in Persian, a designation arrived at because of the immense store of funerary objects found there. Sarianidi and his team had discovered over 20,000 artifacts, including many a gold coin, making it one of the most astonishing archaeological discoveries ever made. Located at this ancient site in the middle east, this golden hoard consists of relics from ancient civilizations that are found at this archaeological site which makes it truly amazing and special. 

Finding the Hoard

Vicktor Sarianidi, a Russian archaeologist, found the priceless pieces of the Bactrian Hoard, including Bactrian treasure, artifacts, fine arts, semiprecious stones, gold artifacts, funeral ornaments, roman coins, gold jewelry, painted glassware in the Bactrian treasury in 1978 at Tillya Tepe national gallery, or the Mound of Gold, a region in northern Afghanistan. He went there after hearing reports of a gold man being buried inside a gold coffin but instead discovered a 4,000-year-old temple. The temple included the graves of five ladies and one man, as well as around 20,000 gold jewelry and coins. Archaeologists think the burial belongs to a nomadic clan from Bactria that buried their ancestors there around the first century C.E. The British Museum, national geographic society, presidential palace, Canadian museum, da Afghanistan bank, Asian art museum, metropolitan museum, etc. wanted the Kushan empire sealed boxes of ai Khanum and others.

Victkor Sarianidi and his crew of Omara Khan Masoudi transferred their priceless treasure to the Asia minor Kabul Museum near tepe fullol between 1978 and 1979. However, a year after the Bactrian Hoard was found, the nation went to war with Russia, and the museum's artifacts were finally relocated to safer locations without spreading personal information. Numerous museum artifacts were lost, plundered, or destroyed during the subsequent battle.

The Hoard

The hoard at ‘Tillya Tepe’ soon became known broadly as the Bactrian Gold. Its name was derived from the name of the region approximating to northern Afghanistan in ancient times. Bactria had variously been a province of the Persian Achaemenid Empire between the sixth and fourth centuries BC before being conquered by Alexander the Great, the Macedon general who overran everything from Turkey east to western India in the 330s and 320s BC. Bactria later formed part of the Seleucid Empire and then the Parthian and Sassanid Empires during the period of Rome’s ascendancy to the west. Finally, it was the center of a renaissance of Iranian learning in the eighth and ninth centuries AD before being subsumed politically into what would later come to be understood to be Afghanistan.  A Parthian coin, found in the hoard, was a type of silver coin minted in Parthia (modern-day Iran) during the 1st century BC.

The hoard itself is vast. As noted, it contains approximately 20,600 pieces (though other studies have suggested as many as 22,000 objects), consisting of gold rings, coins, weapons, crowns, necklaces, bracelets, and belts, as well as many items inlaid with jewels such as lapis lazuli and carnelian, or carved out of ivory and other valuable substances. For instance, a comb is present amongst the finds, which were carved from elephant ivory. The site is a funerary mound, and most of the objects were used to elaborately decorate the bodies of the deceased for the afterlife, with everything from hairpins and shoe clasps which were used to adorn the bodies of the deceased made out of gold. Some extremely interesting pieces stand out from the majority of the other artifacts. For instance, an intricate woman’s gold crown was found in the sixth tomb. This is elaborately folded and is one of the centerpieces of the entire collection. Other objects point to the position of Bactria as a crossroads of civilizations in Late Antiquity and the high degree of cultural osmosis which occurred there. For instance, a gold belt contains numerous buckles depicting deities which are believed to be a syncretic depiction of the Greek god of wine, the harvest, and religious ecstasy, Dionysius, and the Bactrian goddess Nana. Coins within the hoard came from as far away as France, where coins of Emperor Tiberius, who reigned from 14 AD to 37 AD, were minted in Roman times, one of which ended up at Tillya Tepe, while Buddhist coins amongst the gold came from much further to the east. Similarly, there are mirrors amongst the artifacts, which are decorated with Chinese ideographs. Thus, the Bactrian Gold points to not only the wealth of the society which prevailed in Bactria during the first century AD but also the position of Ancient Afghanistan as the crossroads of civilization in Late Antiquity, centuries before it became a central part of the Silk Road between Medieval Europe and China.  

Lost Forever?

