British Museum blog

Looted, recovered, returned: new research on the Begram ivories

St J Simpson, curator, British Museum

A seated figure in mid-conversation

A seated figure in mid-conversation. © National Museum of Afghanistan

A major new book, illustrated in full colour, has just been published on a group of these famous objects which had been stolen from the National Museum of Afghanistan during the 1990s but were recovered, then conserved and exhibited at the British Museum in 2011 before being returned to Kabul in 2012.

Lions and elephant carved in openwork

Lions and elephant carved in openwork. © National Museum of Afghanistan

Carved from bone as well as ivory, but popularly known as the ‘Begram ivories’, they were one of the many memorable highlights of the British Museum’s 2011 exhibition Afghanistan: crossroads of the ancient world. Over a thousand of these exquisite Indian miniature carvings, originally attached to wooden pieces of furniture, long since decomposed, were recovered by French archaeologists excavating the ancient site of Begram in 1937 and 1939. The main pieces were published but the collection was divided almost equally between the National Museum in Kabul and the Musée Guimet, the French national museum of Asian art in Paris. During the 1990s, disaster struck the Kabul collection during the civil war and hundreds were stolen from their galleries and storerooms, and remain scattered in many different collections around the world.

Composite bone plaque showing a bird

Composite bone plaque showing a bird

In 2010 a private philanthropist very generously stepped in and acquired this particular collection on behalf of the National Museum in Kabul. They were in a poor state and required a huge amount of conservation. This work was done within a very short space of time at the British Museum with the support of Bank of America Merrill Lynch through their global Art Conservation Project. The bank also sponsored the Afghanistan exhibition.

A digitally re-coloured version of a plaque covered with different pigments

A digitally re-coloured version of a plaque covered with different pigments. © National Museum of Afghanistan

This was also a golden opportunity to conduct scientific analyses on these pieces in order to understand how they were made, and the nature of previous conservation treatments. This work therefore involved a number of scientists, conservators and curators, who collaborated closely on this new publication. The results reveal important new evidence for the extent of ancient pigments on some of these beautiful objects, including black (lamp black), red (hematite and vermilion), blue (indigo) and possibly other colours using organic pigments. This is the first time any of the ivory and bone furniture ornaments from Begram have been scientifically analysed and the results show the huge potential in this approach.

Composite bone plaque showing a bird

Composite bone plaque showing a bird. © National Museum of Afghanistan

A mythical beast

A mythical beast. © National Museum of Afghanistan

The book also includes many previously unpublished photographs of these objects when they were exhibited in Kabul during the 1960s and 1970s. They show how, in some cases, private photographs taken of museum displays offer useful evidence for the appearance of objects in the event of disaster.

begram book cover_544

J Ambers, C R Cartwright, C Higgitt, D Hook, E Passmore, St J Simpson, G Verri, C Ward and B. Wills, Looted, Recovered, Returned: Antiquities from Afghanistan is published by Archaeopress and available both in printed and e-versions. The publication was supported by Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

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Afghanistan exhibition opens 3 March

Constance Wyndham, Assistant Exhibition Curator

On the eve of the exhibition opening, we’re now very excited about seeing this exhibition opening to the public too.

Over the last month, we have been working with eight colleagues from Afghanistan who, as curators, conservators, archaeologists and specialists, travel with the objects on loan from Afghanistan’s National Museum to oversee their installation and deinstallation at each exhibition venue.

At the Museum, they were welcomed by the Middle East department and introduced to many other departments across the Museum before we got down to working on the objects themselves, which range from Greek style Corinthian capitals to delicate gold jewellery.

We established a system of condition checking each object with Yahya Mohibzada (Deputy Director, Kabul Museum) and Abdullah Hakimzada (Conservation Dept, Kabul Museum) with our Curatorial and Conservation departments before installing the exhibition. This checking process can sometimes give the opportunity for us to learn a bit more about the objects before installing them in the exhibition space.

