They were priceless artifacts, and the Kabul Museum curators wrapped them carefully, some of them in pink toilet paper, others in newspaper, and put them in metal boxes. Then government people, eight to 10 of them, signed pieces of paper that were glued to the locks. No box would be opened unless all the signers were there.
That was a quarter-century ago, during the Soviet occupation. But the pact held through the warlordism of the late 1980s and 1990s, through the xenophobic rule of the Taliban and the American invasion.
Archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert, second from right, watches with Afghan officials as a safe containing artifacts is forced open in April 2004.
(Kenneth Garrett -- National Geographic)
Many feared the treasures were lost forever, but yesterday archaeologist Fredrik T. Hiebert announced that a just-completed inventory showed that all but a handful had been recovered from hidden caches in Kabul's presidential palace complex and other "safe places."
The dramatic story of Afghanistan's artifact recovery bears a striking similarity to the reemergence of treasures spirited away by the staff of Iraq's National Museum before the U.S. invasion and the looting spree that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein.
But while Iraq's adventures are well documented, the Afghanistan story has faded with time: "Twenty-five years ago, there was a museum director and a minister of culture" who "realized that the museum was imperiled," Hiebert said. "They're long gone -- disappeared or passed away." When the boxes were recovered, "nobody knew exactly what was in them."
Or where they had been for two decades, or when they had arrived at their final storage places, sometimes after enduring abuses that Hiebert could only guess at.
"Every time an object came out [of a box] there was a stab of fear, followed by a leap of joy," Hiebert said in a telephone news conference to announce the discoveries. "It was amazing these artifacts were in such stable condition. The boxes were dented . . . and there was evidence that animals had nested on them."
Hiebert, funded by the National Geographic Society and the National Endowment for the Humanities, was originally invited by the Afghan government to inventory a hoard of 2,000-year-old Bactrian gold jewelry and ornaments, found intact in a bank vault in Kabul's presidential palace in 2003.
Hiebert's team finished this work -- 20,400 objects -- and announced the results in June. "To our surprise, though," Hiebert added, "the museum director said, 'Won't you look at these other boxes?' " There were six of them, Hiebert said; then there were 20, then 80, then perhaps 120.
In them they found more than 2,500 more objects, including 2,000 gold and silver coins depicting Afghan royalty back to 500 B.C., a collection long regarded as looted and missing. Next came plaster medallions, ivory water goddesses and intricately carved ivory plaques from the 2,000-year-old Kushan culture.
In all, the boxes contained 5,000 years of Afghanistan's history as a pivotal way station on the "Silk Road" between Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The recovered pieces also included cast bronze busts in the classical Roman style; Chinese lacquer bowls; and a glass bottle bearing the image of the Alexandria lighthouse. Hiebert said fewer than 100 objects from the museum's display collection remain unaccounted for.
Scholars regarded the Kabul Museum collection as small but exquisite, but the building in Darulaman, six miles south of the Afghan capital, was in the front lines of the war between Afghan mujaheddin and the Soviet troops that invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and raged on, with different casts of characters, for much of the next 25 years.
"Beginning in 1979, the museum was shelled, lost its roof, its windows, its door," Hiebert said. "All the inventory cards were destroyed by fire, and the museum was looted."
"The art market was waiting for stuff to start appearing, but it never did," said Ohio State University historian John Huntington, who photographed much of the Kabul Museum collection in 1970. "Where was it? Nobody knew."
Hiebert said the museum staff had packed up the collection in 1979 or 1980: "There was a whole variety of different boxes," he said. "Some were safes with keys, others looked like tin boxes with locks." But each one was packed "very carefully," he said, with newspaper, and sometimes pink toilet paper.
Then government officials signed a piece of paper that was glued over the lock holes in each box. When Hiebert's team went to open them, the original signers or their descendants had to be there.
It was then that Hiebert heard the yarns. "You can go to a dozen sources and get a dozen different stories," he said. "I love to leave the ending with three little dots . . ."