Digging Deep

Digging Deep

National Geographic Society archaeological fellow Fred Hiebert explains the connections he has discovered between past peoples.


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In the spring of 2004, the National Geographic Society’s archaeology fellow, Fred Hiebert, waited in the basement of Afghanistan’s presidential palace in Kabul wondering whether he had helped rediscover a lost treasure trove known as the “Bactrian Hoard.”

Unfortunately, the suspense continued for days. Hiebert and a crew of Afghan archaeologists, historians, and support staff realized the safes housing the possible treasure were locked—and there were no keys.

Eventually, an Afghan man opened the safes with a circular saw. Hiebert looked on nervously, wondering if the heat from the saw might melt the gold inside.

He also wondered if there was any gold left.

“When the first safe opened, it was an amazing moment,” Hiebert said. “My heart was beating, and when the door opened, out popped these bags with little gold pieces in them. They were so beautiful. I was leaping for joy.”

The Bactrian Hoard includes 20,000 gold, silver, and ivory objects. It dates back thousands of years and is a part of Afghanistan’s heritage. (Bactria is the name of an ancient region stretching through what is now Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.) Displayed in the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, the Bactrian Hoard was hidden for 14 years as war devastated the nation.

A sampling of gold ornaments from the Bactrian Hoard is part of the National Geographic traveling exhibit “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures From the National Museum.” Hiebert is the curator of the collection, which has been displayed in the United States' National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco; the British Museum in London, England; and the Bonn Museum in Germany.

Examining the stunning artifacts was surely a thrill, but Hiebert was more excited to confirm that strong economic and social connections existed between ancient cultures. “It’s not what you find, but what you find out” is a standard idea among archaeologists, and one Hiebert strongly supports.

“We don’t actually search for treasure,” Hiebert said. “We search for knowledge—that’s our real gold."

“What I like to tell kids is that 3,000 years ago, 4,000 years ago, and even 5,000 years ago, people were just as interconnected as we are today,” he said. “We have to put that into perspective. You look at these artifacts from Afghanistan, and you say, ‘Wow, they look Greek. They look Roman. They look Indian.’ And one of the things we learned while we were doing this project was basically that people traveled around.”

Connected Cultures

Hiebert has discovered an array of artifacts documenting the interconnectedness of past cultures. With National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Robert Ballard (best known for discovering the wreckage of the Titanic ocean liner), Hiebert helped find the wreck of a 2,300-year-old trading vessel in the Black Sea off the coast of Bulgaria.

On the shipwreck site, the team uncovered an amphora (ceramic container) full of catfish bones. The catfish species was not from the region where the vessel was found. The amphora, bones, and the ship itself revealed its history.

“This ship had done the ancient Silk Road,” Hiebert said. “Its ceramic was made on the south coast of the Black Sea. Its contents were produced on the north coast of the Black Sea. And it unfortunately met its end on the west coast of the Black Sea, just about on its way to the Mediterranean.”

The Silk Road was a series of trade routes that included roads that led from China to Rome. Hiebert’s study of the Silk Road revealed it had been established much earlier than people thought.

“When I got to Turkmenistan, I found out that the archaeology of this particular area of this caravan spot was literally thousands of years earlier [than expected],” he said. “It goes back to the Bronze Age. That really defined and still defines my research along the Silk Road. I primarily study the Silk Road before the Romans, during the Bronze Age, which is 4,000 and 5,000 years ago.

“Every time we go and study one of these sites from the ancient Silk Road, it confirms to me that people in the past were interconnected,” Hiebert said. “I’m sure that one day we are going to find a Chinese inscription in the western part of Central Asia that completely puts textbooks out of date. I love that.”

While Hiebert speaks of the interconnectedness of past cultures, he also believes his profession fosters a connection between current and past civilizations. Hiebert explains this connection in an account of a discovery he made early in his career while working on Egypt’s Red Sea coast.

“I was given my own unit to excavate, and it was a medieval merchant’s house,” he said. “It was amazing, and the preservation was great. It’s Egypt, so wood was preserved. Papyrus was preserved. Lots of trade goods from India and China and things like that were preserved. The last day of the dig as we were cleaning up I pulled up a mat from in front of the building that I was excavating. It was 800 years old, and there under the mat was the key of the merchant who lived there. It had his name written on it.

“Can you imagine the connection that you feel finding the key to someone’s house that is 800 years old?”

Fast Fact

Golden Discovery
Viktor Sarianidi, a Russian archaeologist, discovered the Bactrian Hoard while excavating for Bronze Age artifacts in 1978. What he found was the burial site of a wealthy nomadic family, dating much later, from the 1st century B.C.E.

Fast Fact

Trying to Make Textbooks Out-of-Date
"We are in one of those rare fields where our main job is to try to make the textbooks go out-of-date. That's my goal. My goal is to find something new, to make a new discovery, a new radiocarbon date, because history is a living thing."
Fredrik Hiebert, archaeologist

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Stuart Thornton
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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