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, Fredrik Hiebert, waited in the basement of Afghanistan's presidential palace in Kabul. A lost treasure trove known as the "Bactrian Hoard" possibly was locked in several safes. Unfortunately, there were no keys to the safes. The suspense continued for days and days.

Eventually, an Afghan man opened the safes with a 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 from different parts of the ancient world. 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. The Bactrian Hoard was hidden for 14 years as war destroyed Afganistan.

A sampling of gold ornaments from the Bactrian Hoard is part of the National Geographic traveling exhibit called "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum." Hiebert curated the collection.

It must have been thrilling to examine the stunning artifacts, but Hiebert was more excited about something else. The hoard proved that strong economic and social connections existed between cultures.

"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 artifacts documenting the interconnectedness of past cultures. With Explorer Robert Ballard, Hiebert helped find the wreck of a 2,300-year-old trading vessel in the Black Sea off the coast of Bulgaria. Ballard is best known for discovering the Titanic, a famous passenger ship that hit an iceberg and sank in 1912.

At the ancient shipwreck site, the team uncovered an amphora, which was full of catfish bones. The catfish species was not from the region where the vessel was found.

"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 led across Asia, some of the roads leading all the way 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."

Peoples and cultures were interconnected with the past. Hiebert also believes archaeology links past civilizations with the present. A discovery he made on Egypt's Red Sea coast is a good example.

He was excavating a merchant's house, and it was in good shape. The wood was preserved, and there were many traded goods from India and China. "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," Hiebert said. "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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