Afghanistan — Hidden Treasures from the National Museum

I had the good fortune of recently being in San Francisco, and toured the Asian Art Museum shortly after this exhibit opened. Hidden Treasures highlights four archaeological sites in the northern part of Afghanistan, ranging from 2200 BCE to 200 CE. It was co-organized by the National Geographic Society and the National Gallery of Art.

The finds highlighted were excavated from the 1930s to the late 1970s. Because of the Soviet invasion of 1979, Afghani civil wars, and the Taliban decimation after, these items from the National Museum of Afghanistan were thought to be lost. Most had secretly been hidden in crates in the presidential palace in Kabul, and were opened in 2004. They are now touring the world while the National Museum is being rebuilt.

Afghanistan is located on the Silk Road, and enjoys a wide range of cultural and artistic influences. The oldest excavation is from the Bronze Age (about 2000 BCE), and included several bowls made of gold, amazingly intact. The images from Mesopotamia (Iraq) and the Indus valley (Pakistan).

One excavation was from a Greek colony from about 200 BCE, originally discovered by the King of Afghanistan! Uncovered by French archaeologists, they found a theater, temples, tombs, a residential area, and an amazing gymnasium. Art found is Greek, but with Syrian and Persian influences, as items are locally made.

Another excavation is of two undisturbed storerooms of luxury goods, dating from about 1-200 CE. I was particularly taken with the glass (no surprise there!). There were many vases with a slumping lattice over the solid vase, surprisingly intact. Also, a couple of pieces carved out of clear rock crystal. There were ivory figures from India, stone vessels from Roman Egypt, and bronzes from the Greco-Roman world. Another piece I would have liked to have seen in action was a bronze fish pond — the fins had lead weights hung underneath them, and would move.

The last exhibit had the most gold, it was a burial site of a chieftain and five female members of his family, dating to about 100 BCE to 100 CE. There were literally thousands of gold objects and ornaments that were sewn onto the shrouds and clothing; mice had carried away some of one of the women’s gold, likely giving that burial hill its name, Tillya Tepe (“Hill of Gold”). The collapsible gold crown, on the cover of the exhibition catalog, is one of these artifacts.

Hidden Treasures is going to be in San Francisco through January 25th, 2009; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, February 22 through May 17, 2009; and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, June 23 through September 20, 2009.

If you would like to do additional reading, see some video and more pictures, visit the National Gallery of Art website, and the National Geographic website.

The Asian Art Museum is well worth a visit; quite large, and inspirational, including art from all parts of Asia: Japan, China, Korea, South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka), and Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Burma, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines), and the Himalayas and the Tibetan Buddhist world (Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia). I jotted a few ideas down for possible future projects.

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