Over the centuries, countless invaders, occupiers, explorers, latter-day adventurers and traders have discovered and removed the remnants of lost civilizations found in present-day Afghanistan.
The first recorded exploration of Afghanistan's ancient past did not begin until the arrival of the British East India Company and the British Army, which discovered during the first Anglo-Afghanistan War (1839 to 1842) that largely untapped treasures awaited anyone willing to study the region's past and trek the lonely paths up and down the Hindu Kush around Jelalabad, Kabul, Kandahar and beyond.
The pioneer in this exotic activity was the traveller, amateur archaeologist, coin collector and likely espionage agent whose real name was James Lewis (1800-1853), but who travelled throughout present-day India, Pakistan and Afghanistan under the alias Charles Masson after deserting his post with the British East India Company in 1827.
Travelling on foot to Peshawar, then over the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan (possibly to escape British jurisdiction), Masson undertook a three-year odyssey and collecting expedition around Kabul and Kandahar. Operating as Charles Masson, he befriended David Wilson, the British Resident at Bushire, who persuaded Masson to record his experiences of the regions he had visited for the Bombay Government of the same East India Company that, as James Lewis, he had deserted three years earlier (see Masson, Bombay Dispatches, 1834).
Masson soon received funding from John Campbell (1799-1870), the British Envoy to Persia, and the British East India Company in Bombay to conduct antiquarian research in Afghanistan, including research at the Buddhist caves at Bamiyan, collecting of artifacts primarily from Begram and the Kabul Bazaar and excavations of various Buddhist sites and burial stupas in eastern Afghanistan, more than 50 known sites around Kabul, as well as Hadda, Darunta and Jalalebad (see a detailed report at Iranica.com).
By 1833, Charles Masson had become such a familiar, and somewhat suspicious, presence in Kabul that he was unmasked as the deserter James Lewis. But his treasure-hunting discoveries were already recognized and soon led to a royal pardon (1835). Most of the coins, artifacts, gemstones and Buddhist relics that Masson collected while in Afghanistan are now at the British Museum.
Two generations would pass before the next largest, and truly archaeological, investigation would take place in Afghanistan, when the newly-independent nation signed an agreement with the French in 1921-22, forming the new Delegation Archaeologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA), which undertook three decades of archaeological research at Gandharan, Buddhist, Hellenistic and Silk Road sites that transformed our understanding of this central Asian region.
Under the agreement, the French government had the exclusive right to conduct surveys and excavations in Afghanistan for a period of thirty years (the agreement was renewed, with amendments, until 1978) with the stipulation that all finds — with the exception of gold and jewelry — were to be divided equally between Afghanistan and France (after 1965 the system of sharing finds was terminated, and Afghanistan assumed the right to all of subsequent discoveries).
Archeological material collected by the DAFA is kept at the Afghanistan National Museum in Kabul and the Museé des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet in Paris. Illustrated research results and excavation reports were published in Memoires des Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (volumes 1–32, 1942-1989).
The activity of the DAFA can be divided into three periods. During the first phase (1923-1925), scholars named Foucher, Godard, Hackin, and Barthoux surveyed the terrain by following the ancient trails of Buddhist monks, Chinese pilgrims, and various invaders from the 1st c. BC to the 5th c. AD who left written records; explored stupas, monasteries, and other structures in the Kabul area, at Kapisa (modern-day Begam) and around Jalalabad (particularly the Buddhist monastery complex called Hadda).
During the second phase (1926-40) full-scale excavations were undertaken: Barthoux at Hadda (1926-28), where eight monasteries, 500 stupas an approximately 15,000 sculptures and fragments were recorded (only 3,000 of the latter reached Kabul, due to opposition from local inhabitants and mullas; see Barthoux, MDAFA, 1933; half of those initial finds were sent to France, and the other half were placed in the Kabul Museum, where they suffered damage during a local revolt in 1929.
The second major figure during the second phase of DAFA exploration was Hackin, who worked at Bamiyan, nearby Kakrak, Guldarra and other Buddhist monuments in the Kabul area, as well as Qunduz (1937), Shorotrak, Fondukistan, and Kapisa, where the fabled "Begram Ivories" and "Begram Glass" were uncovered (half now in Paris, half at the Kabul Museum).
