H-Net Review | Holt, Lost World of the Golden King: In Search of Ancient Afghanistan

Frank Lee Holt.  Lost World of the Golden King: In Search of Ancient
Afghanistan.  Hellenistic Culture and Society Series. Berkeley
University of California Press, 2012.  xxi + 343 pp.  $39.95 (cloth),
ISBN 978-0-520-27342-9.

Reviewed by Nathan Albright
Published on H-War (April, 2013)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

A Numismatic History of the Bactrian Realm

At first glance, a work entitled _Lost World of the Golden King: In
Search of Ancient Afghanistan_ appears to promise a narrative history
of the obscure realm of the Bactrian Greeks who once ruled over that
troubled part of the globe for about one hundred years between their
successful rebellion against the Seleucid rulers in about 260 BC and
their fall to Sakas and other nomadic tribes a little more than one
hundred years later. This misconception grows when one realizes that
this book is part of the large Hellenistic Culture and Society
series. Nonetheless, any reader who expects to find narrative
history, or even an appreciation of narrative history, will be sorely
disappointed by this work, which in fact provides almost no narrative
history of the Bactrian realm in over two hundred pages of writing
(with over one hundred additional pages of supporting endnotes and
bibliography).

Instead, most of Frank Lee Holt’s book focuses on the subject of
numismatics, particularly the study of coins and what the coins of
the Bactrian period (260-150 BC) can tell us about the lives of
people in that period and afterward. To that end, after an
introduction that deals with the echoes and memories of the Bactrian
realm within scattered historical and literary references, the book
examines various types of numismatics and explains how they were
practiced by (mostly) European and American coin collectors and
explorers over the last 350 years. First, Holt addresses checklist
numismatics; coins are checked against known king lists to make sure
that everyone has been accounted for. Then, he covers framework
numismatics, in which coins are used to uncover the bare facts of
history necessary to frame a historical narrative. Finally, he turns
to novelty numismatics, which focuses on unusual and distinctive
coins that are often appreciated for artistic reasons without any
concern or interest in their historical and cultural context.

At this point, Holt stops his discussion about coins and coin
collectors to examine the lengthy and mostly fruitless search for any
of the thousand Greek cities in what is now Afghanistan and
neighboring countries over which the Bactrian kings ruled. Eventually
one city (Al Khanoum) was found and excavated for over one decade
before political problems in Afghanistan arose. The site was nearly
completely destroyed by native looters who were unappreciative of the
reminders of Greek culture in their nation and who reused the ruins
that had been dug up for their own homes and village buildings. Next,
Holt discusses the scattered epigraphy that demonstrates a highly
complicated picture of multilingual people, some of whom were at
great pains in those backwoods parts of Hellenistic civilization to
show off their erudition in memorials, as well as the more mundane
records of tax collections and accounts of Scythian mercenaries.

The book returns to its general focus on coins, arguing that the lack
of scientific archeology in much of Afghanistan has led to the need
for revisionist numismatics, which attempts to uncover as much as
possible about the provenance of the coins that have ended up in
private collections across the world based on when they were brought
to auction or when rumors about them began to spread. Two chapters on
cognitive numismatics follow, in which Holt draws strong conclusions
from the evidence of errors on coins, showing that the stresses of
civil disorder or environmental disaster have led to increasing
errors on coins at key moments. By assessing the location of coin
hoards and the amount of coins left behind, he seeks to demonstrate
the frustrated hopes and dreams of people of Bactria as their
civilization fell and their lands and coins were appropriated by
various successor peoples who imitated what they appreciated in
Hellenistic culture with their own cognitive maps.

The conclusion points to both the hopes and aims of this work and the
frustration that many readers are likely to find with it. Holt
briefly recounts the narratives as they have been constructed by
leading historians of Bactrian history, including William Woodthorpe
Tarn, Awadh Kishore Narain, and Homayun Sidky, showing that these
subjective narratives conflict because the basic facts that should
undergird a narrative history are simply not present when it comes to
Bactrian history. Instead of a typical narrative history, Holt
advocates for a look at subaltarn groups in light of his own
ideological bias. He creates a picture of ecological collapse and
immense civil disorder from the fragmentary facts that can be found
on coins, making his criticism of narrative historians for engaging
in the same sort of subjective analysis more than a little
hypocritical.

Despite the flaws of this work, including its focus on the narrative
history of Bactrian numismatics and its clear bias for subhistorical
figures whose motives and activities can only be subjectively read
from the limited evidence and against elite figures who created much
of the available evidence from the ancient realm of Bactria, this
work remains of some value. Mainly, Holt  looks closely at the raw
materials with which historians work when attempting to explain the
past, such as archeological sites, coins, other cultural artifacts,
and primary documents. Compared to other areas of ancient history,
like the study of the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, or Hittites, or
even the somewhat more obscure people of Ugarit and Mari (all of whom
left large amounts of written evidence), the Greeks of Bactria left
meager written evidence. Nonetheless, historians and other
researchers must work with the evidence at hand, and have an ethical
responsibility to admit where evidence ends and where fancy and
subjectivity begin. Holt does well in showing that the previous
writers of Bactrian history have fallen short of the highest
standards of intellectual honesty and tentativeness in their claims,
although he fails to live up to his own lofty standards by making the
same errors in the desire to find some sort of truth from the slim
evidence that has survived the Hellenistic age in remote and troubled
Bactria.

Citation: Nathan Albright. Review of Holt, Frank Lee, _Lost World of
the Golden King: In Search of Ancient Afghanistan_. H-War, H-Net
Reviews. April, 2013.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=37716

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
License.

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