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Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul

June 23–September 20, 2009

Tillya Tepe

Nomads from the Eurasian steppes overran northern Afghanistan around 145 B.C., bringing an end to the Greco-Bactrian kingdoms that had flourished there. The first evidence of this nomadic presence in the region was found at Tillya Tepe, or "hill of gold." In 1978, a Soviet-Afghan team of archaeologists made an extraordinary discovery: the cemetery of a nomadic family buried in the first century A.D. The graves revealed a stunning treasure of some twenty thousand gold objects, consisting of jewelry and luxury items including ceremonial weapons and appliqués. Most of them were inlaid with an astonishing range of materials, available to the local artists, particularly semiprecious stones such as turquoise from Iran, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan and Tajikistan, garnets and amethysts from India, and Baltic amber.

The finds at Tillya Tepe revealed a nomadic culture that was very refined and eclectic. The nomads retained their own imagery—the "animal style" of the steppes—but they also absorbed different elements from works of art traveling along the Silk Road, resulting in a synthesis and reinterpretation of Hellenistic, Indian, Chinese, and nomadic traditions.

The "Golden Hoard of Bactria" was presented to the Kabul Museum and displayed in 1980 and 1991 before disappearing from view. Thought to have been lost or stolen or melted down during years of civil war and turmoil, in 2004 the treasure was dramatically revealed to be intact, hidden away in a secure bank vault. A wide selection of the most representative objects from Tillya Tepe shown in the present exhibition are on view for the first time outside of Afghanistan.

Typical of nomadic burials, the graves at Tillya Tepe were dug into an earthen mound. In the Eurasian steppes, funeral mounds, or kurgans, were man-made constructions of overwhelming size, erected with a huge amount of the sod of grazing lands. In Tillya Tepe, however, the nomads reused an existing "hill," which was actually the earth-covered remains of a fortified mud-brick temple of earlier antiquity. The most important person, the chieftain in tomb IV, was interred at the highest point in the center of the mound, and the female burials were arranged roughly in a circle around him. The deceased were interred in lidless coffins that were wrapped with burial shrouds and placed in simple trenches covered by timber planks and earth.

No evidence survives to suggest how the people buried at Tillya Tepe died. Perhaps they were victims of sickness or the harsh Afghan environment. It is also possible that the women were sacrificed upon the death of the chieftain. According to Herodotos' description of the burial practices of Scythian nomads, a man did not go alone into the hereafter, but was accompanied by members of his household. Archaeological evidence from nomadic graves scattered from Ukraine to Siberia complements this account, attesting to impressive burials filled with gold adornments, weapons, symbols of high status, and provisions, servants, grooms, and horses to accompany the deceased into the eternal pastures.