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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Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation Discover the remarkable relationship between the major ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece, unveiled in our monumental new exhibition #SunkenCities – announced today! 300 outstanding objects will be brought together in this blockbuster exhibition, including many Egyptian objects shown in the UK for the first time. Preserved and buried under the sea for over a thousand years, the stunning objects range from magnificent colossal statues to intricate gold jewellery. They tell stories of political power and popular belief, myth and migration, gods and kings. Journey through centuries of encounters between two celebrated cultures, meeting iconic historical figures such as Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Hadrian and Antinous on the way.

Book now for #SunkenCities, opening 19 May 2016

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Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation We are delighted to announce our first major exhibition on underwater archaeology! Submerged under the sea for over a thousand years, two lost cities of ancient Egypt were recently rediscovered. Their amazing discovery is transforming our understanding of the deep connections between the great ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece.

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Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation You can now discover thousands of British Museum objects in partnership with @googleartproject at We’ve asked staff members to highlight their favourites and explain what makes them special. Chris Spring, Curator of Africa Collections, describes why he finds the ‘Throne of weapons’ so powerful. ‘This war memorial celebrates the ordinary people of Mozambique, many of them unarmed, who stood up to a culture of violence. It represents both a human tragedy and a human triumph. The Throne's essential humanity is suggested right away by its anthropomorphic qualities - it has arms, legs, a back and most importantly a face - actually two faces. My first reaction was that these faces are crying in pain, though they could also be seen as smiling faces finally freed from conflict. These anthropomorphic qualities also link it immediately to the arts of Africa, in which non-figurative objects such as chairs, stools, weapons, pots etc are seen as - and described as - human beings. The Throne has toured the world, taking its message of peace to schools, churches, shopping centres and even prisons – and of course, to museums and galleries.’ #MuseumOfTheWorld We’re celebrating our partnership with @googleartproject, and have asked curators to tell us about their favourite objects. Hugo Chapman, Keeper of Prints and Drawings, explains why he chose this chalk drawing by Michelangelo. ‘One of the things I love about drawings is the way they sometimes allow a glimpse into the private, behind the scenes world of an artist, one unseen in finished works in paint or stone. An example of that is a red chalk drawing by Michelangelo of grotesque heads in red chalk that reveal that the Florentine Renaissance artist had a lively, if caustic, sense of humour. The three heads were probably drawn to amuse but at the same instruct his pupils, as the three studies show how slight changes can radically alter the reading of an image with the character and mood of each figure (paranoid anxiety; vacuous joy; and depressive gloom) signalled by the position and erectness of their donkey-like ears.  I wish my ears were as expressive.’ Discover many more incredible works of art in the Google Cultural Institute at

#Michelangelo #art To celebrate our partnership with @googleartproject, we’ve asked members of British Museum staff to highlight their favourite objects and explain what makes them special. Jill Cook, Deputy Keeper of Britain, Europe & Prehistory, chose this stone chopping tool from an early human campsite in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. ‘Holding this 2 million year old African tool in my hand I am reminded that whatever differences exist between people now, we are united by our common origin in Africa. The discovery of this piece by Louis Leakey in 1931 began to change our understanding of what makes us human. It illustrates the beginning of a transition from an ancestral ape that walked upright on two legs within the confines of a limited ecological niche to humans with more complex brains capable of changing and eventually dominating the world around us by making tools and weapons. This chopping tool is one of the seeds from which all human cultures and societies have grown.’ Discover the stories of thousands of objects in the Google Cultural Institute at


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