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 waited in Afghanistan's presidential palace. He and other archaeologists suspected a treasure trove was locked inside a safe. Unfortunately, the safe was locked and there were no keys. Nobody knew what was inside for days and days.

Eventually, someone opened the safe with a saw. Hiebert looked on nervously, wondering if the heat from the saw might melt the gold if it were inside.

"When the first safe opened, it was an amazing moment," Hiebert says. "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."

Hiebert, like other archaeologists, studies ancient objects to learn about the past. These objects are called artifacts.

Hiebert helped rediscover the Bactrian Hoard, which includes 20,000 gold, silver, and ivory artifacts. It dates back thousands of years and is a part of Afghanistan's heritage. Bactria is the name of an ancient region in Central Asia. It covered parts of several present-day countries. These include Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The Bactrian Hoard was hidden for 14 years as war destroyed the country of Afghanistan.

Gold ornaments from the Bactrian Hoard were part of a National Geographic traveling exhibit. The exhibit was called "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum."

It must have been thrilling to see the artifacts. For Hiebert, that wasn't even the most exciting part. It showed that strong economic and social links existed between ancient cultures.

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

"Three-thousand years ago, 4,000 years ago, and even 5,000 years ago, people were just as interconnected as we are today," he says. "You look at these artifacts from Afghanistan, and you say, wow, they look Greek. They look Roman. They look Indian."

The Bactrian Hoard shows that even in ancient times, people traveled around, he said.

Connected Cultures

Hiebert has discovered artifacts showing how past cultures were connected. He helped find the wreck of a 2,300-year-old trading ship in the Black Sea off the coast of Bulgaria. He discovered the ship with Robert Ballard. Ballard is best known for discovering the Titanic, a huge passenger ship that hit an iceberg and sank in 1912.

On the shipwreck site, the team uncovered an amphora, which is a ceramic container. It was full of catfish bones from a completely different area.

The ship was a snapshot of the Silk Road, a series of trade routes. The Silk Road led across Asia, some of the roads lead all the way to Rome. The ceramic containers were made on the south coast of the Black Sea and the catfish were from the north coast of the Black Sea. The ship sank on the west coast of the Black Sea, on its way to the Mediterranean.

Hiebert discovered the Silk Road was used much earlier than people thought.

Hiebert feels archaeology helps connect modern and past civilizations. A discovery he made on Egypt's Red Sea coast is a good example.

He was excavating a merchant's house, and the house was in good shape. The wood was preserved, and there were many traded goods in it from India and China. On the last day of the dig, he pulled up a mat in front of the building. Under the mat was the key of the merchant who lived there. It had his name written on it.

Hiebert said he felt a strong connection to the merchant. Can you imagine 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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