• 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.”

    Connected Cultures

    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?”


    Digging Deep
    This jug has carried a lot of history!

    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

    Golden Discovery
    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.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    amphora Noun

    large, oval-shaped storage vessel with two handles, often used in antiquity.

    ancient Adjective

    very old.

    archaeologist Noun

    person who studies artifacts and lifestyles of ancient cultures.

    archaeology Noun

    study of human history, based on material remains.

    Encyclopedic Entry: archaeology
    array Noun

    large group.

    artifact Noun

    material remains of a culture, such as tools, clothing, or food.

    Encyclopedic Entry: Artifact
    Bactria Noun

    ancient region between the Hindu Kush mountains and the Amu Darya (Oxus) river.

    Bactrian Hoard Noun

    (1st century BCE) archaeological treasure from the burial site of a wealthy nomadic family in Northern Afghanistan, discovered in 1978. Also called Bactrian Gold.

    Bronze Age Noun

    time period between the Stone Age and the Iron Age. The Bronze Age lasted between 3000 BCE and 500 BCE.

    caravan Noun

    group of people who travel together for safety and companionship through difficult territory.

    ceramic Adjective

    made of clay.

    circular saw Noun

    electric saw with a flat, disc-shaped blade, designed to revolve on its axis.

    civilization Noun

    complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.

    Encyclopedic Entry: Key Components of Civilization
    coast Noun

    edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: coast
    culture Noun

    learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.

    curator Noun

    person who designs, assembles, and manages an exhibit at a museum or other cultural center.

    devastate Verb

    to destroy.

    economic Adjective

    having to do with money.

    establish Verb

    to form or officially organize.

    excavate Verb

    to expose by digging.

    exhibit Noun

    display, often in a museum.

    Explorer-in-Residence Noun

    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.

    foster Verb

    to promote the growth or development of something.

    gold Noun

    valuable chemical element with the symbol Au.

    good Noun

    object or service that serves a human need or want.

    heritage Noun

    cultural or family background.

    historian Noun

    person who studies events and ideas of the past.

    inscription Noun

    record that has been cut, impressed, painted, or written on a hard surface.

    ivory Noun

    hard, white substance that forms the teeth or tusks of some animals.

    literally Adverb

    exactly what is said, without exaggeration.

    medieval Adjective

    having to do with the Middle Ages (500-1400) in Europe.

    merchant Noun

    person who sells goods and services.

    nation Noun

    political unit made of people who share a common territory.

    Encyclopedic Entry: nation
    National Geographic Fellow Noun

    experts who provide the National Geographic Society with consultation on projects, education and outreach, and environmental and public policy.

    National Geographic Society Noun

    (1888) organization whose mission is "Inspiring people to care about the planet."

    ornament Noun


    palace Noun

    large home or mansion, often the home of a leader or dignitary.

    papyrus Noun

    ancient writing material, similar to paper, made from the papyrus plant.

    perspective Noun

    representation of volume or depth on a flat surface.

    region Noun

    any area on Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.

    Encyclopedic Entry: region
    research Noun

    scientific observations and investigation into a subject, usually following the scientific method: observation, hypothesis, prediction, experimentation, analysis, and conclusion.

    Robert Ballard Noun

    (1942-present) oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence.

    shipwreck Noun

    remains of a sunken marine vessel.

    Silk Road Noun

    ancient trade route through Central Asia linking China and the Mediterranean Sea.

    silver Noun

    chemical element with the symbol Ag.

    site Noun

    specific place where something is located.

    social Adjective

    having to do with a community or other group of organized people.

    stunning Adjective

    stupefying, strikingly beautiful or astonishing.

    Titanic Noun

    luxury cruise ship that sank in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912.

    trade route Noun

    path followed by merchants or explorers to exchange goods and services.

    travel Noun

    movement from one place to another.

    trove Noun

    collection of valuable objects.

    vessel Noun

    craft for traveling on water, usually larger than a rowboat or skiff.

    war Noun

    large-scale armed conflict.