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.

Filed under: Archaeology, Collection, , , , , ,

The doors are open but the work goes on…

St John Simpson, Exhibition Curator

Many people think that once an exhibition is open then the work of the curatorial team is finished. Far from it! The space needs regular checking as thousands of visitors flock to see the objects. There is continuing press interest and therefore interviews, special visits, public enquiries and ongoing evaluation of how the public react to the exhibition itself.

There is also the events programme to think about. This has been planned well in advance and ranges from curator introductions lectures to gallery talks and special events. Most are free and the first curator’s introduction attracted almost 400 people although sadly this meant we had to turn some away as our largest lecture theatre only seats 320.

On the weekend of 12-13 March we held a conference aimed at specialists and public alike, which focused on some of the periods represented in the exhibition and involved 18 papers by speakers from museums, universities and other organisations in Afghanistan, the UK, France, Italy, Norway and America.

Glass fish found in the Begram storerooms. Bill Gudenrath, Corning Museum of Glass, gave a presentation during which he showed a replica he'd made himself. National Museum of Afghanistan © Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

Glass fish found in the Begram storerooms. Bill Gudenrath, Corning Museum of Glass, gave a presentation during which he showed a replica he'd made himself. National Museum of Afghanistan © Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

However, the aim was more than simply to hold a conference on ancient Afghanistan which would be aimed at a very narrow group of specialists. The aim instead was to involve colleagues who are not only working on material from within Afghanistan itself but also directly related sites or material from neighbouring regions.

In short, in order to appreciate Afghanistan you have to look at its physical and cultural relationship with other regions, and at times this means more than just the immediate neighbours.

The order of papers was carefully choreographed so that each complemented the other and gradually rippled out geographically so that ancient Afghanistan was tied into neighbouring Parthia, the steppe connections evidenced by the Tillya Tepe finds, the Indian connections of the Kushan court and the Indian Ocean world of trade by which the Roman luxuries found at Begram were brought by sea from Egypt.

The conference ended with papers outlining recent developments and finds in Afghanistan. Two colleagues from the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul showed how it was being restored and some of the numismatic finds from rescue excavations of Buddhist monasteries in the copper-rich valley of Mes Aynak in Logar province.

A very distinctive type of stamp-decorated and red-slipped pottery previously known from sites such as Begram (Period III) and Tapa Sardar has also been found here. Despite these sites having been looted in the recent past, the state of preservation is striking: wall-paintings, a polychrome-painted Gandharan sculpture and a unique wooden carving of Buddha were among the latest archaeological finds to be shown in two separate papers on new excavations there and at Tapa Zargaran (Balkh) by M. Nicolas Engel, the deputy director of the French archaeological mission to Afghanistan.

Some of the Mes Aynak finds have already gone on display in Kabul, timed to coincide with the announcement that the American and Afghan governments are pledging eight million dollars to the construction of a new annexe to the museum.

The conference was a great success and proof, if proof was needed, that context is everything and that to fully appreciate the stunning objects in the exhibition one must look again at how or where they were made and brought into the country.

Roll on the next event …

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

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