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The treasure hunter: Fred Hiebert

Anne Stanton - November 9th, 2009
The Treasure Hunter
Fred Hiebert rediscovered 21,000 pieces of lost
gold in Afghanistan
By Anne Stanton 11/9/09

As an archaeologist, Fred Hiebert has been under house arrest in Turkmenistan and narrowly escaped a chemical fire in Moscow. On his last visit to Afghanistan, his hotel windows cracked and broke from a bomb going off nearby. But one of his scariest moments was right here in Michigan, working along the I-75 freeway near Saginaw.
He and Kate Moore, who later became his wife, were University of Michigan students hired to determine if there were any buried artifacts that might prevent a highway from getting built across farmland.
As they dug under the hot sun, a farmer with a sawed off shotgun approached them and angrily asked if they were from the government. He thought they were to blame for the highway project that would soon bisect his cornfield.
“The truth is, that was very scary,” Hiebert said.
Hiebert, 49, visiting his parents’ condo in Traverse City, is one of the most positive and charismatic people you’ll ever meet. He exhorts students to embrace every opportunity that presents itself, even if it’s not exactly what you had in mind.
That attitude led to his re-discovery of one of the world’s biggest caches of ancient gold jewelry—found in, of all places, Afghanistan.
Hiebert recently spoke at Northwestern Michigan College to talk about his role in finding 21,000 pieces of gold that were attached to the robes of six nomads who lived during the time of Christ. He has taken the exhibit to major cities around the country. It’s now showing in Ottawa, Canada.
Taking advantage of an unexpected opportunity began for Hiebert as a student at Interlochen Arts Academy, where -- unlike his two musical brothers -- he studied art.
He also was lucky that his parents were so trusting when it came to international travel. When he was 16, they gave him and his older brother permission to fly to Luxembourg and hitchhike to Switzerland, where his brother planned to study.
“I was 16, he was 18, and at that time there was no cell phone, no Internet, no anything. I really couldn’t believe they let us do it,” he said in an interview at his parent’s Traverse City condo, which is packed with art, books, and souvenirs from all over the world.
“I shudder to think of some of the things I let him do,” said his mother, Toni, laughing.
By the time Hiebert graduated, he was so taken with art that he had decided to make it a career. So his dad gave him a ticket to Paris and the address of an art studio where he could pursue further study.
“I fly to France alone, and I get to the art studio, and they say to me, ‘You can’t be an apprentice. You have to pay us.’ So they took pity on me and sent me to the university where I got a job producing drawings for archaeologists. I was good enough that they took me in the field.”

From 1980 to 1984, he worked toward an archaeology degree, taking trips to Bahrain (an island in the Arabian Gulf), Kuwait, and Oman.
Did he find the work tedious, digging up the artifacts and fastidiously charting their location on a paper grid?
“It’s very tedious unless you’re into the challenge. If you’re in my field, you have to be extremely honest. If you are not, then it’s not very interesting. You are digging up something no one has seen for thousands of years, and it all begins as a mystery. If you’re unwilling to let mysteries and unanswered questions exist, it seems like drudgery. You have to realize that one understanding will lead to more mysteries. You have the ‘aha’ moment and then five more questions.”
Hiebert went on to Harvard for grad school, and felt that his study of the Arabic language and fieldwork in ancient sea trade were already so advanced that he could immediately begin writing his dissertation. “But they said no. They wanted me to compare overland trade and sea trade. I was back to step one. They sent me to Turkmenistan in the middle of nowhere.”
When he arrived in 1988 to Turkmenistan—a country on the northern border of Afghanistan—the archaeology team looked at him with suspicion and refused to let him work in the field for two months. It felt a little like house arrest. But the long inside stay gave him the opportunity to improve upon his Russian, and study thousands of objects from museum collections. And that’s how he was able to gain the team’s trust and work with them on the archaeological digs.

