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May 22, 2008Washington, DC, United StatesCultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations

ICE returns 8 'Bronze Age' objects to Afghanistan

Artifacts, likely taken from northern tombs, are returned to museum director in program at National Geographic

WASHINGTON - At the National Geographic Society (NGS) here, representatives of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) completed the repatriation of eight Bactrian Bronze Age objects that had been illegally removed from Afghanistan and sold in the United States.

The eight items, believed to be of ceremonial use, date back to 2000 B.C. from a civilization known as Bactria, located in modern-day Northern Afghanistan. This date and location identify them with what is called "the Bronze Age" of Bactria. They were the metal remnants of items that would have had handles of wood or bone: a spear, two axes, and dagger and knife blades.

The objects were turned over at the conclusion of a panel discussion at NGS on May 22 about the ongoing efforts to preserve Afghanistan's rich but endangered cultural heritage. Shawn A. Polonet, acting Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the ICE New York Office of Investigations, presented the items to Omara Masoudi, Director of the National Museum of Afghanistan, who has overseen the rebuilding of the museum and its collections after their near-total destruction during the country's prolonged civil war.

ICE, as the U.S. agency that investigates customs law violations, had acquired the items from "Dateline NBC," which had purchased them in 2005 for a covert investigative story about antiquities trafficking into the United States and the efforts of ICE to address the illicit trade.

"Antiquities such as these represent a part of Afghanistan's national cultural heritage and identity - they are not souvenirs to be sold to the highest bidder," Polonet said on signing over custody to Afghanistan. "Immigration and Customs Enforcement, through a cadre of dedicated special agents has a lengthy and successful history of investigating and, more importantly, repatriating smuggled antiquities and other protected cultural property to their rightful owners."

ICE's investigation was unable to positively identify the items purchased by the television show with a specific import by an art gallery. Since, at the time, Afghanistan was not a signatory to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on Cultural Property Protection, there was no cultural property protection for Afghanistan. The country signed the pact last year, enabling the repatriation to take place.

ICE had the objects authenticated by experts at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., where Dr, Paul Jett, Lead Scientist and Conservator, conducted thermal luminescence and radiography on the objects. The testing confirmed that they were ancient, dating back to 2000 B.C. Archaeologist Fred Hiebert of NGS also played a key role in the recovery and verification of the "Bactrian hoard." He is now the exhibition curator of "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul," which is at the National Gallery of Art here.

Five of the eight objects in the "Bactrian hoard" had the same or similar color in their metal and patina, indicative of the fact that they came from the same archaeological context (area, date and time). Given the ceremonial nature of the objects, they probably came from a burial or series of burials dug out at the same time. The three remaining objects have varying degrees of patina and coloration. They seem much more brittle. As such, they probably came from different locations within Northern Afghanistan.

Such artifacts of national heritage may not be imported into the United States unless accompanied by documentation. Afghanistan has a rich succession of ancient cultures. Its archaeological and heritage sites are the archive of this unique history, the study of which, despite generations of scholarship, has only begun. The U.S. import restriction is intended to reduce the incentive for pillage in order to better preserve nation's cultural heritage for present and future generations.

For more about ICE's cultural heritage investigations, please go to the Fact Sheets page.