Balkh, Northern Afghanistan – 2002
The Northern Alliance, backed by American firepower, quickly drove the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001, and 2002 was probably the best year for tomb raiding. I met Sher Mohammad, the local Mujihaddin commander, in an antique shop in Mazar-i-Sharif. He lived in a small village next to some bronze-aged graveyards just outside the walls of Balkh. We hit it off after I recited some Sufi poetry in Afghan Dari; poetry written about a local saint who is buried in Balkh. So he invited me back to their village for lunch and to look at some of the rare pieces that they had recently dug up.
In Afghanistan it is usually not a good idea to get into a car with a bunch of heavily armed Afghans whom you have just met, but this time I made an exception, and I was glad I did.
We had lunch in what was essentially a giant swamp cooler, a large straw tent that was doused regularly with water to be cooled by the breeze. After I had eaten with the commander, his brother and his men I felt more at ease. I was now their guest and the odds that I would be robbed and killed were exponentially lower due to the Pathan Code of hospitality. Yes, this was a Pathan village, not Uzbek or Turkoman – the usual inhabitants of the northern steppes.
After lunch we walked through the fields to their diggings and I was able to observe them at their labors, then after innumerable cups of tea, I was able to go through the items that they had for sale. I bought a number of small pieces, some beads, a gold Ghorid coin, and the piece which is the focus of this post, a Bactrian seal the likes of which I have never seen before or since.
But first, a short comment on the fuzzy morality of Tomb Raiding.
For this particular village, tomb raiding is the only source of income, and had been for at least 40 years. Even Nancy Hatch Dupree mentioned the name of the village in her Historical Guide to Afghanistan (1977) as a source of rare antiquities which found their way onto the open market. I am fully aware of the usual arguments against buying from tomb raiders – once removed from the original site the archaeological context is lost forever. But I have known professional archaeologists who have resigned in disgust and left the field because once a team is given a research grant to investigate an ancient site, they will often go in with bull-dozers and scrape away everything above the particular tombs or buildings that they received money to investigate. So forgive me if I’m not a bleeding-heart about Afghans excavating a graveyard in their village’s backyard and using the money to help their poor families survive.
Meanwhile, back at the village
After I had purchased more than I could really afford Sher Mohammad pulled one more piece out of his vest pocket. It was one of the most unusual seals I have ever seen. It was stone, probably steatite, and shaped like a bird with its head facing to the rear. But, if you looked at it from the top, it resembles a foot. Then, when you turn it over it is a seal of a man wearing robes and a wide-brimmed hat and holding a spear. I have never seen a seal like it anywhere else. I’ve looked in museum collections, searched online, and have kept my eyes open in antique shops around the world. I still cannot identify it precisely. I would guess it’s age at 1,500 – 2,000 BC, as those were the dates of the BMAC bronze-age culture to which pre- Greco-Bactrian Balkh belonged. Of course the robes could be Greek influenced and thus 2nd Century BC, Kushan Period, and the earlier date is just my wishful thinking. Any additional information would be much appreciated.