Exhibition Review: Afghanistan: I Tesori Ritrovati

Andrea Vianello reviews the exhibition “Afghanistan: I Tesori Ritrovati” at the Museo di Antichità di Torino, Italy, 25 May – 18 November 2007.

The travelling exhibition Afghanistan rediscovered treasures has reached Torino, Italy, after its initial debut at the Guimet Museum in Paris and will open in other towns in the near future. It is a splendid occasion to see some artefacts, mostly jewels, which may become inaccessible for most people after their return to Afghanistan. And it is not just that: most artefacts are masterpieces that deserve to be seen, and they also tell the story of a region that is poorly known. The recent story of some of the exhibited pieces is well known: believed lost after the destructive fury of the Taleban, these treasures were instead hidden in the Presidential Palace and National Bank by the then Soviet rulers and found safe. Their story recalls the gold artefacts from Troy that have not long ago reappeared in Moscow.

The exhibition is currently hosted in the suggestive area of the Roman theatre of Torino, next to the Museum of Antiquities, which can also be seen with the same ticket. I anticipate that the exhibition is well worth a day trip; Torino is also a pleasant city and I enjoyed it from the moment that I stepped down from the TGV. However, the chosen spaces were inadequate to host the exhibition and this was a severe mistake of the organisers. I had to queue for about one hour before entering, and sadly many people renounced and left the queue. Things did not improve once inside: the exhibition is relatively small, about 10 rooms altogether, and people was allowed inside only in small groups. The first section was also labyrinthine in the way that the artefacts were displayed, making impossible to follow a sequential path. The second section was straightforward, just three rooms each with a long showcase, but access to these was once again regulated in small groups. What it meant was the formation of a long ‘human snake’ made of humans that would pass in front of the cases at fixed speed until I found myself at the entrance/exit of the exhibition. By the time that I reached the entrance I noted that the external queue had gone, but relatively few people arriving sufficed to maintain the internal queues. Between the two sections is a narrow corridor which leads from the entrance to the Museum of Antiquities. Most visitors once back at the entrance left the exhibition unaware of the museum that is not signposted and this is a pity.

Before entering the rooms, there is a small theatre room with a series of documentaries on the exhibition. “Le Trésor des rois de Bactriane” by Frédéric Wilner was accompanied by silent scenes of Afghan landscapes and other commentaries. The documentaries were interesting, but not particularly engaging. Most of the artefacts were a few steps away and seeing them on video was not any better; the story of the efforts to display the artefacts in Paris and their restoration were already known to me, nonetheless interesting. The catalogue, published by Umberto Allemandi & C., is available only in Italian (as it was the case for the French only edition in Paris) and is sold at a reduced price (€ 35) at the exhibition’s shop: money well spent in my opinion. The Italian version is the translation of the French version edited by Cambon and Jarrige. It is a lavishly illustrated hardback book of 253 pages. As the exhibition travels, editions in other languages will eventually appear, hopefully as beautiful and with the same care to the detail as the Italian edition. There is not much text, but the many gorgeous pictures more than compensate for that.

