Archaeology Odyssey 8:2, March/April 2005


In the late 1800s flood waters of the Oxus River (modern Amu Darya in Central Asia) revealed a treasure hoard from a 2,000-year-old underground burial. Three Muslim merchants acquired the hoard—which included gold and silver coins, cups, rings, bracelets, bowls, plaques and figurines—and transported it aboard a train of mules across the wilds of Afghanistan, a land no less forbidding and strife-infested then than today.

In a saga worthy of Indiana Jones—complete with robberies, kidnapping, evasion (through remote territories frequented in more recent times by Osama bin Laden) and rescue by the British military—the treasure made its way to India, was sold there to local jewelers and ultimately acquired, for the most part, by officials of the British imperial administration. Through this circuitous route, the British Museum acquired what may be the most baffling items in the hoard—the so-called Elephant Medallions.

These medallions are silver coin-like objects, with the weight of a standard silver decadrachma (approximately 42 grams, or 1.5 ounces). On one side of the medallion is the image of a mounted horseman, who attacks an elephant carrying two warriors. The other side bears the image of a standing figure, armed and helmeted, holding a thunderbolt and a spear, alongside the monogram “BA,” interpreted to mean Basileus Alexander, or King Alexander.

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