Digging Deep

Digging Deep

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


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Arts and Music, Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography, Social Studies, World History

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In 2004, archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert was in Afghanistan. Much of the Central Asian country had been destroyed by war. He suspected a treasure trove was locked in the president's palace. Unfortunately, there were no keys. Hiebert and other archaeologists had to wait for days and days to find out.

Archaeologists like Hiebert study ancient objects to learn about the past. These objects are called artifacts.

The possible treasure was in several safes. Eventually, someone opened them with a saw. Hiebert was nervous. He worried the heat from the saw would melt the gold if there was any inside.

“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."

As he suspected, it was the Bactrian Hoard. The treasure includes 20,000 gold, silver, and ivory objects. They were made in different parts of the ancient world. The treasure dates back thousands of years and is a part of Afghanistan's history. Bactria is the name of an ancient region. The area included what are now many Central Asian countries. These include Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The Bactrian Hoard was hidden for 14 years to keep it safe.

For Hiebert, the gold wasn't even the most exciting part. It proved that strong connections existed between ancient cultures.

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

About "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. "You look at these artifacts from Afghanistan. And you say, wow, they look Greek. They look Roman. They look Indian."

Even in ancient times, people traveled around, he said.

Connected Cultures

Hiebert has discovered objects show how past cultures were connected. He helped find the wreck of a 2,300-year-old trading ship in the Black Sea. It sank off the coast of Bulgaria in Eastern Europe. Explorer Robert Ballard was with him. Ballard is best known for discovering the Titanic. The famous passenger ship hit an iceberg and sank in 1912.

At the site, the team uncovered an amphora, which is a ceramic container. It was full of catfish bones. These fish are from a completely different region.

The ceramic containers were made on the south coast of the Black Sea. The catfish were from the north coast of the Black Sea. The ship was on its way to the Mediterranean, where the catfish would have been sold.

Hiebert thinks archaeology connects the past with the present. He was digging at a merchant's house in Egypt. It was built about 800 years ago. The house was in good shape. The wood was well-preserved, and there were many traded goods from India and China. On the last day of the dig, Hiebert pulled up a mat in front of the building. Underneath was the key of the merchant who lived there. "It had his name written on it," he said.

Hiebert said it was an amazing feeling to find the man's key.

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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