Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World

British Museum

3 March – 17 July 2011

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Divided into four sections, the British Museum's Afghanistan exhibition situates a nation not only geographically " at the junction of the Silk Road's trading routes " but also historically, tracing its development from the etched golden vessels of the Bronze Age to the glittering contents of nomadic tombs from the first century AD.

Afghan vase

The exhibition opens with the treasures of Tepe Fullol in Afghanistan's north: tantalising fragments of bowls with varied etchings combining Hellenistic patterning with vividly rendered animals.It is only when making the leap of two millennia however, to the objects of the Greek city of Ali Khanum (Lady Moon), that these patchwork openings gain their true impact, evocative reminders of just how ancient the roots of the Afghan civilisation are.Another leap takes us to the Summer Palace of Begram, where a hoard now thought to belong to wealthy merchants was unearthed in the 1930s. Two rooms were discovered, each filled with a bewildering array of Chinese lacquer, alabaster bowls, Egyptian rock-crystal vessels and Indian ivories: a tangible metaphor for Afghanistan's uniquely wide-ranging trading position.It was in 1978, on the eve of the Soviet invasion, that six tombs were discovered in northern Afghanistan. The quality and sheer abundance of the 20,000 treasures that emerged gained the site the name of Tillya Tepe " 'The Hill of Gold'. It is these objects " secretly preserved in the vault of the national bank " that form the final and climactic section of the exhibition.

Don't miss

Hailed as one of the 'world's most beautiful and priceless objects' is a beaten gold crown from the Tillya Tepe hoard dating from the 1st century AD. Designed and constructed from a series of five detachable pieces, uniquely the crown may be folded flat when not in use, offering a glimpse into the nomadic life of the object's noble female owner.Dancing girls emerge, hips quivering, bangles crashing, from ivory and bone Indian-style carvings from Bagram. Thought to be the earliest examples of Indian secular art, the paint traces of vermilion and indigo give a vivid suggestion of their original colourful state.While the golden contents of the six tombs at Tillya Tepe are dazzling indeed, spare a moment for the historical subtext hidden in their delicate workmanship. A pair of gold pendants whose mythical creatures bristle with inlaid gems " turquoise, garnet, lapis lazuli, carnelian and pearl " give persuasive testimony to Afghanistan's position as a hub of international trade routes.Related storiesBritish Museum exhibition blog.News story from the Guardian, including interviews with those behind the exhibition.Detailed review from the Telegraph.Detailed account of the excavation and preservation of the Begram Ivories in the Guardian.Gallery of exhibition images from the Telegraph.

Venue information

Opening times

Daily, 10am – 5.30pm (Fri until 8.30pm)

Closed 24 – 26 Dec and 1 Jan

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