One of the display cases in the exhibition will show the first tomb to have been discovered at the first century AD site at Tillya Tepe. The skeleton was of a woman aged between 20 and 30 years, buried lying on her back. Her clothes were covered in hundreds of gold ornaments, stitched on to the cloth.

British Museum scientists and conservators worked with Afghan colleagues to analyse four black beads on a necklace from this hoard. The beads had been previously described as wood – but there was some doubt about this. Although they were covered in consolidant (which made it difficult to obtain accurate readings as we weren’t able to take samples) the team discovered that the beads were in fact probably made of jet.

With this discovery made, the Museum assistants Sarah Price and Xavier Duffy were then ready to recreate within the exhibition space the layout of the earrings, headdress and gold appliqués on the figure as she appeared in the tomb.

In addition to working on the installation, we have also been visiting some of the many museums and institutions in the UK that have wonderful collections of material from Afghanistan acquired from the nineteenth century onwards.

We visited the British Library where curator John Falconer showed us photographs by John Burke, official photographer to the British Army in Afghanistan during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880) and detailed drawings by Charles Masson, the first of the European travellers to Afghanistan to record sites and monuments. Masson deserted the East India Company in 1827 and pioneered archaeology in Afghanistan. His accurate drawings of monuments such as Babur’s Tomb, Minar-i-Chakari and the Buddhas at Bamiyan have helped with modern research.

We also went to Oxford to look at Gandharan Buddhas and Kushan coins in the Ashmolean Museum. In the Pitt Rivers Museum we were shown wooden carved figures from Nuristan. The National Museum in Afghanistan has a collection of these figures on display, some mounted on horseback, but several were damaged by the Taliban.

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For more information about the exhibition, visit the British Museum’s website

Filed under: Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, Exhibitions, , ,

Dismantling the crown

Sarah Price and Xavier Duffy, Museum Assistants

Early in January we travelled to Bonn, the venue of the previous Afghanistan exhibition to assist with the de-installation and transport of the objects to London. In the British Museum we will be responsible for installing Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World and it has been months in the planning. Our trip to Bonn was the first time we would actually see the objects rather than in the photographs we’d been carefully studying. It was also our first opportunity to meet the eight Afghan couriers who accompany the exhibition and who we will be working with closely in London.

It was then with a sense of anticipation and nervous excitement that we arrived at the museum to start work. We were able to look around the exhibition before de-installation began and this was a valuable chance to see what the objects are actually like and how they can be displayed.

One object that surprised us was the gold crown from Tillya Tepe that features on the British Museum exhibition poster. It is a most beautiful, delicate piece and had been cleverly displayed in Bonn. We were puzzled by how this object might be packed for transport given its fragile nature. The answer came when the conservator started dismantling it.

The crown’s shape is given by the mount it sits on during display. The top five sections come loose and are detached from the headband which itself then lies flat. Each piece had a series of loops on the back which thread onto corresponding spikes on the mount. These six sections are held in place with pins in travel boxes to stop them from moving during their journey to London.

Once all the objects had been safely packed into their crates it was time to transport the cargo to London with us and the Afghan delegation always close at hand. After a long day travelling across Europe the crates would still have to be unloaded at the British Museum. However, the Heavy Object Handling team and members of the Middle East department were thankfully on hand to assist with this final part of the process. The crates were placed in a secure storage area where they will remain until the (much anticipated) time comes to open them up and remove the objects for display in London.

Meeting the Afghan couriers was a great pleasure and assisting them with the de-installation of the exhibition in Bonn will certainly ensure the smooth running of the installation at the British Museum.

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Showing treasures

St John Simpson, exhibition curator

Although the exhibition doesn’t open until March 2011, we had a briefing for members of the press last week that gave us an opportunity to introduce the incredible objects that will eventually go on show.

Exhibition curator, St John Simpson, discusses the objects at a press conference

In the exhibition title we describe Afghanistan as the crossroads of the ancient world and I think that the 200 objects spanning 3,000 years will show exactly why that’s an appropriate description.

