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#148 Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World at the British Museum

July 15, 2011

This crown folds flat for easy transportation. Does YOUR crown do that?

Gah! Another exhibition that’s closing this weekend! This was meant to be about the IMMENSE AND BEWILDERING 12-hour show Lullaby at the Barbican, which was all kinds of strange, and you’ll love/hate it; but that’ll have to wait to be written up till next week now.

‘Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World’ at the British Museum closes after this weekend, so you’d better go now, if you haven’t already. It’s an attempt to rewire our brains, to make us understand that Afghanistan isn’t, as it often appears, ahistorical, or at least only Islamic: in short, it’s not a big desert filled with murderers.

To us, Afghanistan seems like a frontier, a periphery. But as the exhibition shows, it’s been right at the heart of Eurasian trade for millenia. The artifacts on show here are from Alexandrian Greek garrison towns and later post-Persian settlements, with fragments and figures of gods with Indian, Greek and Buddhist characteristics. Aphrodite with a bindi on her forehead; avatars of Vishnu on Greek currency. Strange cross-breed gods, customised for their hybrid location.

Most impressive, though, are the grave goods from tombs of the nomadic people that roamed the area centuries later . From tombs of five women and one man, the exhibition shows just a fragment of the 20,000 items found. This really was a massive treasure hoard, with pieces originating everywhere from Rome to China.

Permanent travellers, these plains people balanced their love of gold and finery with the pressing need to travel light – the majestic crown shown here could be folded flat, and was made with very thinly-beaten gold. It’s a great example of a truly alien civilisation: these people bound the heads of their children so that they grew up with unusually shaped skulls, and the endless movement of their lifestyle must have been utterly different from anything we can imagine.

If these really are graves of the legendary Scythian horsemen, then it’s treasure accrued by the descendants of the people who passed into much earlier Greek legend as the centaurs: untameable horse-men of the central plains, obsessed with drinking and fighting and treasure, the best archers in the world. But the exhibitors think that there’s even a continuity with current nomadic people of the region, in the cut and materials of their clothes and lifestyles. New interpretations are shown alongside older ones, and the viewer is left to decide which is the most likely. Whoever they were, they were buried with unimaginable wealth – just another facet of the life of a country that’s seen so many civilisations rise and fall – and made money and its own hybrid culture out of them, too. As you can imagine, it’s amazing that these items have survived the Taliban and the US occupation at all.

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