British armed forces have returned historical artefacts dating back as far as the Bronze Age to Afghan museums, after they were stolen and smuggled abroad.
The precious cargo, weighing more than two tonnes and containing 843 individual objects, left RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire last week, and was then transferred by plane from the UK military base, Camp Bastion, in Helmand to Kabul.
Some of the items were looted from Afghanistan’s museums during civil wars in the country over the past two decades, while others came from illegal excavations of archaeological sites. They are thought to have been spirited out of Afghanistan for sale on the international black market.
The consignment included objects found in three separate seizures by customs officials as they were being smuggled into the UK, while other items came to light thanks to investigations by the art and antiques unit of the Metropolitan Police. Some were saved by private individuals.
They were stored at British Museum for safekeeping and recording until their return to Kabul. Some featured in the museum’s Afghanistan exhibition last year.
Among the most prized items are first-century furniture decorations known as the Begram Ivories and an important sculpture of Buddha from the second or third century, both stolen from Afghan museums during the 1992-94 civil war following the withdrawal of Soviet troops.
The oldest artefacts date back more than 4,000 years and include Bronze Age flasks and statuettes. There are also bowls, coins and pottery from the Islamic medieval period.