At night, under the stars, they would exchange campfire stories of the best finds they’d uncovered.
“I was a first-year graduate student and met this amazing guy, Viktor Sarianidi, a Russian Greek, who lived in the Soviet Union. He’s a famous archeaologist. His best discovery, he told me, was an excavation 10 years earlier in Afghanistan where he found the crumbling remains of six nomadic corpses and their robes bejeweled with 21,000 pieces of gold intact. I thought, ‘Wow this is so amazing.’ He found them in 1978, and then Afghanistan fell into chaos.”
Hiebert thought someone should write a story about the lost treasure, so he pitched the idea to National Geographic. They asked Hiebert to bring Sarianidi to Washington D.C. and serve as translator for an interview. The article was titled, The Golden Horde of Bactria (the ancient Greek name for the country that once encompassed parts of northern Afghanistan.)
“The last line of the article was ‘Look well on these photos because the artifacts are gone.’ To me that was sad,” Hiebert said.
Life went on for Hiebert, who finished his doctorate and found a job teaching and serving as a museum curator for the University of Pennsylvania.
“Several times at Penn, I would call Viktor to give talks about the gold. We all figured it was melted down. It was painful for Viktor. He was accused of stealing it. But he was such a good person that I never believed that.”
Hiebert’s thoughts often went to Afghanistan, which had descended into tribal turmoil after the communists were defeated and power was shifted to mujahidin rule in 1992. It especially pained Hiebert that fighters were looting and destroying the country’s museums. The National Museum of Afghanistan, in the southern part of Kabul, became a battle ground for a couple of years and too dangerous to even visit. Rocket attacks set the museum on fire, destroying most of it.

When the Taliban first came to power in 1996, they brought a greater stability to the country, and rebuilt the National Museum of Afghanistan. But under the influence of Saudi and Pakistani extremists, everything changed, Hiebert said.
“We were all very concerned about Afghanistan. In 2001, the Taliban blew up the great Buddhas (two 170-foot-tall statues in the town of Bamiyan). The Taliban went into museums and, with hatches and axes and hammers, smashed any sculpture in the form of a human (outlawed in strict Islam). They were determined to erase the Asian culture.”
Fast forward to August of 2003: Hiebert was excavating the remains of ancient Greek shipwrecks with underwater explorer Bob Ballard of Titanic fame. They were listening to the radio and heard a report that Hamid Karzai, the interim Afghanistan president, had inspected a locked vault in the sub-basement of the presidential mansion and found boxes belonging to the Afghanistan National Bank, as well as unmarked boxes from the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul.
“I thought, ‘My God!’ I called Viktor. ‘Do you think this could be your gold?’ He was on his way back to Turkmenistan. He said, ‘You figure it out.’ Then I revived the old National Geo article. I called the magazine. ‘Let’s write a new ending to that article!’”
After getting some funding from the National Geographic Society, Hiebert flew to Kabul to meet with the director of the National Museum, a handsome, soft-spoken man by the name of Omar Khan Massoudi. He explained to Hiebert that there were boxes in the basement, but the keys were lost and they couldn’t be opened.
But then the museum curator came up with a deal: If National Geographic committed to doing an inventory of the treasure, he’d find a way to get them open.
“At that point, the Afghans said if it’s really the gold, we’d like you to take it on a big international tour and let people know who we are.”

