Arts & Events

Asian Art Museum Exhibits Treasures of Afghanistan

By Steven Finacom Special to the Planet
Thursday January 15, 2009 - 06:38:00 PM

There is a fine traveling exhibit at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, where objects from Afghanistan take the visitor back well over two thousand years, through Jan. 25.  

“Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul” is a small, but varied and charming, selective survey of 20th century archaeological finds from Afghanistan that escaped the past generation of invasion, civil war, and Taliban rule. 

The first room of the exhibit contains materials—glassware, ceramics, carved, stone, terra cotta—from Ali Khanum, along the ancient world’s Oxus River. The Hellenistic city was discovered in 1961 and excavated for several years. Artifacts on display include architectural elements, and there is an interesting video reconstruction of the main structures of the community. 

This is followed by 1937 and 1939 finds made at Begram, at a crossroads in the Hindu Kush, along the ancient Silk Road route. French archaeologists opened two sealed rooms filled with furniture, art, and decorative objects. Quite possibly a cache of goods assembled by ancient traders, they incorporate stylistic elements ranging from Rome to India to China.  

The objects include sculpture, ivory carvings, amusing wine glasses shaped like fish, and a fascinating bronze dish with fish in relief on the bottom. Their fins move and are attached to small lead weights hanging below; quite possibly they waggled back and forth when the shallow basin was filled with water. 

The exhibit also includes part of the “Bactrian Hoard,” primarily golden grave goods of a nomadic culture discovered at Tillya Tepe in 1978 on the eve of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and long thought lost, but then rediscovered just a few years ago in Kabul vaults.  

Hundreds of separate gold objects are displayed. Most are small decorative pieces that were sewn like sequins onto clothing, but there are also hefty gold necklaces, earrings, a belt, gilded dagger sheaths, and other items of wearable art.  

You have to look closely at much of the jewelry to appreciate the detail. Tiny gold triangles are made up of even tinier gold balls, and some single objects are no larger than a drop of water. There is an incredibly delicate diadem, all gold, edged with five trees with loose hanging leaves, flowers, and birds. 

Some of the art looks remarkably familiar. In a way it’s—well, heartwarming—to see that nearly two millennia years ago there was a market for little gold hearts. On the hilt of a dagger there is a gold bear in relief, reputedly eating turquoise grapes. It looks, for all the world, like the dancing bear so familiar to Grateful Dead fans. 

Although the exhibit text, and accompanying short video in an adjacent gallery, emphasize the remarkable survival of these artifacts and the mixed cultural influences that produced them, it is also useful to reflect on cultural loss.  

Macedonians came to what is now Northern Afghanistan as invaders, and planted a Hellenic city—all now gone, without even an Ozymandian edifice to mark the site. The ancient Bactrians who left the “Hoard” themselves excavated an immensely older Iron Age fortress to entomb their elite — and buried one of them with a gold coin traded from far off Tiberian Gaul — all empires and polities long vanished, although of course some influences endure in modern cultures. 

And we should not exclude cultural erosions of modern times. The museum where these items are currently displayed is itself the result of the partial destruction of the previous edifice on the site, the old San Francisco Public Library building, which was gutted to create the Asian Art facility.  




Through Jan. 25 at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St,. San Francisco, two blocks north of Market Street. The BART Civic Center station is a short walk away.  

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday generally. Extended hours (and $5 admission after 5 p.m.) on Thursdays. $12 for adults; discounts for seniors, college students, children and teenagers.