Eventually, it was assumed that the Bactrian Hoard had been lost forever. Numerous speculations arose surrounding the treasure's disappearance. One possibility was that it had been melted down or sold illegally. Another possibility was that it was sneaked into Moscow. There was even a suggestion that the Taliban attempted to blow up the vault in which the Hoard was held before the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Modern-day treasure hunters use deep-seeking metal detectors to locate hoards like this.

In August 2003, Hamid Karzai's administration of Ahmadullah Wasiq disclosed the discovery of the Bactrian Gold and requested archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert to authenticate the hoard, 25 years after it was discovered and 14 years after it was discreetly hidden in a vault at the Arg. Hiebert, A National Geographic Archaeology Fellow, traveled to Afghanistan with museum expert Carla Grissman, armed with Sarianidi's original field notes, to ascertain if the Bactrian Hoard existed as claimed. They would not be disappointed. As a temporary measure, Bactrian gold has been repacked into new safes. The rest of the world, many of whom are unaware of its existence, will have to wait a little longer.

Bactrian Gold? Scythian Plunder? Yuezhi Treasure?

Clearly, the scale of the Bactrian Gold is immense, but where did it come from, and what was the purpose of the site? It became very clear in the late 1970s that the graves and the items in them dated primarily to the first century BC and the early part of the first century AD. Consequently, it is assumed that the graves were those of a king or warlord of some kind and possibly five of his wives, who lived in the Bactrian region and were buried there at some point around 50 AD, as the latest objects date to the 20s and 30s AD, but had to travel some distance before they ended up in Bactria and were placed in the tombs. 

However, while the date of the site is relatively clear, the cultural and ethnic background of those who buried the individuals here is much less evident. The Bactrian region was experiencing major disruption in the first century AD. One argument holds that Tillya Tepe was the site of the burial of a Scythian king. The Scythians were a nomadic people, probably of Iranian extraction, who inhabited the Eurasian Steppe from Sarmatia around modern-day Ukraine all the way east as far as Afghanistan and western Mongolia. They dominated this region between the seventh and third centuries BC but were being displaced by the first century BC and the first century AD and consequently would have been pushed southwards in greater numbers into regions such as Bactria.  

Alternatively, the Bactrian Gold could have been the funeral burial of a Yuezhi king, and this is the more plausible explanation. The Yuezhi were an ancient people who were first identified as residing in the west of what is now China in the first millennium BC. Over the centuries, they migrated west and became the dominant people in Bactria during the first century BC, at which time one of their greater tribes, the Kushanas, subsumed the others. It is, thus, quite possible that the site at Tillya Tepe is that of one of the earliest Kush kings of the Yuezhi, who later went on to dominate much of the region, approximating modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan by the third century AD. Thus, the Bactrian Gold might well be the site of an early king of an ascendant people who was occupying a crossroads between the cultures of Europe and the Far East.    

The Vanishing Hoard

The tale of the Bactrian Gold certainly did not end in the late 1970s. Its history ever since has been nothing if not colorful and is reflective of the tortured history of modern Afghanistan. During the 1980s, the Soviet-backed Communist regime in the country found itself mired in a civil war with rebels throughout the country. Following the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, this morphed into a civil war between the Afghan government and religious extremists led by the Taliban. In the midst of the chaos, the National Museum of Afghanistan, where the Bactrian Gold had been deposited following its discovery in 1978, was looted on several occasions in the 1990s. As a result, tens of thousands of objects were looted. While the Bactrian Gold was thankfully not amongst the looted items, almost nobody seemed to have any idea where the vast treasure actually was. It was not until 2003, over a year after the United States had occupied Kabul during the American-Afghan War, that it was discovered in a vault of the Central Bank of Kabul, where the treasure had evidently been placed for safe-keeping at some stage during the 1990s.  As a result, from the mid-2000s, parts of the enormous hoard were sent around the world for exhibition at galleries in Paris, Washington, D.C., New York, London, Amsterdam, Turin, Beijing, and many other cities. The touring exhibition was recently in Hong Kong in 2019. 

However, the bulk of the Bactrian Hoard has recently vanished yet again. Most of it was still in Kabul in the early autumn of 2021 as the Taliban reclaimed the city from the US and Afghan government much more speedily than either side had suspected would be possible. However, just weeks later, the Taliban announced that the treasure had been misplaced yet again, and the new regime was actively looking for it. Thus, the tortuous history of one of the world’s great treasure troves, since its first discovery in 1978, continues.  

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