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The Key Holder (Tahilwidar) Tradition in Afghanistan (lesson)

Role Cards Example

Role Cards Example


In learning about the “key holder” (tahilwidar) tradition, students gain an appreciation of how artifacts were and still are protected based on a system of honor, without the assistance of modern technology. Secondly, students will learn the amazing story of how the Bactrian treasure was protected and how modern archaeological technology was introduced to conduct a detailed inventory.

30–40 minutes
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For centuries a process was followed to ensure that precious art objects would be secure in Afghanistan. A particular person, the “key holder”(tahilwidar), and appointed witnesses were responsible for the task of protecting national treasures. In the first part of the activity students will participate in acting out the roles of the key holder, and will discuss the efficacy of this system.

In 1979 a Soviet-Afghan archaeological expedition conducted excavations at Tillya Tepe, an ancient grave site in northern Afghanistan. From six tombs, they discovered objects of gold, silver, and ivory—21,618 objects of exceptional quality, dating from 100 BCE–100 CE. The objects were photographed and recorded and then presented to the Kabul Museum in the capital city.

To protect the artifacts during the Soviet occupation in 1989, the objects were moved surreptitiously to the vaults of the Central Bank of Afghanistan in the Presidential Palace. Only a few museum staff members knew of the hiding place. At the end of 1992, rumors circulated that the objects had been stolen and sold on the black market and the gold objects melted down.

Finally in 2003, the Afghan government confirmed that the objects were intact and safe in sealed crates stored within the vault of the Presidential Palace. In 2004, representatives from the Afghan government, the National Geographic Society, and the original Soviet archaeological team led by Viktor Sarianidi began a careful inventory. In the second part of the activity students are introduced to the meticulous process that was followed in order to preserve the Afghan tahilwidar tradition while taking inventory of the treasure.

Reference: Galvin, Rachael. “The Golden Hoard: An Ancient Afghan Treasure is Recovered” Humanities, November/December 25, no. 6 (2004).

1.) Key Holder Tradition Role Cards (before the class starts, the teacher will cut out the role paragraph descriptions); 2.) Bactrian Treasure Inventory Role Cards (before the class starts, the teacher will cut out the role paragraph descriptions); 3.Teacher Script


  1. Teacher asks for 4 student volunteers. Each will read a role card and mime the task in this order: 1) Key Holder (Tahilwidar), 2) Witness One, 3) Witness Two, and 4) Witness Three.
  2. Teacher reads aloud the Teacher Script, pausing to have student volunteers read their role cards when the time is appropriate.
  3. Teacher asks discussion questions.
  4. Teacher asks for another 6 student volunteers. Each will read a role card and mime the task in this order: 1) Judge, 2) Archaeologist, 3) Translator, 4) Photograph, 5) Clerk, and 6) New Key Holder (Tahilwidar).

This lesson was created by Agnes Brenneman, Curriculum Consultant and retired 6th Grade Teacher, Park Day School, Oakland, CA, in conjunction with the exhibition, Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul.