Friday, December 15, 2006

Rescued Afghan treasure on display
he mystery baffled archaeologists for more than two decades. What happened to 22,000 pieces of gold -- jewel-encrusted crowns, daggers and baubles from an ancient burial mound -- that had apparently vanished from Afghanistan in the 1980s?

With the country mired in wars and general chaos, rumors swirled. Had the 2,000-year-old gold treasure trove been spirited away from the Afghan National Museum to Russia, or sold on the black market, or melted down? Many assumed it was gone forever.

This tale, though, has a happy ending.

The Bactrian gold, as it is known, went on display this month at Paris' Guimet Museum. The treasure, and a host of other masterpieces, had been saved by a mysterious group of Afghans who patiently kept them hidden underground at great personal risk.

This really is a phenomenal story:
Members of the group were known as the key holders, because they held the keys to the basement vault on the grounds of the presidential palace where the treasures were hidden, archaeologists and curators said.

"Over the last 20 to 25 years, during food shortages and money crises, this handful of people ...could have sold these collections instead of going hungry, but they never once sacrificed their own cultural heritage," said Fredrik Hiebert, an archaeologist with the National Geographic Society.

The key holders are believed to have hidden the treasures sometime after the 1979 Soviet invasion.

The Taliban are believed to have tortured a security guard who refused to give up the treasure's secrets, said Christian Manhart, a specialist on Afghanistan with United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The regime also purportedly tried to crack the lock with a diamond drill bit, he said.

They caution about believing all of the stories told about this, but it's still pretty unbelievable that that much gold could stay hidden for that long. Apparently, human greed does know some bounds after all.

UPDATE: More at NYTimes with pictures!