Afghanistan:Hidden Treasures Exhibition Summary

Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul is an exhibition based on nearly 230 objects drawn from a series of remarkable archaeological discoveries in Afghanistan, subsequently heroically preserved from the destruction wrought by war.

The ancient lands of Afghanistan were at the crossroads of Central Asia, and the exhibition is testament to the region’s importance in the exchange of goods and ideas between Asia and the Mediterranean.

Ranging in dates from 2200 BCE to 200 CE, the objects include fragmentary gold bowls from Tepe Fullol in northern Afghanistan; bronze, ivory, stone and terracotta objects from the site of the Hellenistic city Ai Khanum; bronzes, carved ivory and exquisite blown glass from Begram; and, the astonishing gold artefacts of the ‘Bactrian Horde’ – material from the graves of six Bactrian nomads discovered at Tillya Tepe in 1978.

Objects excavated from the nomadic necropolis of Tillya Tepe include (among many others) the famed “Crown of Tillya Tepe” dating from the 1st century CE, the mostly gold and turquoise ornament for the neck of a robe, and exquisite gold and turquoise boot buckles decorated with the image of a carriage drawn by dragons.

For decades many of these objects were thought lost, assumed to be casualties of the years of conflict and destruction of cultural heritage that ravaged Afghanistan prior to the overthrow of the Taliban in November 2001.

Located on the outskirts of Kabul, the National Museum of Afghanistan found itself on the frontline of battles that raged around the city when the Taliban took control in 1993. The museum building was shelled and objects, inventories, and records were destroyed.  Amid the chaos, museum staff risked their own safety to salvage what they could.  At various times collections of the National Museum were stored in abandoned houses, the basement of the Kabul Hotel and the Ministry of Information and Culture. 

The museum’s tahilwidars (or “key holders”) had also secreted many of the National Museum’s most precious items, including the Bactrian Horde of Tillya Tepe, in boxes inside the vault of the Central Bank.

Following the expulsion of the Taliban from Kabul by American led forces in November 2001, work commenced on locating the “hidden treasures”; this was partly sponsored by a grant from the National Geographic Society which allowed archaeologists such as Frederick Hiebert and Viktor Sarianidi to return to Kabul and discuss opening up the “hidden treasures” with Director of the National Museum, Omara Khan Massoudi.

Following approval by the Afghan Parliament, the treasured artefacts travelled from Kabul to the Musee Guimet in Paris, where curatorial staff provided object conservation and preparation for a public exhibition that subsequently toured to Turin, London, Amsterdam, North America, and Norway. It is currently on a two year tour of four Australian venues. 

Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul will be on show at the Western Australian Museum – Perth, from 26 July to 16 November.  This will be the last chance to see the exhibition in Australia.