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Ancient buried Gold


Alternate names: Tilla Tepe, Tillia Tepe, "Golden Hill" or "Golden Mound"

Jauzjan Province. Five kilometers north of Sheberghan, among the dunes between one and two kilometers east of the road to Andkhui.

Dates: Early Iron Age, circa 1300-800 BC (carbon 14 dating);
Indo-Scythian, 20 BC–80 AD (stylistic evidence)

A mound circa 80 meters in diameter and four meters high, enclosed by mud-brick walls circa 1.5 meters high. Inside is a temple consisting of two halls with 15 columns and a cruciform altar. The site is possibly a very early Indo-Iranian settlement. During the early Kushan period, Tillya Tepe was re-used as a necropolis for a wealthy family. In 1978 six burials were excavated, consisting of raised wooden coffins containing burial adornments of silk, gold and silver.

Some 20,000 gold objects were recovered, consisting of bracelets, bowls, clasps, buttons, weapons, statuary jewelery, etc., representing a mixture of Indian, Central Asian, Iranian and Hellenistic styles. Other artifacts from the Mediterranean and China (products from Silk Road trade, not of local manufacture) and gold coins (one with Buddhist inscriptions, another of Parthian origin and another of Roman origin, struck during the reign of were also found.

Tillya Tepe is, by all accounts, the most important archeological discovery made in Afghanistan since the excavatation of Begram during the 1930s. Few sites from this period have been discovered intact, allowing modern archaeologists to reconstruct the ensembles worn by the deceased as they were laid into their graves.

Altogether several thousand pieces of fine jewelry were recovered, usually made of gold, turquoise and/or lapis-lazuli. The ornaments include coins, necklacesset with gems, belts, medallions and crowns. After its discovery the hoard went missing during the wars in Afghanistan, until it was "rediscovered" and first brought to public attention again in 2003. A new museum in Kabul is being planned where the Bactrian gold will eventually be kept.

Typical of nomadic burials, the graves were dug into an earthen mound with the most important person - the chieftai - placed in the center and the secondary burials arranged roughly in a circle around him. In the northern steppes, funeral mounds were man-made constructions requiring massive movement of earth. At Tillya Tepe, however, the nomads reused an existing “hill" - actually the earthcovered remains of a fortified mud-brick temple dating from the Iron Age (1500-1300 BC).

This style is readily evident in the turquoise-inlaid dagger (fig. 15) from Tomb IV, that of the chieftain. The weapon's design - animals devouring each other - suggests dynamism, aggression, and invincibility.

A Buddhist gold coin from India was also found in tomb IV (the male warrior). On the reverse, it depicts a lion with a nandipada, with the Kharoshthi legend "Sih[o] vigatabhay[o]" ("The lion who dispelled fear"). On the obverse, an almost naked man only wearing an Hellenistic chlamys and a petasus hat (an iconography similar to that of Hermes/ Mercury) rolls a wheel. The legend in Kharoshthi reads "Dharmacakrapravata[ko]" ("The one who turned the Wheel of the Law"). It has been suggested that this may be an early representation ofZoroaster.

The monstrous steed with the muzzle ofa lion, beard ofa goat, and crest ofa dragon is alien to Greek art, however, and reflects the aesthetic of the steppes. Chinese influence is evident in the chieftain`s boot buckles, each of which shows an exotic scene of chariots being drawn by dragons (fig.18). The pattern on the chariot's side suggests a woven material, and the uprights supporting the canopy resemble bamboo. Such lightweight, two - wheeled chariots are known from excavations in Mongolia and from Han Chinese burials of the first century BC.

Like many of the gold objects found at Tillya Tepe, this buckle shows signs of wear. Because nomads carried all their wealth with them, often on the body, the buckle was probably used by the chieftain during his life. Most scholars believe that the adornments, jewelry, and weapons at Tillya Tepe were made locally. The turquoise and most of the other semiprecious stones used for inlays were abundant in the region, as was gold from the Amu Darya. What is most telling is that the workmanship of the gold items is similar among all the tombs, suggesting the possibility of a single workshop located nearby in northern Afghanistan.

It is thought that the site belonged to Sakas (Asian Scythians, who were later to migrate to India, where they are known as Indo-Scythians), although some suggest the Yuezhi (futureKushans) or eastern Parthians as an alternative. Several of the artifacts are highly consistent with a Scythian origin, such as the royal crown or the polylobed decorated daggers discovered in the tombs. Several of the defuncts exhibited ritual deformation of the skull, a practice which is well documented among Central Asian nomads of the period.

Some of the most spectacular finds were a part of the traveling exhibition titled "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures From the National Museum, Kabul" or "Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World" which were first on displayed in December 2006 in France’s Musee Guimet in Paris. The exhibition supported by The National Geographic has also been to theNational Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. from May 25th to Sept. 7th, 2008; from Oct. 24th, 2008 to Jan. 25th, 2009 the collection was at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco; from February 22 to May 17, 2009 it traveled to The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston then to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York from June 23 to Sept. 20th, 2009; Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau-Ottawa held the exhibition from October 23, 2009, to March 28, 2010; Bonn Museum in Germany from June 11, 2010 to January 2, 2011 and from March 3, 2011 to July 3, 2011 the British Museum in London. From July 26th to November 26th 2014 the exhibition shows at the Western Australian Museum in Perth. TheMuseum of Oriental Art in Turin, Italy, and Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam also saw displays.

Additional description can be found at the bottom of the Indo-Scythian History and Culture page of this resource and at the "Hidden Treasures of Afghanistan" website produced by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Source: Warwick Ball, Archaeological Gazetteer of Afghanistan, 1982, n. 1192

"Il semble qu'on ait là la plus ancienne représentation du Zoroaster, selon une modalité qui n'est pas encore celle de l'iconograhie boudhique traditionnelle" (French): "It seems this might be the earliest representation of the Buddha, in a style which is not yet that of traditional Zoroastrian iconography", inAfghanistan, les trésors retouvés, p. 280.

Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul (2008), pp. 18-19.