A first-century princess buried with a silver Chinese mirror on her breast and an Indian ivory comb beside her, a seal carrying the image of the Greek goddess Athena, a pair of clasps of Cupid riding catfish, a gold coin of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, a silver one of the Parthian king Mithridates II, a pair of gold shoe soles, and myriad amulets, dress and body ornaments . . . almost 5,000 gold objects in all.

Where was this wealthy woman with her multicultural adornments found? Her and the other five princesses like her, individually and richly entombed around a nomadic prince lying in equal splendour. One tomb included a glorious folding gold crown (pictured), made to be dismantled for packing in a saddle bag for travel, and designed so its tiny glittering pieces would flicker and jingle as the wearer moved: an almighty expression of power and status.

Afghanistan: the Crossroads of the Ancient World is where she came from. Specifically, the tomb treasures come from an elite nomadic cemetery in northern Afghanistan called Tillya Tepe, or ‘Hill of Gold’. More than 21,000 pieces of portable wealth in gold, silver and ivory were excavated there in 1978 on the eve of the Soviet invasion.

The 200 stunning objects in this show — gold items typical of Central Asian steppe cultures, classical sculptures, polychrome ivories inlaid on imported Indian furniture, enamelled Roman glass, polished stone tableware from Egypt — illustrate the vast web of trading and cultural connections of ancient Afghanistan.

Along with Tillya Tepe, the show covers three other major sites of northern Afghanistan: Ai Khanum, a Hellenistic Greek city (this section feels like you’re in a Greek museum — Corinthian capitals, bearded old men statues, temple mouldings — but with the added zest of styles and motifs of the East meeting West); Begram, a royal treasury of the Kushan dynasty famous for its ivories; and Tepe Fullol where gold goblets and beakers found by farmers in 1966, dating to 2000 BC, are among the earliest gold objects from Afghanistan. All were discovered between 1937 and 1978. All were in the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul. And all were feared to have been lost following the Soviet invasion in 1979 and the ensuing civil war, when the museum was rocketed, looted, and figural displays later destroyed by the Taliban. What survives is due to a handful of Afghan officials who deliberately hid these precious objects just before the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, guarding the secret while the Taliban ruled. The exhibition is in part a celebration of that bravery, and part a story of revival of 3,000 years of history darkened by three decades of disorder.

The exhibition, which is touring foreign cities while the National Museum in Kabul undergoes reconstruction, ends on a note of optimism. Uniquely, the British Museum displays 20 fragments of intricately carved and coloured ivory inlays from Begram showing beautiful women with elaborate hairstyles and jewellery dancing or chatting in idyllic settings, or birds, elephants or mythical beasts. Looted from the Kabul museum between 1992 and 1994, tracked down last year by an anonymous UK art dealer, conserved at the museum, and used here to highlight projects aiming to safeguard Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, once the show ends, the ivories will return to Kabul.

This show is a revelation. It can be seen at the British Museum until July 3. I urge you to see it.