British Museum blog

Charles Masson and the relic deposit of Tope Kelan

Coins from the relic deposit of Tope Kelan on display
Mahesh A. Kalra, University of Mumbai and International Training Programme curator, British Museum

During my placement in the Department of Coins and Medals as part of the International Training Programme (ITP), I was given the choice of selecting a coin hoard from the Indian subcontinent for display in the Citi Money Gallery. My initial thoughts focused on the Pudukottai hoard, a unique set of Roman gold coins found in South India. However, a chance conversation with Elizabeth Errington about Charles Masson, an enigmatic nineteenth-century British explorer, turned my attention to his discovery of a hoard of coins from the Buddhist relic deposit of Tope Kelan (also known as Hadda Stupa 10) in modern Afghanistan. I began to research Charles Masson by studying From Persepolis to the Punjab: Exploring the Past in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan written by Elizabeth with Vesta Curtis.

The Masson story is a nineteenth-century saga full of adventure, intrigue and fascinating discoveries. Born James Lewis, Masson deserted the East India Company’s Bengal Army in 1827 to assume a pseudonym of a supposed American from Kentucky, exploring Afghanistan and beyond. In Persia he met British officers who persuaded him to sell his account of the lands through which he had travelled to the East India Company. The British Resident in Tehran, Sir John Campbell, gave him 500 rupees to start exploring the ancient remains of Afghanistan. This was followed up in 1833 by funds from the East India Company to explore and excavate any sites on their behalf, on the understanding that any finds became the property of the Company. However, by 1835, his true identity had come to light, but since his knowledge of local Afghan conditions made him an invaluable asset to the East India Company, he was granted a pardon for desertion (a capital offence) in return for his services in Kabul as a ‘News Writer’, the official term for a spy in the employ of the Honourable East India Company.

Map by Charles Masson showing the position of Tope Kelan (Hadda Stupa 10)

Map by Charles Masson showing the position of Tope Kelan (Hadda Stupa 10) © The British Library

Masson’s excavations in the region of Kabul and Jalalabad included a series of Buddhist ‘Topes’, i.e. stupas (sacred domed structures symbolizing the Buddha). Tope Kelan (Stupa 10) on the outskirts of Hadda, a village south of Jalalabad in south-eastern Afghanistan, was excavated by Charles Masson in 1834. The relic deposit contained more than 200 coins buried along with a variety of over 100 objects including silver rings, gilded bronze, silver and gold reliquaries, glass and semi-precious beads and brass pins including a unique cockerel-headed example. These were buried as part of a Buddhist ritual aimed at earning merit in the afterlife.

Sketch of Tope Kelan by Charles Masson

Sketch of Tope Kelan by Charles Masson © The British Library

Masson returned to England in 1840 disgusted at his treatment by the East India Company, treatment which included wrongful imprisonment on the trumped-up charge of being involved in the revolt against the British in Kalat at the beginning of the First Anglo-Afghan war in 1839. The Tope Kelan coins were sent, together with all Masson’s other finds, to the Company’s India Museum in London. In 1878, when this Museum closed, 100 of the coins were transferred to the British Museum as part of the India Office Collection (IOC). Only those illustrated by Masson in H.H. Wilson’s Ariana Antiqua, can be positively identified. Others were sold at auction in 1887 to Sir Alexander Cunningham, founder of the Archaeological Survey of India, and entered the Museum as part of his collection in 1894.

Coins from the relic deposit at Tope Kelan on display in the Citi Money Gallery

Coins from the relic deposit at Tope Kelan on display in the Citi Money Gallery

The Tope Kelan deposit contains five series of coins, Byzantine gold solidi, Sasanian silver coins, Alchon Hun silver coins, Kidarite Hun gold and silver coins, and a gold coin from Kashmir, all minted before AD 480. The hoard is important evidence of the Silk Route trade network that crisscrossed Europe, Central Asia to China and India in the first millennium AD. The Tope Kelan hoard is thus a testimony to the multiculturalism of ancient Afghanistan with its links to the Indian sub-continent, Iran and China.

Mahesh working on the display in the Citi Money Gallery

Mahesh working on the display

A selection of coins and objects excavated by Charles Masson from Tope Kelan are now on display in the Citi Money Gallery.

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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The two-acre space of the Great Court is enclosed by a spectacular glass roof made of 3,312 unique pieces!
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