Getting hold of the Alexander medallion

Sri Lankan numismatist Prof. Osmund Bopearachchi recounts to Smriti Daniel his great find among the treasures of Mir Zakah

Embossed on the gold coin is the arrogant profile of Alexander the Great. On it, the young conqueror’s features endure: his luxuriant curly hair and the crooked line of his broken nose; his elongated cheeks and large, unblinking eyes. Curiously though, his head is covered in the scalp of an elephant, its trunk curling triumphantly over his brow. Around his neck is the image of the Gorgon, the coiling snakes worn as an aegis. The horn of Ammon protects his temple. The striking image is valued for far more than its obvious beauty. It is believed to be the only portrait actually created during the lifetime of Alexander the Great to survive into modernity. This is Alexander as he saw himself - invulnerable, verging on godhood, immortalized in the moment of his triumph.

“It’s exactly Alexander, there is no doubt about that,” says Sri Lankan numismatist Prof. Osmund Bopearachchi. Having announced the find to the world, more recently Osmund co-authored a book with History professor Frank Holt which was published just last month titled ‘The Alexander Medallion: Exploring the Origins of a Unique Artefact’. Written partly in defence of the authenticity of the gold medallion, the book describes the extraordinary circumstances that led to the unveiling of the priceless artefact. Its historical significance far outweighing the value of the precious metal itself, its history is both the subject of the book and of Osmund’s long obsession.

At the centre of the story is a humble village in Afghanistan. Located in one of the most hostile political and geographical landscapes on earth, Mir Zakah lies along the ancient trail that connects Ghazni in modern Afghanistan to Gandhara in what is now Pakistan. Travelling in the company of a French journalist and 12 bodyguards, Osmund made his way there in 2004. As the temperature plummeted to minus 15 degrees centigrade outside, the men covered themselves with carpets to keep warm and brushed their teeth with snow. Despite the abject poverty that surrounded them, in the evenings the numismatist would show his hosts pictures of incredible treasures – of gold, silver and bronze ornaments, vessels and coins - and ask them whether there were any among them they recognized.
The pieces he was showing them were in the possession of a Japanese museum.

The museum had been sold the pieces which had been deliberately misrepresented by corrupt agents as belonging to another set known as the Oxus treasure . Now, Osmund was unsurprised to discover the men had in fact seen many of the pieces before. After all, some of them had actually handled the objects themselves, pulling each piece fresh from the earth just a few feet away from where they now huddled together. Some shared their keepsakes with the visitors – on the palm of his hand, one man displayed a single diminutive gold coin. Unbeknownst to the Afghan farmer, the Indo-Scythian coin with the image of Azes stamped onto its face was a rarity, worth an estimated $20,000. Yet, this was only one of Mir Zakah’s treasures – and there are hundreds of thousands more.

The Mir Zakah deposit is believed to contain roughly 550,000 coins alongside hundreds of other, larger objects. “When you look at the composition you get everything – from North India to Southern Uzbekistan and North Afghanistan,” says Osmund explaining that the pieces are equally diverse in their chronology, with some of the earliest dating to the 5th century B.C going up to the 2nd century A.D. How they came to be tossed together in the same well remains a matter of speculation. Osmund himself imagines a scenario where an army of Sassanians successfully plundered the treasuries and collections of temples and cities but was then faced with a sudden challenge from a rival group. They would have been forced to ditch their loot before going to battle. If so, clearly they lost and their treasure was left to languish unclaimed for centuries.

When some of it resurfaced centuries later, many pieces would be routed through the bazaars of the Pakistani city of Peshawar, before they were smuggled out to America and Europe. The first coins appeared in the late 1940s and 50s, just after the hoard at Mir Zakah was first excavated. Intervening in 1948, French archaeologists attempted to collect and study some of the deposit’s treasures, but political disturbances and violence in the region forced them to give up their hunt well before the hoard was exhausted. It would lie relatively undisturbed till a group of ambitious looters would dig up the well again in 1993 - 94. Again, they would leave the job half done. Violence and multiple deaths among those involved with the illicit dig would earn the Mir Zakah hoard a reputation for being cursed among locals. Soon the site would become altogether inaccessible to outsiders, as Afghanistan entered a prolonged period of unrest.