Its geographical position, on the edge of central Asia with India and China beyond to the east and Iran, the Middle East and the numerous cultures of the Mediterranean and the rest of Europe to the west, it was criss-crossed by ancient trade routes. In many ways then as now it was a hub and meeting place for diverse cultures and neighbours, both near and distant, over thousands of years.

In the modern world it’s all too easy to think of Afghanistan solely as a place of conflict – and indeed the objects that will feature in the exhibition tell that story as well – but taking the long view we can see in the rich materials and ornate craftsmanship of these objects a far broader story.

Gold crown from Tillya Tepe, 1st century AD. National Museum of Afghanistan © Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

Gold crown from Tillya Tepe, 1st century AD. National Museum of Afghanistan © Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

Afghanistan has always been a part of a complex network of cultures that doesn’t really take account of contemporary political boundaries. Long-distance travel and globalisation may seem like relatively new inventions, but the ancient world was much more connected than many of us may think. I hope we can help bring this inter-connectedness out in the exhibition.

One of the pieces on loan from the National Museum in Kabul illustrates this point particularly well: a pendant from the Tillya Tepe hoard found in the north-west of the country. It features inlays of gold and turquoise. Two dragon-like beasts in the design suggest to some the influence of Chinese art but to others represent the heavenly horses of the Ferghana valley of neighbouring Central Asia.

Inlaid gold pendant from Tillya Tepe, 1st century AD. National Museum of Afghanistan © Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

Inlaid gold pendant from Tillya Tepe, 1st century AD. National Museum of Afghanistan © Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

It also includes lapis lazuli, a type of blue stone only found in Afghanistan but coveted in the wider world for thousands of years. It crops up in the jewellery of ancient Egypt, the art of the ancient near east and as far afield as the art of the Italian Renaissance.

The fact we nearly lost many of these stunning objects and signposts to the past to the events of Afghanistan’s recent history underlines how precious they are as well as the fragility of cultural heritage.

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A magnificent collection comes to London

St John Simpson, exhibition curator

Years of quiet behind-the-scenes conversations and negotiations through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, accelerating as the months passed, are now about to come to fruition. On 4 November 2010 an official loan agreement was signed in Kabul by Dr Sayed Raheen, the Minister of Information and Culture, and Sir William Patey, the British ambassador to Afghanistan, followed by a second signing in London on 23 November by Neil MacGregor and witnessed by Mr Homayoun Tandar, the Afghan ambassador to Britain.

Signing of the official loan agreement in Kabul

The purpose of this is to enable the bringing to London of the magnificent collection of objects from the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul which have been touring the world for the past four years. This is the first and only opportunity to see these pieces in Britain.

The objects number over 200 and come from four of the most important archaeological sites in Afghanistan: Tepe Fullol (also known as Khosh Tapa), Ai Khanum (meaning ‘Moon Lady’ in local Uzbek language), Begram and Tilla Tepe (‘Hill of Gold’, better known as Tillya Tepe). They were found between 1937 and 1978 and were previously exhibited in the National Museum in Kabul.

All were feared destroyed or lost during the decades of war and unrest following 1978, during which time the collections were regularly moved, the museum occupied by the military, its upper floors destroyed in a rocket strike, pagan wooden carvings from Nuristan burnt as firewood, and finally its surviving collection of ancient figural sculpture systematically destroyed by fundamentalist Taliban in 2001.

The destroyed state of the National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul 2001

The whereabouts and safekeeping of these objects was only confirmed in 2003, after the fall of the Taliban government, when newly elected President Hamid Karzai announced they had been mostly hidden in unmarked safes in vaults beneath the presidential palace.

The objects were then inventoried the following year, partly conserved and re-exhibited in Paris in December 2006. Since then they have travelled to Turin, Amsterdam, Washington, San Francisco, Houston, New York, Ottawa and are currently exhibited in Bonn. The exhibition is a remarkable story of Afghans hiding their own culture in order to preserve it and now proudly displaying it to the world. I’m looking forward to working with the Afghans on this magnificent exhibition.

