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December 21, 2006

Bactrian gold
Posted by Teresa at 11:30 AM * 52 comments

When it comes to lost archaeological treasures, the news is seldom good. This time it is. The Bactrian Treasure—a cache of more than 20,000 gold ornaments from the Tillia tepe site near Sheberghan*—has turned up again.

That was unexpected, to put it mildly. The trove had been unearthed in the winter of 1978-79 by a joint Soviet-Afghan archaeological team, not long before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It vanished off the map shortly thereafter. Then there was civil war. Then the Taliban came in and started destroying any pre-Islamic art they could get their hands on.

The odds of recovering the trove looked very bad indeed. Gold ornaments can pretty much last forever, unless people get their hands on them. Gold in lumps or ingots is worth far less than treasures of ancient art, but it’s much harder to identify and thus much easier to sell. With so much other stuff getting stolen or destroyed in Afghanistan, there seemed little chance that a batch of fragile antiquities had survived. The only real cause for hope was that the items weren’t being offered for sale in any of the usual venues.

Last month, mirabile dictu, the Bactrian Treasure reappeared. Turns out it had been carefully stashed three levels down in the Central Bank vaults inside the royal palace compound, along with various other valuable and significant antiquities like the Bagram ivories. Here’s the AP version of the story. Here’s the New York Times. If you want additional pictures, try MSNBC, Spiegel Online, and BBC News. And: Tim May found a stash of photos here.

Comments on Bactrian gold:
#1 ::: Pedantic Peasant ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 01:17 PM:

Well, every now and then you win one.

That is good news.

So the Guimer(?) Museum has custody? Is that an Afghan museum? If not, what's being done with it now? Is it being "plundered" by international museums and etc. in the name of art and safety?

#2 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 01:18 PM:

I was looking at that belt (in Spiegel's pictures) and wondering how the h*ll they made that mesh.

The whole set of pictures make me wish I could afford to go see the show.

#3 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 01:35 PM:

And all this time, I thought Bactrian was a brand of spray-on antiseptic.

But seriously, this stuff is amazing. Every time I see representational art from that part of the world, I'm surprised anew by the convergence of Hellenistic and Hindu influences. I'm also amazed that the Taliban didn't destroy anything that contained a figure.

#4 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 01:43 PM:

#3 -- From what I've read, the caretakers of the trove apparently never breathed a word of its continued existence or its location.

That took a hell of a lot of guts given the situation. Sometimes the good guys win. Now, if only we could find the original Amber Room...

#5 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 02:00 PM:

This is a lovely piece of good news. I wish I could afford to go to Paris.

#6 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 02:04 PM:

I was looking at that belt (in Spiegel's pictures) and wondering how the h*ll they made that mesh.

To me it looks like strings of very small gold beads, but the picture quality is not good enough for me to be sure.

#7 ::: Lexica ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 02:10 PM:

To my eye, the belt looks like linked rings (it reminds me of examples in the book Classical Loop-In-Loop Chains), but as you say, the picture quality is not good enough to be sure.

#8 ::: Genarti ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 02:20 PM:

Oh, that is excellent to hear. And wow, those are amazing, aren't they? There's some truly lovely stuff in that area, with all the cultural influences blending throughout history.

#9 ::: sisuile ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 02:38 PM:

*jaw hits floor*

What amazes me most is the craftsmanship. Knowing what these people, having seen items from this period and earlier, and remembering just how awe-inspiring these works are, are two very different things. Makes me wish I could go to Paris. I am wondering about this US part of the tour that was mentioned. I can afford domestic flights.

#10 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 02:38 PM:

Hmmm, gold with two humps? Is that worth specially more?

#11 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 02:42 PM:

A minor correction: the Bactrian gold was rediscovered in August, 2003. There's a nice story about it in The Economist, including the related story of how one of the vault-keepers at the central bank locked the central vault and broke the key off in the lock, to prevent the Taliban from coming back and making off with the gold reserves -- which they tried to do in late 2001, as the Northern Alliance was closing in on Kabul. (The Bactrian gold was nearby in the outer vault, hidden amidst boxes of worthless Soviet-era coins.)

#12 ::: Steve Buchheit ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 02:46 PM:

Also reminds me of the Afghanistan Film preservers who, in plain sight of the Taliban, saved much of the film archive of Afghanistan (mostly by destroying film prints instead of negatives, and hiding a door in the basement).

#13 ::: Tim Illingworth ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 03:19 PM:

The Amber Room is probably lost for good, but we do have Priam's Treasure back again...