On May 17, 1937, the first of the famous "Begram glasses" was unearthed, and a total of 216 items (bronzes, coins, ivories, plaster sculptures, Chinese lacquer objects) were eventually found in two adjoining rooms (no. 10 and 13) (See Hackin, MDAFA, 1939 and 1954). During World War II the Begram discoveries were stored in various embassies in Kabul and Peshawar, after a sharing agreement had been reached between Hackin and Afghan king. The Afghan share was sent to the new Afghanistan National Museum at the Darul-Aman Palace in Kabul; the French share went to the Musée Guimet in Paris. After Hackin's death in 1941, excavations at Begram and other sites continued under Roman Ghirshman (1948), but no new hoards were found.
During the third phase of DAFA activity (1946-82), emphasis shifted when Daniel Schlumberger, a specialist in the late Hellenistic period , became director of the project. The French monopoly of archeological research in Afghanistan gradually eroded, and missions from other countries were granted permission to work in the country, under the control of a newly developed cultural administration in Kabul (the Afghan Institute of Archaeology, established in 1965, which collaborated with archaeolgists from France as well as Italy, the U.S., Germany, the U.K., Japan, India, and the former Soviet Union).
The final phase of French archaeology concentrated on ancient sites related to the Indus civilization (e.g., Mundigak in Kandahar province) and Nad-i-Ali, Hellenistic sites (e.g., Ai Khanum), Buddhist and Kushan-period sites (e.g., Shotorak and Surkh Kotal), later sites (Khair Khana) and Islamic monuments, such as Lashkar Gah, Bust (Bost) and the remarkable minaret at Jam. The wealth of coin data, inscriptions, and architectural and sculptural fragments uncovered during this period filled in many of the gaps in our understanding of Bactria during the Greek descendents of Alexander and during the early Kushan period.
The last fieldwork carried out by the DAFA in Afghanistan was a survey of northeastern Bactria, under Jean-Claude Gardin, which uncovered a large number of still-vaguely-understood sites, moldering burial mounds, the ancient remains of irrigation systems, and masses of datable surface pottery, which recall a vast history of more than 5,000 years of human habitation in this region.
All told, DAFA surveyed hundreds of archaeological sites and historical monuments, and uncovered thousands of unique cultural and historical artifacts relating to Afghanistan's pre-history, Stone Age, Bronze Age, and the Achamaenid, Greco Bactrian, Kushan, Sassanid-Hepthalyte, Hindu Shahi, and Islamic, period before and after the Mongol invasions. Few achievements equal DAFA in the annals of modern archaeology.
Other notable fieldwork during the 1970s included the re-examination of Hadda by Dr. Zemaryalai Tarzi and the headline-grabbing 1978-79 discovery of more than 20,000 Kushan-era (1st c. B.C. to 1st c. A.D.) pieces of gold jewelry and other artifacts from five hitherto unknown princely burials at a site in northern Afghanistan called Tillya Tepe by the Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi (all immediately put under lock and key in a bank vault in Kabul).
After the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet troops in December, 1979, archaeology in Afghanistan came to a halt. DAFA work was completed in 1982 and DAFA headquarters in Kabul was closed; ending fifty-four years of work in Afghanistan and the publication of twenty-one books and hundreds of scientific papers about Afghan history, culture, numismatics, and more.
By the early 1980s, destruction from what would become the 10-year war between the Soviet Army and mujahedeen resistance was already underway (levelling world famous sites such as Hadda in the process, using Kushan era minarets for target practice), and was soon followed by an orgy of looting and continued destruction in subsequent years of civil war after the Soviet withdrawal and continued destruction under the Taliban and site looting that continues to this day.
On a more hopeful note, as the war with the Taliban continues, archaeological research and preservation efforts in the north and west of Afghanistan have resumed, Dr. Zemaryalai Tarzi has resumed his annual excavations at Bamiyan, where security has been restored, and continuing stabilization efforts are underway at Herat, at the fabled Minaret at Jam and monuments at Balkh, including one of the oldest extant mosques in the entire Islamic world.