Bactrian Gold: The Lost Treasures of Tillya Tepe

We often think of Afghanistan as a poor country, but the treasures found at the archaeological site of Tillya Tepe prove otherwise.

An excavation by a joint Soviet-Afghan archeological expedition. Sarynaidy/RIA Novosti
Also known as Tillia tepe or Tillā tapa, Tillya Tepe means “golden mound” in the local Persian dialect. Located near the city of Sheberghan in the northern Afghan province of Jowzjan, Tillya Tepe was first excavated in 1978 by a joint Soviet-Afghan team of archaeologists. During its day, this area was part of the ancient kingdom/province of Bactria.

Bactrian Gold

Tillya Tepe actually consists of several hills that are believed to have been burial sites for important nobles or perhaps even royalty. The hoard of golden objects that were discovered here is truly remarkable. It includes well over 20,000 different objects such as coins, ornaments, jewelry, medallions, a crown and figurines made of gold, silver, semi-precious stones and ivory.

It is believed that the inhabitants of the site were buried along with these objects some time around the 1st century BCE. This has been determined due to the fact that date minted on the most recent coins found here do not go past this era, meaning that this was likely the time that the mounds’ inhabitants were buried here.

It has not conclusively been determined as to who the inhabitants of Tillya Tepe were. They could have been Parthian nobles, Scythians or even members of the Yuezhi tribe, an ancient group of Chinese origin who are believed to have headed westwards sometime during the second or first century BCE.

Parthian, Roman and Buddhist Connections

What is known, at least by the artwork and design of the objects, is that those buried within these mounds and in such opulence were a very cosmopolitan lot. For example, there have been several coins dating to the reign of the Parthian Emperor Mithridates II. One of the coins seems to be of the Parthian King Gotarzes I. Others believe that this coin may have been minted by a local chieftain in imitation of Parthian coins, implying that the latter had much prestige in this region.

However, there is also a gold coin with the likeness of the Roman Emperor Tiberius on it as well as one with an enthroned, draped female figure holding a spray and scepter, common to coins minted in Roman Gaul. Such findings imply trade links during the time between this now rural area of Afghanistan and the Roman Empire. Other coins have Buddhist symbols and motifs.

Treasure Lost and Found

Once held in the museums of Kabul, the golden stash of Bactrian Gold found at Tillya Tepe was deemed to have been lost during the Afghan civil war of the 1990s. It turns out that it was actually moved to an underground vault of the Central Bank of Afghanistan, with the keys given to five trusted individuals for safekeeping. Under the Karzai government, these individuals were found and the vault was reopened. The treasures were then slowly cataloged with some of them being put on display in the Kabul Museum.

Parts of the treasure have traveled to be viewed at museums and exhibitions all over the world.

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