After the theatre room and the shop there is the entrance to the rooms with the artefacts, and the exhibition starts with three decorated golden cups from Tepe Fullol, dated to 2100-2000 BC. They belong to the local Bactrian culture, but there are details that point to Mesopotamia: the tree and the barbed bulls for example. However, the closest parallels can be found in Turkmenistan. In spite of this, a recurring theme of the exhibition is the meeting of different cultures and all evidences of contacts, direct or indirect, are clearly noted and emphasised. Apart from these few artefacts, all the others on display are much later, dating to the Hellenistic and Roman periods. As an involuntary warning to what is to come, the following items are gold ingots from the Treasury building at Ai Khanum (founded by Seleucos I in 300 BC), hidden, like many other artefacts in the exhibition, already in antiquity. And this is perhaps the second theme of the exhibition, understated but strong: Afghanistan was the crossroad of many peoples, and that meant that the dangers of warfare were very actual even in the ancient past. Other materials found at Ai Khanum include an Indian plaque and a vessel with a Greek inscription mentioning olive oil. There are also some containers for cosmetics and jewels and several bronze objects. There are two ivory legs of a throne, and a beautiful silver plaque with golden decoration. The half moon and a star shine in the sky together with the portrait of Helios representing the sun. On a chariot with lions the goddess is escorted by a winged figure; a servant protects the goddess with an umbrella on the left, while another one seems praying on an altar on the right. The plaque is clearly Hellenistic in manufacture, but the servants on the sides recall Chinese (servant with umbrella) and Mesopotamian (altar) motifs. There are several decorative elements taken from various parts of the town on display. We move to the Treasure of Begram, in antiquity Alexandria (of the Caucasus). Most of the town is unexplored and no archaeological researches have been planned for the near future (it is a minefield with recent scars of war like trenches). Only a small area was explored about 80 years ago, and two rooms were found, where the treasure was hidden. I remember the Indian goddesses that managed to be both elegant and sexy; and many Roman glasses. Some of the glasses are coloured, and there are some vessels recalling the modern production at Murano. These vessels were probably produced in Alexandria (of Egypt), but this is not certain and Italy is a possibility. Three vessels shaped as fishes seemed to me at first look rhyta, but they are not; I liked them particularly. Eventually, I found a pedestalled rhython. Three glasses are decorated with scenes, and one is the fight between Hector and Achilles, on two registers: a masterpiece according to the caption, but I liked also the scenes of hunting and fishing in another one, also on two registers, even if clearly simpler. Several ivory plaques represent scenes of palace and are of Indian manufacture. I noted the slightly open door in all of them to indicate that the scene shown was taking place inside a building. There are also many bronzes, some are weights. I noted a small bronze hen with human face and since we are talking of such hybrids, there is also a larger woman-bird vessel, a ‘kinnari’ container. One of the most interesting artefact that I saw was an ‘aquarium’ consisting of a shallow bronze plate decorated with a marine scene; attached to the fishes in relief are movable fins regulated by weights on the bottom side of the plate that can move if water streams through the plate. Pity that this effect is now lost, but it can be imagined: wonderful!

The last section displayed the artefacts from the ‘Hill of Gold’ at Tillia Tepe, actually six tombs dated to the first century AD. I could describe what I saw like this: gold, gold, gold! I cannot describe the many shapes of pendants, leafs and other decorations that I have seen, but I can mention at least the bracelets shaped as snakes; the winged figures on dolphins; the dragons in some pendants and the Chinese mirror of the Han period; a pair of soles (in gold them too); several amulets (foots and hands); pendants with fossilised shark teeth; the exceptionally realistic wild sheep with horns; and the crown. Among the precious stones are of course many lapis lazuli.

I should also at least mention the interesting Museum of Antiquities in Torino, which is an exceptional complement to the exhibition, especially considering that most artefacts are of Hellenistic or Roman period. Among the masterpieces or most unusual pieces in the museum that attracted my attention for one reason or another, I would signal the silver portrait of Lucius Vero (161-169 AD); an original pendant shaped like a comb; a kernos-like multiple vessel produced within the Golasecca culture (7th-6th century BC); a sistrum; the Cypriot antiquities; and the log boats. I could not find on sale any catalogue for the museum.

To conclude, Afghanistan rediscovered treasures is a fascinating exhibition that should be seen at the earliest occurrence. There are not many artefacts on display, but all those on display are astonishing if not masterpieces. Although this exhibition tries to show the good things coming from the meeting of cultures (and there are many), it cannot hide some problems deriving from being at the crossroad of many and different cultures: the treasures on display were hidden in situations of danger already in antiquity and history only repeated itself more recently. After visiting the exhibition, I no longer think that calling the ancient people of Afghanistan as ‘Barbarian’ or ‘nomadic’ is appropriate: these were sophisticated people possibly sharing technologies of more than one culture and with the taste for luxury of a Roman Emperor. I also entered the exhibition with questions on the degree of awareness in the Roman Empire of other distant ones, and I think I have now the answer.

Andrea Vianello
Intute, Oxford University

Cambon, Pierre (ed.) 2007. Afghanistan i tesori ritrovati; collezioni del Museo Nazionale di Kabul. Torino, Umberto Allemandi.

Cambon, Pierre (ed.) 2007. Afghanistan: les trésors retrouvés; collections du musée national de Kaboul. Paris, Réunion des musées nationaux.

Gabucci, Ada (ed.) 1999. Il Museo di antichità di Torino. Milano, Electa.

Lo Porto, Felice Gino. 1986. La Collezione Cipriota del Museo di Antichità di Torino. Roma, Giorgio Bretschneider.

The exhibition has also been reviewed in Antiquity.

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