ISLAMABAD, June 9: Customs officers at the Islamabad airport seized a large black plastic bag from an outbound passenger late last month but left the expert inspection of its contents to archaeologists.
“It was smart of them to bring the catch to us,” Director General of the Department of Archaeology and Museums (DOAM) Fazaldad Kakar told Dawn, grateful for the 75 kilogrammes of old coins, seals, metal and bronze items, ornaments and numerous counterfeit necklaces and seals that the bag yielded.
“In my opinion this piece is roughly 2,500 year old,” he said admiring a simple earthen pot with decorative patterns.
There were four more such “original items” in the lot that he believed came from the prehistoric settlements in Balochistan.
But the passenger Ahsan Ullah caught trying to smuggle out the historical artifacts on May 27, 2013 was allowed to board his flight TG350 to Bangkok, according to a report of the Office of the Assistant Collector Customs Benazir Bhutto International Airport.
“A passenger is not detained and made to miss flight in such cases. But the belongings are confiscated if the customs doubt that the passenger cannot carry certain items with him/her out of the country such as these unless absolutely sure that the objects are not antiquities.
Verifying such objects is a lengthy process,” explained a customs officer.
Inspector Customs Riaz Ahmad, who had brought the detained objects to the office of the DOAM to confirm that the items were antiquities, said the package, with a name and address tag, was found during a manual inspection. “The passenger claimed the items were gifts but we were not convinced,” he said.
Initially the archaeological experts placed the Balochistan pottery and coins, probably from Greek and Kushan periods, in the Gandhara region, and figurines carved out of semi-precious stones crystals, turquoise, carnelian and agate, and ancient seals and beads, between 3,000 BC and 5th Century AD.
The confiscated items included objects of later stages too, such as the Islamic period.
Archaeologists were also surprised that these items had been collected from vast regions, not just Balochistan or Gandhara.
“The design and decorations of some antiquities suggest that they are from Central Asian region, and areas as far away as around the Aegean Sea above the Mediterranean Sea along the shores of Greece and Turkey,” said another expert holding a small leather object.
It was a little over an inch long and probably worn as amulet. Concealed inside it was the figure of Christ on a cross and two tiny silver coins.
When the official tried to read the inscriptions possibly in French, under a microscope, it said, The League of Sacred Heart of Jesus, a Catholic organisation established in 1800 in France that particularly focused on the education of girls.
Nearly, 100 glass items, which appeared to be Gandhara specific, were also part of the collection. But the experts doubted they were originals.
The decorative coating that shone like pearl came off when the official scratched the surface.
“This is definitely a copy of the glass pottery and other items found in the Gandhara in Taxila. We do not know how they achieved it hundreds of years ago, but the rainbow-like colours were incorporated in the glass and gleam even today,” said the expert.
Other original and interesting items included an arrowhead and a spear end and bottle caps made of steel and bones.
The DOAM still has to verify some of the figurines that it counts among the “original antiques”.
Both the original and copies of the antiquities were returned to the Customs warehouse last week. There they would sit with other confiscated items until special customs courts decide their fate, or hands them to the DOAM. This could take months, even years.
A letter from the DOAM accompanied the items sent back to the Customs office said most of the items were antiquities and should be handed over to DOAM.
“Even the counterfeit objects should be returned to the DOAM according to law. The law does not permit anyone to produce copies/counterfeit unless the director-general has approved and an official permission is given,” a DOAM official said.
It took the legal procedures seven years to complete for the last such handing over to DOAM.