#14 ::: Neil in Chicago ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 03:43 PM:

Oddly, this is very similar to the maguffin in Kara Kush, Idries Shah's only novel and probably worst book.
It's a (excuse me) gold mine of genuine color about the country during the Russian war, though, and I'm told the in-jokes are wonderful. (e.g., the phone number the the Kabul KGB office is correct.)

#15 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 04:25 PM:

Ooooh! You've just made a particularly annoying day _much_ better! Thank you!

#16 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 04:33 PM:

Peter Erwin (11), thanks. Not a single one of the recent spate of stories mentioned that.

#17 ::: Julie L. ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 05:31 PM:

I assume the crown must be one of the non-Korean ones mentioned but not identified here, though I'm not sure whether that sentence is actually true-- surely similar headwear must've also been found on one of Schliemann's digs or shopping trips, or elsewhere in the world...?

#18 ::: Tim May ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 05:33 PM:

I found a gallery of the Bactrian Gold - looks like these are photographs from the 70s or 80s, before it was lost. There are pictures of the necklace and belt from the Spiegel article... the close-ups focus on the solid parts of the belt, but perhaps you can see enough of the mesh to tell how it's made.

#19 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 05:39 PM:

It looks knitted!

I like the necklace with the cameo, and the two big floral medallions (?) are lovely.

#20 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 05:52 PM:

P J Evans: So it does; but I believe that's loop-in-loop chain, which Lexica mentioned earlier. Here's a close-up shot of this necklace, as described on this website. Very similar piece of work.

Of course, knitting is loop-in-loop. Stands to reason they'd look alike.

Nice picture, by the way.

#22 ::: Dan Blum ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 06:08 PM:
So the Guimer(?) Museum has custody? Is that an Afghan museum? If not, what's being done with it now? Is it being "plundered" by international museums and etc. in the name of art and safety?
The Guimet is in Paris - it's a very good museum specializing in Asian art and artifacts. I imagine that the Bactrian items are much safer there than in Afghanistan just now.
#23 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 06:17 PM:

Aconite, it looks like blue chalcedony to me. It's very pretty stuff. Should I tell you that Elise Matthesen makes jewelry out of it?

#24 ::: Aconite ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 06:20 PM:

Teresa, would she take a kidney for some of it, do you think? (The only chalcedony I can remember seeing* had cloudy whitish streaks through it. I didn't know it could be so clear.)

*Note that I haven't slept for three days, and my memory may not be very reliable. I do remember that the stone I saw was not agate.

#25 ::: Aconite ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 06:26 PM:

Just spoke with a gemologist who notes that the concoidinal fractures in the piece I just linked to would indicate that it's glass, not stone. Anyone have additional information?

#26 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 07:25 PM:

PJ, the belt is clearly mail -- look at the edges even in the larger pictures and you'll see the side of the rings lying slantwise.

Aconite, that piece is glass. Stone doesn't have that kind of surface texture.

#27 ::: Gag Halfrunt ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 09:18 PM:
Also reminds me of the Afghanistan Film preservers who, in plain sight of the Taliban, saved much of the film archive of Afghanistan (mostly by destroying film prints instead of negatives, and hiding a door in the basement).
I remember a news report about how curators at an art gallery in Kabul (perhaps the Afghan national gallery) had saved oil paintings by painting over the human figures with watercolour to turn the pictures into landscapes (which were allowed), gambling that the Taliban were too ignorant of painting techniques to figure out what they were up to.
#28 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 09:21 PM:

I've been so depressed this holiday season but catching wind of this story cheered me up quite a bit. A small group of determined, brave museum curators and scholars made sure that the treasure was safe from the vandals.

this treasure reminds me of the Gold of the Scythians that toured Kansas City a while ago (Jim took me for an anniversary...at the Nelson-Atkins Museum-last big exhibit before they tore it up and reconstructed/added on/improved).

Hmm. museum is pretty much put back together. For a while it was distressing to visit, my favorite things were off exhibit, everything left was jammed together and etc. Maybe New Year's Eve....during the day.

#29 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 09:23 PM:

Marilee, Aconite, are you sure? Because this is a carved blue chalcedony seal from the city of Asshur -- see the entwined gryphons? -- and it's got the same kind of fractures. Also, in both cases, though it's more marked in the specimen Aconite asked about, if you look at those fractures, you can see that while their shape is as described, the fracture cuts across layers within the stone. That's characteristic of chalcedony. It's not so characteristic of glass. Also, it's in the right color range. Also, items like that were generally made of stone, not glass. Also, I don't believe I've ever seen ancient glass of that color.

On the other hand, Aconite's friend the gemologist is an expert, and Marilee's a pro, and I'm neither.