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This is Room 56, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC. It's the next in our gallery series for #MuseumOfTheFuture. Between 6000 and 1550 BC, Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (now Iraq, north-east Syria and part of south-east Turkey) witnessed crucial advancements in the development of human civilisation during the evolution from small agricultural settlements to large cities.
Objects on display in Room 56 illustrate economic success based on agriculture, the invention of writing, developments in technology and artistry, and other achievements of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians, who lived in Mesopotamia at this time.
Objects found at the Royal Cemetery at Ur are of particular importance, and you can see the Royal Game of Ur in the foreground of this picture – the oldest board game in the world. Our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery space is Room 55, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC. The civilisations of Babylonia and Assyria flourished during the first millennium BC. Political developments resulted in the incorporation of the entire Near East into a single empire, while increased international contact and trade influenced the material culture of the region.
Room 55 traces the history of Babylonia under the Kassites and the growth of the Babylonian state and empire until it was taken over by the Persian King Cyrus in 539 BC.
'Boundary Stones' carved with images of kings and symbols of the gods record royal land grants. The development of the Assyrian state and empire, until its fall in 612 BC, is illustrated by objects excavated in its palaces. Mesopotamia’s highly developed literature and learning are demonstrated by clay tablets from the library of King Ashurbanipal (r. 668–631 BC) at Nineveh, written in cuneiform script. It's time for Room 54 in our #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery series – the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Anatolia and Urartu 7000–300 BC. Ancient Anatolia and Urartu form an important land link between Europe and Asia and lie where the modern Republic of Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and north-west Iran are located today. Objects in Room 54 show different cultures from prehistoric to Hellenistic times.
Examples of Early Bronze Age craftsmanship on display include a silver bull and cup, and business archives of Middle Bronze Age merchants illustrate trading between central Anatolia and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Delicate gold jewellery and figurines date from the Hittite period, and Iron Age objects from Urartu include winged bulls and griffins that were used to decorate furniture. Next in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces it's Room 53, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Ancient South Arabia. Ancient South Arabia was centred on what is now modern Yemen but included parts of Saudi Arabia and southern Oman. It was famous in the ancient world as an important source of valuable incense and perfume, and was described by Classical writers as Arabia Felix ('Fortunate Arabia') because of its fertility.
Several important kingdoms flourished there at different times between 1000 BC and the rise of Islam in the 6th century AD. The oldest and most important of these was Saba, which is referred to as Sheba in the Bible.
Room 53 features highlights from the Museum’s collection, which is one of the most important outside Yemen. The display includes examples of beautiful carved alabaster sculptures originally placed inside tombs, incense-burners and a massive bronze altar. You can see the East stairs in the background of this picture. We've reached Room 52 on our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces – the Rahim Irvani Gallery of Ancient Iran. Iran was a major centre of ancient culture. It was rich in valuable natural resources, especially metals, and played an important role in the development of ancient Middle Eastern civilisation and trade. Room 52 highlights these ancient interconnections and the rise of distinctive local cultures, such as in Luristan, during the age of migrations after about 1400 BC.
During the 6th century BC, Cyrus the Great founded a mighty Persian empire which eventually stretched from Egypt to Pakistan. Objects on display from this period include the Cyrus Cylinder (in the centre of the picture) and the Oxus Treasure (in the case to the left of the picture). Monumental plaster casts of sculptures from Persepolis are also displayed in Room 52 and on the East stairs.
The later periods of the Parthian and Sasanian empires mark a revival in Iranian culture and are represented through displays including silver plates and cut glass. The next gallery space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 51, Europe and Middle East 10,000–800 BC. Farming began in the Middle East around 12,000 years ago, making possible the social, cultural and economic changes which shaped the modern world. It arrived in Britain around 6,000 years ago bringing a new way of life. This change in lifestyle meant people competed for wealth, power and status, displaying these through jewellery, weapons and feasting.
The objects on display in Room 51 show how the people of prehistoric Europe celebrated life and death and expressed their relationship with the natural world, the spirit world and each other. The object in the centre of this picture is the Mold gold cape, found in Flintshire in 1833 and dating to around 1900–1600 BC.
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