It was described by National Geographic Magazine as "The Golden Hoard of Bactria," 21,000 pieces of gold jewelry and ornaments, that were found by a Russian archeologist buried in the ancient Silk Road city of Anau in Afghanistan.
The discoverer, Victor Ivanovich Sarianidi, counted and catalogued the discovery unearthed in 1978 during an archeological dig from six untouched graves in a single burial site, but never had a chance to study the artifacts or publish any work about them, according to Fredrik Hiebert, archaeologist for the National Geographic Society and curator of "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul," now on display through Jan. 26 at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.
Hiebert told a tale of the treasure trove's rediscovery to the World Affairs Council of the Monterey Bay Area last week, an account that rivals an Indiana Jones adventure yarn.
The gold was taken to the National Museum in Kabul, an article about the find was published in National Geographic, but the museum itself was bombed, looted and burned during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the years of warfare and turmoil that followed, Heibert said.
When he first visited Kabul, Heibert said, he found the museum "a shell," fire-blackened stone walls, no roof, and no artifacts or exhibits.
The Taliban had already destroyed the millennia-old giant Buddha statues of Afghanistan's Bamyan Valley in 2001 and had vowed to destroy every image representing a human
Then, he said, an official told him there was an unopened "museum box" in the vault of the presidential palace. It was, in fact, a locked and armored safe. "We called Victor. Could it be?"
The Afghan government said they would allow the box to be breached - keys to the lock were long lost - if Heibert and others would conduct a scientific inventory of its contents.
The safe was sawed open in the presence of Heibert, Sarianidi and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The archeologists worried that the heat generated by the saw might yield "a puddle of gold" if indeed the treasure were inside, Hiebert said.
But the golden artifacts emerged unscathed - jewels, baubles, weapons, a golden crown made to fold flat for transport - all of it apparently locally made from locally mined gold.
Sarianidi verified that the gold was from his original find and told Heibert "that it takes a long time to count 21,000 pieces of gold. He said, 'It's your project now.'"
Counting and cataloguing the find took months. The graves were those of a man and five women, and Sarianidi's photographs at the site enabled Hiebert and the Afghan archeologists to place where each came from.
The workmanship shows Greek, Chinese, Egyptian, Persian and other influences interpreted by the the Afghan artisans, showing, Hiebert said, that a unique and very cosmopolitan culture existed in Afghanistan, where for centuries silk and spices were borne from China and India to Europe and Africa, and gold and ivory returned.
Subsequent to the discovery, he said, other "boxes" were found, and this time were opened by an elderly, talented safecracker "using two hairpins" to pick the lock. These yielded ivory and jade figurines and jewelry.
The National Museum in Kabul was once the pearl of museums dealing with Central Asia, and its curators and staff risked their lives to save and hide its treasures, Hiebert said. The exhibit at the Asian Museum represents only a small fragment of the artifacts that were hidden away for the day a stable government would emerge.
Kevin Howe can be reached at 646-4416 or [email protected].