Another opportunity. Hiebert went back to the United States and convinced National Geographic to fund the effort. He also accepted a job with National Geographic, as a “fellow”—he is now one of a very small, elite group of people hired by the nonprofit to bring the wonders of the world to the public at large. By March of 2004, he returned to Afghanistan with three duffel bags of equipment.
Hiebert went into the basement with Sarianidi, who had by now arrived, along with Massoudi, a couple of dozen security guards, and the Minister of Culture. An inmate from the local Afghan jail arrived with a circular saw. Hiebert feared that heat from the saw would melt the gold, but was relieved to see the gold—dirt smeared and enclosed in old Ziploc bags—had survived the operation. Was it the lost treasure? Sarianidi looked for a piece of gold that he had repaired with nylon thread 25 years earlier—and found it. There were high fives all around.
Before going too much further with the circular saw, officials summoned a toothless old man, who opened a box easily with a bent nail. He spared Hiebert’s nerves about ruining the treasure with heat—but at the same time, heightened his tension over security.
Over the next three months, 18 people sat around a table and counted in teams. If there was any discrepancy in the count, the whole process began all over. It took three months to inventory all the objects in the six boxes, and the number exactly matched that of Sarianidi’s count.
“Every piece was there! Not a single piece was filched or stolen,” Hiebert said.
After the count was finished, Hiebert realized there were many, many more boxes, which the director wanted inventoried, too. Deeply homesick, Hiebert went home and came back with more funding and equipment. In the second round of inventory, he found beautiful ivory statues, vases, and a plate with Medusa (the snakehead lady) at its center, and what looks like moving fish swaying their tails (the effect was obtained by attaching the tails with tiny chains). “I call it a 2000-year-old Gameboy,” Hiebert joked.

The breadth of treasure is a result of Afghanistan being in the middle of the Silk Road; named for Chinese silks, the Silk Road was actually the term for the numerous paths that connected China, India, Persia and the Mediterranean countries. But how did they all end up in the basement of the presidential mansion?
“Finally a light bulb went off in my had. Some brilliant, unnamed person hid the masterpieces before they were destroyed. When the National Museum of Afghanistan was bombed in 1993, it was empty. As it turns out, 30 people had already packed it up, and secretly moved it out. And the guys who knew it kept their secret for 25 years. I call them our Afghan heroes. They really get angry when I say that. They told me, ‘This is what we do.’”
By 2006, the inventory was completed and Hiebert began to put together an exhibit to be shown internationally, as promised. Called “Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul,” it went on the road in 2007 to major cities in the U.S..
The tour has enabled Hiebert to tell a different story about Afghanistan than people usually hear.
“I want people to be surprised by Afghanistan. I want them to come away with a different view. What we hear about is the chaos, the fundamentalism, the poppies. My message is that Afghanistan is a great civilization with wonderful people, and a heritage that’s connected to all of us. Here was the mixing ground for Eastern and Western Europe, North and South. Up until 1978, the country was an agricultural exporter. It’s getting ready to open a mine to access the largest unexploited copper deposit in the world.”

Hiebert implores people to look at the country’s value as a moderate populace that can offer stability in region that includes Pakistan -- which has a nuclear bomb -- and Iran, which is working on a nuclear bomb. To the north is China and countries of the former Soviet Union.
“It’s in an inflammatory region. In that mix, Afghanistan is an island of stability. If you look back, it was a wealthy, calm population. The population today is sick and tired of chaos. We are blessed, we are lucky Afghanistan is there, because it’s our greatest opportunity for stability.”
Does Hiebert believe we need 40,000 more troops in the region?
“I don’t have military experience, but I can definitely tell you we need an international effort to help rebuild the country, just as we helped Europe rebuild in World War II. And that didn’t happen in a year.
“We Americans don’t have a very long attention span, but we’ve seen what happens already when we abandon an effort. We got rid of the Soviet Union, left, and opened a huge power vacuum. The radicalized Taliban filled it. They need a foreign presence until they can get their economy off the ground. They have to be safe and feel comfortable.”
Hiebert is working with U.S. military troops to enhance their knowledge of the country’s culture; he wants to make them aware of temples, palaces and schools—even those that have already been destroyed. He also is hoping that the military better communicates with the Afghans about its goals.
“The average Afghani doesn’t realize how much we’re doing. They hear the message of damage from a bomb, but they don’t hear we put a roof back on a school or helped rebuild a museum.”
Hiebert, who’s been in and out of Afghanistan over the years, said the next generation of children is depending on the help of us and others.
“War is tough. The hardest part is you see all these children on the streets. Many of them have never been to school. They have no idea of their country’s history or culture. They have no texts, they don’t know any of this.”

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