Friday, 25 March 2011

Afghanistan at the British Museum

This compact but rich exhibition at the British Museum has an inevitable political thrust. Not only is the exhibition of cultural and material treasures from that country an exercise in heightening awareness of a region in which we are at war. The exhibitions is, in fact, largely comprised of artefacts discovered in the lull between post-war conflicts and then hidden during the resurgence of violence. The very fact of the exhibition is some sort of achievement in itself.

What is most remarkable about the content of the exhibition is that the pieces might well have come from archaeological sites from one of up to four different countries. It is clear that Afghanistan was a major trading route for civilisations from the Mediterranean right across and up to China. Greek pottery and glass in one case sits next to ivory and Indian furniture sculpture in the next.

The final section of the exhibition is full of bittersweet gold, a broad selection of jewellery found in the graves of a group of wealthy commercial travellers. This includes the crown that features on the front of the brochure (above), a seemingly complicated piece which is actually designed to fold away for convenient stowage on the road.

In fact, overall one is aware that the pieces are extremely small. Whether this is because smaller wares were the stock-in-trade of the travelling merchants or simply those necessarily preferred by the cultural guardians trying to preserve the heritage of Afghanistan from looting is hair-splitting. Clearly the wealth of Afghanistan is that which passes along its routes, not that which stands, exposed, beside them.

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