In the spring of 2004, the National Geographic Society’s archaeology fellow, Fred Hiebert, waited in the basement of Afghanistan’s presidential palace in Kabul wondering whether he had helped rediscover a lost treasure trove known as the “Bactrian Hoard.”
Unfortunately, the suspense continued for days . . . and days. Hiebert and a crew of Afghan archaeologists, historians, and support staff realized the safes housing the possible treasure were locked—and there were no keys.
Eventually, an Afghan man opened the safes with a circular saw. Hiebert looked on nervously, wondering if the heat from the saw might melt the gold inside.
He also wondered if there was any gold left.
“When the first safe opened, it was an amazing moment,” Hiebert says. “My heart was beating, and when the door opened, out popped these bags with little gold pieces in them. They were so beautiful. I was leaping for joy.”
The Bactrian Hoard includes 20,000 gold, silver, and ivory objects. It dates back thousands of years and is a part of Afghanistan’s heritage. (Bactria is the name of an ancient region stretching through what is now Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.) Displayed in the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, the Bactrian Hoard was hidden for 14 years as war devastated the nation.
A sampling of gold ornaments from the Bactrian Hoard is part of the National Geographic traveling exhibit “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures From the National Museum.” Hiebert is the curator of the collection, which has been displayed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the British Museum in London, England, and the Bonn Museum in Germany.
Examining the stunning artifacts was surely a thrill, but Hiebert was more excited to confirm that strong economic and social connections existed between ancient cultures. “It’s not what you find, but what you find out” is a standard idea among archaeologists, and one Hiebert strongly supports.
“We don’t actually search for treasure,” Hiebert says. “We search for knowledge—that’s our real gold.
“What I like to tell kids is that 3,000 years ago, 4,000 years ago, and even 5,000 years ago, people were just as interconnected as we are today,” he says. “We have to put that into perspective. You look at these artifacts from Afghanistan, and you say, ‘Wow, they look Greek. They look Roman. They look Indian.’ And one of the things we learned while we were doing this project was basically that people traveled around.”
Hiebert has discovered an array of artifacts documenting the interconnectedness of past cultures. With National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Robert Ballard (best known for discovering the Titanic), Hiebert helped find the wreck of a 2,300-year-old trading vessel in the Black Sea off the coast of Bulgaria.
On the shipwreck site, the team uncovered an amphora (ceramic container) full of catfish bones. The catfish species was not from the region where the vessel was found. The amphora, bones, and the ship itself revealed its history.
“This ship had done the ancient Silk Road,” Hiebert says. “Its ceramic was made on the south coast of the Black Sea. Its contents were produced on the north coast of the Black Sea. And it unfortunately met its end on the west coast of the Black Sea, just about on its way to the Mediterranean.”
The Silk Road was a series of trade routes that led across China to Rome. Hiebert’s study of the Silk Road revealed it had been established much earlier than people thought.
“When I got to Turkmenistan, I found out that the archaeology of this particular area of this caravan spot was literally thousands of years earlier [than expected],” he says. “It goes back to the Bronze Age. That really defined and still defines my research along the Silk Road. I primarily study the Silk Road before the Romans, during the Bronze Age, which is 4,000 and 5,000 years ago.
“Every time we go and study one of these sites from the ancient Silk Road, it confirms to me that people in the past were interconnected,” Hiebert says. “I’m sure that one day we are going to find a Chinese inscription in the western part of Central Asia that completely puts textbooks out of date. I love that.”
While Hiebert speaks of the interconnectedness of past cultures, he also believes his profession fosters a connection between current and past civilizations. Hiebert explains this connection in an account of a discovery he made early in his career while working on Egypt’s Red Sea coast.
“I was given my own unit to excavate, and it was a medieval merchant’s house,” he says. “It was amazing, and the preservation was great. It’s Egypt, so wood was preserved. Papyrus was preserved. Lots of trade goods from India and China and things like that were preserved. The last day of the dig as we were cleaning up I pulled up a mat from in front of the building that I was excavating. It was 800 years old, and there under the mat was the key of the merchant who lived there. It had his name written on it.
“Can you imagine the connection that you feel finding the key to someone’s house that is 800 years old?”
Viktor Sarianidi, a Russian archaeologist, discovered the Bactrian Hoard while excavating for Bronze Age artifacts in 1978. What he found was the burial site of a wealthy nomadic family, dating much later, from the 1st century BCE.
Trying to Make Textbooks Out-of-Date
We are in one of those rare fields where our main job is to try to make the textbooks go out-of-date. Thats my goal. My goal is to find something new, to make a new discovery, a new radiocarbon date, because history is a living thing.
Fredrik Hiebert, archaeologist
large, oval-shaped storage vessel with two handles, often used in antiquity.
person who studies artifacts and lifestyles of ancient cultures.
study of human history, based on material remains.
material remains of a culture, such as tools, clothing, or food.
ancient region between the Hindu Kush mountains and the Amu Darya (Oxus) river.
(1st century BCE) archaeological treasure from the burial site of a wealthy nomadic family in Northern Afghanistan, discovered in 1978. Also called Bactrian Gold.
time period between the Stone Age and the Iron Age. The Bronze Age lasted between 3000 BCE and 500 BCE.
group of people who travel together for safety and companionship through difficult territory.
made of clay.
electric saw with a flat, disc-shaped blade, designed to revolve on its axis.
complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.
edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.
learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.
person who designs, assembles, and manages an exhibit at a museum or other cultural center.
having to do with money.
to form or officially organize.
to expose by digging.
display, often in a museum.
pre-eminent explorers and scientists collaborating with the National Geographic Society to make groundbreaking discoveries that generate critical scientific information, conservation-related initiatives and compelling stories.
to promote the growth or development of something.
valuable chemical element with the symbol Au.
object or service that serves a human need or want.
cultural or family background.
person who studies events and ideas of the past.
record that has been cut, impressed, painted, or written on a hard surface.
hard, white substance that forms the teeth or tusks of some animals.
exactly what is said, without exaggeration.
having to do with the Middle Ages (500-1400) in Europe.
person who sells goods and services.
political unit made of people who share a common territory.
experts who provide the National Geographic Society with consultation on projects, education and outreach, and environmental and public policy.
(1888) organization whose mission is "Inspiring people to care about the planet."
large home or mansion, often the home of a leader or dignitary.
ancient writing material, similar to paper, made from the papyrus plant.
representation of volume or depth on a flat surface.
any area on Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.
scientific observations and investigation into a subject, usually following the scientific method: observation, hypothesis, prediction, experimentation, analysis, and conclusion.
(1942-present) oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence.
remains of a sunken marine vessel.
ancient trade route through Central Asia linking China and the Mediterranean Sea.
chemical element with the symbol Ag.
specific place where something is located.
having to do with a community or other group of organized people.
stupefying, strikingly beautiful or astonishing.
luxury cruise ship that sank in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912.
path followed by merchants or explorers to exchange goods and services.
movement from one place to another.
collection of valuable objects.
craft for traveling on water, usually larger than a rowboat or skiff.
large-scale armed conflict.