Still, what was dug up was enough to flood the markets of Peshawar with astounding quantities of artefacts and coins in particular. It was here that Osmund first encountered the treasures of Mir Zakah in person. Osmund remembers being entirely overwhelmed as sack after sack, each filled with approximately 50 kgs of coins, were poured over the floor before him. It was quite literally a ‘pluie’ or a ‘rain’ of coins, says Osmund, adding, “I suspect that no numismatist has ever seen so many coins in such a short space of time.” Determined to get a handle on the composition of the hoard, he began what he describes as a desperate exercise. “I began to sort the coins into groups according to the issuers, e.g. early Indian, Greek city states, Seleucids, Indo-Greeks, Indo-Scythians, Indo-Parthians, and Kushans.”

It was an impossible exercise, as was the authorities’ every attempt to confiscate or buy the loot of Mir Zakah – even as you read this, a known stash of three tons of valuable coins in Basel, Switzerland remains tantalisingly inaccessible to scholars. Instead wily smugglers have succeeded in ushering priceless artefacts into museums and private collections all over the world – not hesitating to create fictitious histories for their antiques if required. Alexander’s commemorative medallion would find its way to London and into the hands of an anonymous collector who has no intention of parting with it, though he has allowed it to be exhibited.

For those familiar with coins from Ptolemy I’s reign, the portrait of Alexander is not an uncommon one. Though the work is particularly fine, it could have arguably come out of a workshop in Egypt. However, the one obstacle to this interpretation is quite literally of elephantine proportions. On the back of the coin, where you might have to expected to find Athena brandishing a spear, you see instead an elephant walking on tiptoe. Issued in 326 BC to commemorate Alexander’s resounding defeat of Porus, the King of Paurava by the river Jhelum in what is modern Punjab, the coin was intended to be a golden boast. It is a find that excited Osmund – he calls it “the missing link” that explained the baffling appearance of an Asian elephant on coins minted in countries where there were none about. It represented the attempts of other, later rulers to share in Alexander’s glory.

Other silver coins issued around the period flesh out the action of the battle. In one, Alexander, astride a horse, flings a spear at Porus on his elephant. In another, the King’s men ride in four-horse chariots as they draw their awesome bows. These coins are evidence, that where historical records fail, where stories are forgotten, coins remain to tell the tale.

As for Osmund, the Alexander medallion is only a highlight in a very distinguished career. Reportedly, the only Sri Lankan numismatist to have a PhD in the subject, Osmund graduated with a B.A from the University of Kelaniya and has spent the last three decades in France where he is the Director of Research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research. Specializing in the coinage of the Indo-Greek and Greco-Bactrian kingdoms, he has catalogued numerous collections of coins, including one for the Smithsonian. A professor of Central Asian and South Asian archaeology and art history at the University Paris-Sorbonne, he is currently a visiting Professor at the University of Berkeley in California. He is also the author of nine books, the most recent being ‘The Pleasure Gardens of Sigiriya. A New Approach’. Among others, he has been honoured with the Gustave Mendel Award, The Lhotka Memorial Prize and the Order of Constantine the Great.

In Sri Lanka, he is currently engaged in a search for the traces of an ancient sea port and settlement in Kuchchiveli in the Trincomalee district, but says that while he intends to juggle many projects, the coins from Mir Zakah continue to fascinate him. “From 1983 (when he was writing his PhD dissertation) until today, coins from both Mir Zakah deposits have been part and parcel of my life,” says Osmund. There is much left to be done: the dig is incomplete and what has been already excavated is very poorly documented.

“As long as all the artefacts and coins dispersed in private collections are not made known to the world and the three tons of coins still lying in the Free Trade Zone of Basel are not exposed and studied, the story of Mir Zakah will remain untold,” he says.

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