Bagram, also known as Begram, has been in the news a lot recently. Only a month ago, the last US and NATO troops withdrew from Bagram air base which they had occupied for some 20 years. But this area of Central Asia, situated south of the Hindu Kush mountain range, also has some remarkable ancient history.
In the area around Bagram lie the remains of ancient Begram (Kapisi). The city witnessed several waves of ancient superpowers. The Persians came here, as did Alexander the Great and his successors. But it was during the age of the Kushan Empire (1st – 4th centuries AD) that it appears the rich, ancient city of Begram enjoyed its golden age.
Connecting China, India and the Mediterranean, Begram became one of these great crossroads of antiquity. Goods crafted all across the Eurasian continent found their way to this ancient metropolis, through trade and diplomacy.
The site is an extraordinary microcosm for the interconnected nature of the ancient world. And one particular set of objects epitomises this more than any other. This is the Begram Hoard.
In the mid-20th century French archaeologists discovered this Hoard, a remarkable collection of ancient items from Eastern China, the Indian subcontinent and the Roman Mediterranean – all in one place.
Below are some of the most striking objects discovered from the Begram Hoard.
1. Locally-made goods
The Begram Hoard is renowned for its diverse array of objects hailing from all across the Eurasian continent, and that can sometimes overshadow the more locally produced objects also found within this hoard.
Two main kinds of locally-made goods form the crux of these objects: roughly a dozen copper alloy bowls and two large pots made of bronze. The function of these pots is unclear, but they were perhaps used as cauldrons or as storage vessels.
2. Lapis Lazuli
Famously mined from the mountains of Badakhshan in Afghanistan, lapis lazuli had long been highly sought after by elites across the Mediterranean and the Near East by the time of the Kushan Empire and the Begram Hoard.
Perhaps the most famous example is Tutankhamun’s death mask, which contained lapis lazuli that had been mined at Badakhshan and then transported hundreds of miles west to the land of Pharaohs. A chunk of this precious coloured stone was discovered in the Begram Hoard.
3. The lacquerwares
One very specific type of object from the Begram Hoard originated from China, then ruled by the Han Dynasty. This was the lacquerwares. Crafted by obtaining lacquer resin from the lacquer tree, these finished objects could be decorated with precious metals such as silver and were viewed as being very valuable.
The lacquerwares at Begram come in various forms: cups, bowls and platters for instance. Sadly, only fragments of these vessels survive today. We know that they date to between the end of the 1st century BC and the early 1st century AD, but the question of where in Han China they were produced is more difficult to answer.
State-run lacquerware manufacture workshops are known both in southeast and in northern China, but we also know of a private lacquerware workshop in the northeast. If the lacquerwares found at Begram were initially produced at this private workshop in the northeast, the distances involved for them to end up at Begram thousands of miles to the west are staggering.
Sadly the story of how these lacquerwares ended up Begram is also unclear, but what is very interesting is why, of all objects crafted in Han China, it was these lacquer vessels that appeared in Central Asia.
Lacquerwares do not seem to have been produced for sale on the open market in China, so there must have been a special reason why they reached Begram. Some have hypothesised they were objects of diplomatic gift exchange between the Han and the Kushans, or perhaps the Kushans and another eastern power such as the Xiongnu.
4. The Begram Ivories
Among the most famous sets of objects from the Begram Hoard are over 1,000 bone and ivory carvings, originally crafted in India. Small in size, most of the ivories depict women and likely functioned as furniture pieces such as table legs, footstalls and as elaborate backrests of thrones.
Where in India these ivories were originally crafted is unclear, although they have links with three main production centres: at Mathura, at Sanchi and at Amaravati. Interestingly, the uncertain origins of the Begram ivories is contrasted with recent research on the Pompeii Lakshmi, which is believed to have originated in a workshop in the Bhokardan area.
The material of these ivories, confusingly, is not always ivory. Some of the furniture pieces are partly made out of bone, as well as ivory. Not only does bone look similar to ivory, but that material is both much easier and cheaper to source. It may well be that bone was used as a cheap alternative to ivory when the latter material was lacking.
