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On rare occasions, all that glisters is indeed gold, as the British captain F C Burton discovered when he rescued a group of merchants from bandits on the road from Kabul to Peshawar in the spring of 1880. Intrigued by the treasure the merchants carried, Burton purchased from them a gold lion- and griffin-headed armlet and alerted colonial colleagues to scour the markets of Rawalpindi where the merchants were thought to be headed.

Major-General Sir Alexander Cunningham, director general of the Archaeological Survey of India, and Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks, a curator of the British Museum, managed to reunite around 170 gold and silver artefacts from the original treasure hoard, including vessels, coins, armlets and rings, and a beautifully intricate figurine of a charioteer.

The Oxus Treasure is the most important surviving collection of Achaemenid Persian metalwork and it dates from the 5th-4th centuries bc when the Achaemenid empire stretched from Egypt in the west to the Indus Valley in the east. Though the exact site of its discovery is unknown, it is thought to have been found on the riverbank at Takht-i Kuwad, and archaeologists have subsequently hypothesised that it would have originally been collected and stored at the Oxus Temple in Takht-i Sangin.

Today the Oxus Treasure takes pride of place in the Ancient Iran gallery at the British Museum, where it was bequeathed by Franks upon his death in 1897. President Rahmon called for its return to Tajikistan in 2010, but this is unlikely to occur.

by Huw Thomas

The magnificent Oxus Treasure is the most important surviving collection of Persian Achaemenid treasure. Housed in the British Museum, it consists of 180 exquisite objects in gold and silver. One of the earliest pieces in the Treasure is a gold scabbard, embossed with scenes showing a lion hunt. These hunting scenes are reminiscent of Assyrian reliefs from the mid-7th century BC. There are many magnificent objects in the Oxus Treasure, but among the best known are a pair of gold armlets, with the terminals in the form of winged griffins with horns, originally inlaid with glass and coloured stones. An outstanding piece is a model of a chariot pulled by four horses; in the chariot are a driver and a passenger wearing Median dress. Another much larger figure in silver is of a nude youth, wearing a Persian headdress, but his nudity indicates Greek influence. Other items include gold cups, a silver bowl with a rosette in the centre and radiating petals and a gold jug with a handle ending in a lion's mask. The largest single group of material is a collection of thin gold plaques ranging in height from 2 cm to 50 cm. Most have chased outlines of human figures, possibly of priests. The plaques are votive and they and the other objects in the Treasure have the appearance of material that was dedicated to a temple over a period of centuries Originally associated with the Treasure were about 1,500 coins covering a span of about 300 years down to the early second century, which indicates that the treasure was buried about 200 BC. Local people found the treasure in the sands of the Oxus (Amu Darya) in the 1870s, probably at Takht-i Kuwat, which is close to Takht-i Sangin.

Gold vessel in the form of a fish possibly a carp that may have been used to store oil Persian Oxus Treasure 5th-4th century BCE"A large part of the treasure was nearly lost in 1880 and only recovered by chance in extraordinary, even bizarre circumstances. According to O.M. Dalton, whose 1905 catalogue of the Oxus Treasure remains the basic publication, in May of that year three merchants from Bokhara, who presumably bought the treasure from local villagers, were travelling with it from Kabul to Peshawar. East of Kabul they were attacked by local tribesmen, who seized them and the Treasure. However, their servant was able to escape and raised the alarm in the camp of Captain E C. Burton, a political officer in Afghanistan. Burton set off with two orderlies and came across the robbers in a cave shortly before midnight. They were in the process of dividing up their spoil and were already quarrelling over it. Four were lying wounded. We are told that "a parley ensued", as a result of which much of the Treasure was given up to Burton. The next day he threatened to lead a force against the robbers, which persuaded them to bring in another large part of the Treasure. In this way about three quarters was restored to the merchants and, as a token of their gratitude, they allowed Burton to purchase the large gold armlet subsequently acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum." (Quotation from The Oxus Treasure by John Curtis, published by the British Museum).

The merchants continued on their journey to Peshawar and eventually sold the treasure in Rawalpindi. Part of it was acquired from dealers there by Major General Sir Alexander Cunningham, Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India. Cunningham in turn sold the pieces to Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks, who on his death in 1897 bequeathed them to the British Museum.