IIt’s like a scene right out of an Indiana Jones’ film: a dozen or so men packed away precious 2,000-year-old gold ornaments and jewellery in toilet paper, sealed them in plastic bags, labelled them and signed a piece of paper as witnesses. They then placed them inside six safe boxes that were locked inside an Austrian-built vault at the Arg or the Presidential palace in Kabul. The twelve men were the tawildars — key holders —without whom the vault could not be opened. The vault contained a 2,000-year-old treasure from the Bactrian Empire — a people about whom very little is known — also known as the Bactrian Hoard.

The year was 1989. Afghanistan was at war with the Soviet army and the Kabul Museum, where the treasure was originally kept, had been shelled repeatedly in previous years. The then president of Afghanistan, Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai, officially closed down the museum in 1989 and transferred its holdings to three locations. One of those would keep the Bactrian Hoard safe for more than 25 years.

A Russian archaeologist, Vicktor Sarianidi, had discovered the Bactrian Hoard in 1978 in Tillya Tepe or the Mound of Gold, which is located in a province in Northern Afghanistan. He had gone there after hearing rumours of a gold man buried inside a gold coffin and instead came across a 4,000-year-old temple. The temple contained the tombs of five women, one man and about 20,000 pieces of gold ornaments and coins. Archaeologists believe that the gravesite belonged to a nomadic tribe from Bactria who buried their kinsmen there some time in the first century C.E.

Between 1978 and 1979 Victkor Sarianidi and his team transferred their precious find to the Kabul Museum. But a year after the Bactrian Hoard had been discovered, the country broke out into war with Russia and eventually the artefacts in the museum had to be moved to safer places. Many artefacts from the museum were lost, looted or destroyed in the ensuing war.

Eventually, the Bactrian Hoard was believed to have been lost forever. Many theories circulated regarding what had happened to the treasure. One was that it had been melted down or sold in the black market. Another was that it had been smuggled to Moscow. There was even a theory that stated that the Taliban tried blowing up the vault where the Hoard was stored before American forces attacked Afghanistan in 2001.

It was in the August of 2003 — 25 years after the Bactrian Hoard had been discovered and 14 years after it had been secretly locked in a vault at the Arg — that Hamid Karzai’s government announced that the treasure had been found and invited archaeologist Fred Hiebert to validate the hoard. Hiebert carried with him Sarianidi’s original field notes and he along with museum specialist Carla Grissman travelled to Afghanistan to find out whether the Bactrian Hoard really did exist as they were told. They were not going to be disappointed.

There was a problem though — the tawildars who were needed to open the vaults were missing and no one knew where they were. “Only 13 to 20 people knew about the treasure and as fighting between different groups got worse we decided not to tell anyone about it,” Omara Khan Masoudi, who was one of the original tawildars and is now the director of the National Museum in Kabul, said in an interview, “When the Mujahideen took power, some went to Pakistan, some went to Iran and some were killed. Only a few of us remained in Kabul.” Faced with the challenge, Karzai appointed a judge as a substitute tawildar and the vault was opened.

Soon after the perfectly preserved gold was verified arguments broke out over who would get it first. It was decided that the Hoard would be exhibited in various countries in Europe and in the United States.

“The story of the hidden treasure is like the story of Afghanistan,” said Said Tayeb Jawed, who was then the Afghan ambassador to the United States, when the Bactrian Hoard went on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “It’s about precious culture and traditions covered by the ashes of war and neglect. You don’t know what remains under the ashes, and when you see the glitter of gold, you almost can’t believe it.”

The Bactrian Hoard is important because it enables archaeologists to understand the time that passed between the decline of the Greco-Bactrian Empire and the rise of the Kushan Empire in the region. There are very few known archaeological finds from this era. The Bactrian Hoard is considered to be one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century.