#30 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 09:24 PM:

Marilee, are you sure? Because this is a carved blue chalcedony seal from the city of Asshur -- see the entwined gryphons? -- and it's got the same kind of fractures. Also, in both cases, though it's more marked in the specimen Aconite asked about, if you look at those fractures, you can see that while their shape is as described, the fracture cuts across layers within the stone. That's characteristic of chalcedony. It's not so characteristic of glass. Also, it's in the right color range. Also, items like that were generally made of stone, not glass. Also, I don't believe I've ever seen ancient glass of that color.

On the other hand, your friend the gemologist is an expert, and I'm not.

#31 ::: Aconite ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 10:04 PM:

Teresa, I'm not sure at all. The gemologist did mention that if it were glass, he'd have dated it much, much younger than the piece appears to be. Also, while I'm no expert, some of those fractures look like what I saw--or thought I did--in knapped flint, so I don't know why he's so sure. He almost immediately identified it as glass, though; he said quartz just doesn't show some of those characteristics. I don't ever recall hearing of--well, I think of it as a "seal," even though it probably isn't--made of glass rather than stone, though, so I don't know what to think.

#32 ::: Aconite ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 10:05 PM:

was glass, not were. Must sleep.

#33 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2006, 10:23 PM:

Teresa, I'm pretty sure I've seen broken glass with striations across the break like in that photo.

#34 ::: Gag Halfrunt ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2006, 07:39 AM:
The Amber Room is probably lost for good...
I read a magazine article a couple of years ago (based on a then-new book) arguing that the Germans had stored the panels from the Amber Room in Königsberg Castle (in what is now Kaliningrad). In 1946 (IIRC) drunken Soviet soldiers started a fire in the castle, which, the article said, destroyed the Amber Room.

The article went on to argue that the Soviet government knew the Amber Room's true fate and the exhaustive searches which it undertook were an elaborate charade to cover up the massive humiliation of Soviet soldiers destroying such a great Russian treasure. According to this theory, maintaining the pretense that the Amber Room is still hidden somewhere in Germany enables the Russians to justify keeping art looted from Germany by the Soviet army, on the basis that it will be released in exchange from the Amber Room and other lost Russian treasures.

#35 ::: Tim May ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2006, 07:59 AM:

There is another (inferior) image of the gryphon jewel here, with a caption identifying it as chalcedony.

#36 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2006, 08:50 AM:

Have you, Avram? I trust your visual memory. I'll have to keep a closer eye on glass breakage in the future.

#37 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2006, 10:42 AM:

I've collected crystals* since about 1968, and when I look at that picture I'm certain it's some sort of agate (microcrystaline quartz to be precise).

I concur with the 'chalcedony' ID. Having seen lots of fractured agate, I do not think that item is glass.

*Specializing in those that were considered precious and semi-precious stones.

#38 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2006, 10:44 AM:

The striations I remember weren't as sharp as those in the photo appear to be, but they were modern clear glass, and things sometimes look weird in photos.

#39 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2006, 12:30 PM:

Avram, those are conchoidal fractures, which can happen in amorphous solids like glass and in very fine-grained materials like chalcedony. Judging by fracture is not so useful here, since a person would expect them to be similar.

Now, if you were trying to tell chalcedony from some other gemstone, it'd probably be a different story. My gemology text, GEMOLOGY, 2ND EDITION, by Hurlbut and Kammerling, sayeth thusly: "More pure varieties of chalcedony also typically exhibit a dull to waxy conchoidal fracture that is rarely seen in other aggregate gem materials (with the exception of some fine-quality, compact turquoise)."

Marilee, I've been offered stones with that sort of surface texture, and I think they were really stones. Old ones, and handled a lot. I'm thinking of some carnelian beads I got once, and I've seen agate beads like that. Though as you say, glass can certainly look like that. Still, the object in question would fit in the "dull to waxy conchoidal fracture" thing to me; then again, I Am Certainly Not A Gemologist, and some days I feel pretty sure I am a rank amateur in the field of shinies at all.

Aconite, I got the giggles thinking of what Mike would say about trading shinies for organs. At the moment, I haven't a local need for an extra kidney, but for the loan of a good short-term memory and some extra physical stamina while I'm recovering from my systems crash, I would definitely be willing to make a most attractive offer. (Recuperating and resting are two skills I really don't have much of. Alas, for they are needed just now. Oh, well; there are shinies to distract one's self with. Better health through shinies, then!)

#40 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2006, 12:36 PM:

Mmm, forgot to say that in the picture Tim May linked to, it looks to me like the color shades off into a more browny-milky-cloudy color at the left side of the piece. This is very much what the chalcedony I'm working with does, and I can't remember ever seeing glass that did that. (There might well be some, but I don't know of it.)