These ivories would also have been painted with bright colours. Quite elaborate objects, purchased to serve as pieces of furniture.
The Roman objects
Among the objects discovered from the Begram Hoard are a vast array of Roman objects, some of the most striking of which are listed below.
5. The bronze figurines
Small in size, these figurines depict both horse riders and gods worshipped in the ancient Mediterranean. Deities include Eros, the god of love and sex, as well as several Greco-Egyptian gods such as Serapis Hercules and Harpocrates.
Harpocrates was the god of silence. Statues of him usually depict Harpocrates with his finger to his lips (as if he was ‘shushing’ someone). At Begram, however, Harpocrates’ lower forearm had been refitted, having previously fallen off.
Rather than have the arm pointing at his mouth, however, whoever repaired the arm had it pointing at Harpocrates’ head. This might suggest that whoever repaired the statue did not know how this god was usually depicted and how his arm was usually placed. This in turn suggests that the memory of Harpocrates and his statues, prevalent in this area of the ancient world several centuries earlier during the Greco-Bactrian Period, had been forgotten by the 2nd century AD.
6. The Balsamaria
This little group of Roman objects consist of bronze jars, fitted with lids and shaped to resemble busts of deities. Of these jars, two depict Athena, one depicts Ares and a further two depict Hermes.
The function of these balsamaria is unclear, but they were perhaps used to store oil or spices.
7. The 2 handled basins
These objects are quite wide dishes, which were very popular across the Roman world. Some have also been discovered in southern India.
8. The bronze aquariums
Perhaps the most interesting set of objects discovered at Begram are these so-called ‘aquariums’ – two totally unique devices, made from worked bronze.
One is circular, while the other is rectangular. The former depicts an aquatic scene, where fish and other sea creatures surround a gorgon’s face in the centre. The scene possibly depicts the Greek hero Perseus rescuing Andromeda from a huge sea monster.
An interesting aspect of these aquariums are the moving fins of the fish. These fins were cut from little pieces of bronze and attached to the main bronze dish with rings.
Called aquariums because of the aquatic imagery they depict, what these bronze items were used for is once again unclear, but it was probably for entertainment. They may have been objects that guests interacted with during feasts.
9. The plaster casts
Over 50 plaster casts were discovered at Begram as part of the hoard and they depict a variety of scenes such as Greco-Roman gods and mythological scenes.
Similar plaster casts have been discovered from elsewhere in Central Asia. At Ai-Khanoum for instance, plaster casts have been discovered dating to the mid-Hellenistic Period (c.2nd century BC), a time when this city was a central metropolis of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom.
The fact that we find such an array of plaster casts among the objects found at Begram is testament to how this craft production continued, and the objects remained valuable, down into the Kushan Period.
10. The enamelled glass objects
Some amazing examples of Roman glass survive in the Begram Hoard – over 180 pieces. Luxurious in their design, most of these pieces are tableware.
Within this glass corpus is a special subset of enamelled glass. Primarily consisting of goblets, these drinking vessels were first crafted from colourless glass. Powdered coloured glass was then applied to the surface of the goblet and fired on.
One of the most striking examples of enamelled glass discovered at Begram is the Gladiator Vase. Another depicts a scene from the Trojan War, showing Hector and Achilles fighting. Vibrant and bright in their design, there are roughly 15 of these enamelled glass goblets in the Begram Hoard.
11. The Pharos glass
Of the non-enamelled glass objects in the hoard, one deserves special attention. This is the Pharos glass goblet. Colourless, the goblet includes some very high-relief decoration.
On one side three different kinds of ship are shown. The other side depicts a lighthouse, topped by a statue of Zeus. The lighthouse is believed to be the famous Pharos, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
If this vase really does depict the Lighthouse, then this glass object includes a contemporary depiction of one of the most remarkable buildings ever constructed in antiquity. And it was discovered in Central Asia. Quite mind blowing.