Antiquities – A Quandary


Afghanistan is a very rich country, in terms of it’s archeological past. The remains of multiple empires and the detritus that accumulates for being such an important trade route are evident every where you look.  I would venture that if one would dig a hole in any inhabited area in Afghanistan, you would discover historic and pre-historic artifacts of great value.

However, it violates both Afghan and US law to take, buy or otherwise acquire such artifacts and attempt to leave the country with them.  According to the CENTCOM Website: 

CENTCOM’s Historical/Cultural Advisory Group defines antiquities as “all artistic relics and monuments, moveable or immoveable, made before 1748, including all articles of historic or prehistoric value and any natural objects modified by human agency prior to the above date.”[i]  United States’ law and General Order 1A applies to all Afghan laws concerning antiquities and cultural artifacts. [i] Islamic State of Afghanistan Law on the Protection of Historical and Cultural Properties, dtd 21 May 2004,



Coins and other artifacts on a US/ISAF base for sale

Funny thing, though; if you go to US or International Security Forces (ISAF) base in Afghanistan, there is a commercial area where you may purchase any number of real and/or fake artifacts.  And if you take those artifacts to the local Army Post Office, they will gladly assist you in exporting those items, as long as they are not in violation of any other postal regulations.  


In some areas of Afghanistan, the perception that Westerners are there to “steal the Afghan cultural heritage” is a well-known meme.  So one could argue that dealing in both real and alleged antiquities is working against Western goals in Afghanistan, in that it creates a negative perception of Westerners.

On the other hand, I’ve heard more than once from Afghans that they do not trust the Government to preserve the Afghan cultural heritage, either due to lack of capacity to do so, or distrust in the government officials; assuming that they would steal or destroy artifacts.  In fact, many important artifacts were preserved during the Taliban years by being “stolen” by Western collectors, and were recently repatriated to the Afghanistan National Museum.


In addition, there is a financial quandary to be considered.  These “stolen” pieces of antiquity are most often either manufactured by enterprising individuals and aged to made to look older, or they are excavated by local Afghans and then sold to marketers.  Either way, they represent money flowing into Afghan pockets on a direct capitalistic exchange and NOT to a largely corrupt government in the form of aid.  And, to be sure, the supply of fakes is unlimited, and the supply of real antiquities has been barely touched.  



I have to admit that I purchased a few bronze coins that I believe are genuine, from the Ghaznavid era.  And I have to also admit that I see the pros and cons of both sides of the antiquity argument.  I think it demonstrates exactly how gray this issue really is.


About hotmilkforbreakfast

I am a researcher, a writer, a former soldier, an academic and a lifelong learner. All text and pictures are copyrighted and are not to be used without express permission of the author.
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6 Responses to Antiquities – A Quandary

  1. Ashana M says:

    It doesn’t seem that gray to me. Citizens and the law would rather not have Afghan antiquities exported. So, they probably shouldn’t be. Casual collectors generally aren’t usually in the business of preserving their collections all that well–we aren’t talking about museums making purchases and then keeping the antiquities in climate-controlled environments. We’re looking at antiquities sitting on someone’s coffee table and eventually stored in a high-acid box that off-gasses in the attic.

    And, if the market for antiquities didn’t exist, more would stay in the ground where they’ve been for a long time. In a dry climate, the ground may be a better place for a lot of things than where they’re going.

    The only quandary to me is the economic factor: someone’s putting food on the table digging these things up and selling them. And that seems like a real plus. In a marginal economy, people who can’t support themselves in a legal avenue of commerce will do it through illegal means. And maybe antiquities are a better trade than guns, drugs, or human beings.

    So, I take it back…Gray as an elephant. Thanks for bringing up this interesting issue.

  2. Dominic says:

    I’ve worked in archaeology and it is a very negative thing for black market antiquities trading to be happening. Tons of data are being destroyed by non-scientific excavation, culture is disappearing, and ultimately we will know less about Afghanistan’s past.

    The coin trading business is pretty big and often gets favorable treatment in cultural policy. But these are some of the most important historical artifacts for studying dating, economics, politics, and art.

    On a side note, I wonder how much of this trade activity is a funding source for terrorist groups. Do they sponsor or derive any profits from this trade?

    • Those are good points and a great question. Personally, I’ve wondered that too, about terrorist profits, but we don’t look into those kinds of things by design. It’s a worthy topic for someone to research, though.

  3. Mike Smith says:

    This is one of those Gordian Knot problems – and we should all be aware of how to solve it, at least from an ISAF perspective: do not allow traders in antiquities on the bases. That settles that. But _that_ is such a small part of the problem. Raising awareness of the issue is the first step to putting a stop to this practice – and not just in Afghanistan (the “Elgin Marbles” come to mind, as does Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer). Let’s hope that as the century progresses, so will thoughtful and enforceable international guidelines that balance protecting national patrimony with the quite natural desire to study and view these objects worldwide.

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