#41 ::: Joe J ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2006, 01:24 PM:

This all makes me think of Rory Stewart's book _The Places in Between_ in which he recounts the walk he took across Afghanistan in 2002, just after the Taliban fell. If you haven't read it yet, go out and buy it now. Stewart is one of those rare people who are simultaneously daring, intelligent and unaffected. What's more, his writing is wonderful. More than a few people have called the book one of the great all-time travel books.

In one passage of the book, he describes coming across the remains of a lost city that is being plundered by the locals. (Here's an excerpt from the book in which he writes about finding The Turquoise Mountain. And, here's a fuller account of the experience: In the footsteps of the King of Kings.)

In describing the villagers unscientifically digging into the lost city with pick axes, he writes:

They seemed to perceive the objects as some natural bounty of the earth and pulled them up and sold them as though they were potatoes: it was their land and as far they were concerned they owned it. The looting, supplemented the money they had been given by foreign countries to fight the Russians and each other, the income from taxing the heroin transit trade and the few rugs woven by their women, which they sold to Pakistan. ‘The city was destroyed twice’, Bushire added, ‘once by hail-stones and once by Genghis.’ ‘Three times,’ I said. ‘You’re destroying what remained.’ They all laughed.

It's not quite the same as destroying the artifacts for some boneheaded religious reasons like the Taliban had done. Though, it's absolutely heartbreaking to imagine how much history and ancient artifacts are being trampled and misused all the time.

#42 ::: Aconite ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2006, 02:29 PM:

elise: Drat! I'm all out of short-term memory and...whatsit, that other thing you mentioned.... Do you take pelf?

#43 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2006, 05:13 PM:

I first heard about the saving and rediscovery of the Bactrian gold from a post on Cosma Shalizi's blog. I liked this comment about the mixed[*] nature of the style:

They're beautiful pieces of art, displaying a high level of skill and a fusion of traditions which looks very odd to modern eyes, e.g., this stern winged Aphrodite (cache), classically draped and with a bindi mark on her forehead. (Actually, that sort of fusion wouldn't look the least bit odd to modern eyes accustomed to the right parts of world cities.)

[*] Or "mongrel" nature, for those who watched the Eddie Izzard documentary Teresa pointed to.

#44 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2006, 07:37 PM:

The picture Tim May had definitely looks like chalcedony. The original picture looked like it had been fumed.

#45 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2006, 07:42 PM:

Aconite, it would depend on the particular example of pelf and its history. Given the (possibly secondary) connotations of ill-gotten gain, things get pretty complicated. How many hands does treasure generally get passed through before the buildup of time and history make questions of discovery and rightful acquisition moot -- or does it ever happen? If I have to take pelf, I think I might be most comfortable taking pelf plucked from a previous pirate by a more perspicacious person.

To put it plainly: pick the pelf that's pilfered plunder.

Why, whaddya got? *grin*

#46 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2006, 07:46 PM:

Marilee: Fumed? Cool, something else to learn. The glass is much of a mystery to me, and therefore delightful.

Got distracted by looking at fumed marbles, though. Whoah. But I think that's not what you meant. What should I be seeking?

#47 ::: Aconite ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2006, 02:45 PM:

elise: E-mail to come. *g*

#48 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2006, 06:46 PM:

elise, essentially, making a metal into gas and letting it settle on glass. It's been used for thousands of years, but only recently has it been made safe for the worker. There's a step-by-step here and as it says, you can also fume the surface of a bead or piece of glass, but the gold will eventually wear off. If it's something you don't wear, it will last for centuries, though.

I forgot to put up a piece I made with a blue chalcedony cab. When I got the cab in a swap, I realized I had glass beads, Cherry brand from occupied Japan, that matched exactly.

#49 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: December 23, 2006, 06:58 PM:

Marilee @ 47

oy... that blue chalcedony piece is so impressive! (I'm lucky if I string beads and have them look halfway decent. Not a jeweller...)

#50 ::: Tera Ellefson ::: (view all by) ::: December 24, 2006, 12:00 AM:

Anyone who will be in Chicago on January 11th can come to the Oriental Institute's Members' Lecture on the Lost Treasures of Afghanistan, given by National Geographic fellow Fred Hiebert, who received an emergency grant to help document the recovery of the Bactrian Gold.

7 pm, Breasted Hall
1155 East 58th Street

http://oi.uchicago.edu

#51 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: December 24, 2006, 06:50 PM:

Thanks, PJ! I usually weave beads, but I liked the main necklace strung so I could use those glass beads. I ended up making a version that is just the main necklace because I got a top that had a higher neckline.

#52 ::: gruff ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2011, 12:53 AM:

I too thought of Kara Kush. I'd say Shah had inside knowledge of the hoard.

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