It's one of the more poignant stories in the history of museology: a collection of rare and priceless artefacts from Afghanistan, believed to have been lost to the country's seemingly perennial political conflict, are discovered stashed away in the vaults of the presidential palace in Kabul, untouched and preserved while wars raged on around them.

Such is the story behind a touring exhibition called Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum Kabul, and it's one in which the back story is just as fascinating as the objects on display.

Excavations of Room 13 in Begram in 1939. Picture: Thierry Ollivier/Musee Guimet

Between the late 1980s and 2001, when the Taliban mandated the destruction of all "idolatrous artworks", dedicated museum staff spirited away key museum objects that spanned as far back as 2200 BC and ranged over four major excavation sites, fearful they would otherwise be confiscated, looted or lost in rocket attacks. About 2500 items were secured in metal safes, tin trunks and boxes, with only a handful of key-holders knowing their whereabouts. They were only revealed in 2003, two years after the fall of the Taliban, and after substantial rebuilding of the National Museum had begun.

"There is a generations-old tradition of sealing containers with not just a lock but with a covering piece of paper signed by witnesses to the closure, with the ideas that the key-holder should attend the reopening," explains Moya Smith, head of anthropology and archaeology at the WA Museum.

"But in 2003, not all of the five key-holders could be found, so the president decreed that a judge from the Ministry of Justice could substitute. Even then, without the actual keys, a power saw had to be used to cut through the outer shell of the doors so the lock mechanism could be triggered."

Behind the 20cm-thick doors of six sturdy metal safes were precious collections of gold jewellery and artefacts from the nomadic burial site of Tillya Tepe, originally excavated by Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi in 1978, as well as Bronze Age vessels, artefacts from Ai Khanum, an area modelled on Alexandria in Egypt, and objects from Begram, a stop along the Silk Road trading route.

"The key-holders who had moved the material to the vault had to keep this secret," Dr Smith says. "It was an incredible act of bravery, really, to withstand threat and bodily harm rather than reveal the location of the nation's most important cultural heritage treasures.

"When you read the reports of the people who were present at the opening of the safes, you can almost feel the tension and the moment of disbelief when the first fragile gold objects - two hair ornaments, both of which are in the exhibition - were held up for inspection. When the original excavator recognised tiny repairs he had made on objects, everyone knew they were the real deal, not forgeries. I think the rediscovery of these treasures may perhaps be even more exciting than finding them during the original excavations. It must have been an incredibly powerful moment."

Undoubtedly one of the highlights of this exhibition is the Tillya Tepe collection. Tillya Tepe means "hill of gold," and looking at the precious objects excavated from the undisturbed tombs of a nomadic chieftain and the five female members of his household, it's clear why.

Exquisitely crafted gold items, from intricate items of jewellery to heavy belts and daggers, had been sewn into the burial shrouds of the deceased, their designs reflecting everything from Greek and Roman styles to Indian, Chinese and Siberian influences.

"Before we began opening the packing boxes to reveal the treasures from Tillya Tepe, people had been joking about 'ancient bling' but that was rapidly replaced with lots of exclamations of 'wow, magnificent'," Dr Smith recalls.

"The intricacy of each object was staggering, whether it was a fingernail-sized applique through to the chieftain's daggers and golden belt or a woman's crown. The range of techniques and the fusion of design ideas from the many connected countries on the ancient Silk Road network highlight the amazing complexity of Afghanistan's history and its heritage."

If there is one thing to be learnt from this exhibition it's that this beleaguered country, so closely associated with political unrest and instability, has a rich cultural history and a lot more to offer than just unfortunate news headlines.

"I'd say the hope of the staff from the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul is to reveal to the world a country that is so much more than war and turmoil," Dr Smith says.

"I think these beautiful, delicate, exotic objects do just that. I'm sure it's the hope of everyone that these treasures will once again be housed in the rebuilt National Museum - to be cared for again by staff who are justifiably proud of their nation's incredible cultural heritage."

The West Australian

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