Sunday, 27 February 2011

The Begram ivories: rescuing Afghanistan's lost history

Ivory fragments depicting musicians, from Afghanistan's Begram Hoard. Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Observer

The remarkable tale of the survival of the Begram ivories shines a light on a country racked by centuries of conflict

Source: By Peter beaumont from The Observer
Sunday 27 february 2011

A pair of square plastic tents has been set up in the British Museum's conservation laboratory. Under one is a fragment of The Egyptian Book of the Dead, under the second an elaborate Torres Strait headdress made of wood, cowrie shell and white feathers. Impressive artefacts, the pair of them. But I am here in this nondescript building at the edge of the City of London to see something else, a collection of fragile carved fragments of ivory, small enough to fit into your palm.

One piece depicts a pair of crossed lions. Another shows a woman, a courtesan perhaps, stripped to the waist, and standing among stylised trees. There is a bird that could be a peacock. Unseen for almost two decades, all were inlays once set into furniture dating from the 1st century, left in a bricked-up palace storehouse not far from the modern Afghan town of Bagram, about 80 miles north of Kabul.

If Bagram, with its huge American airbase, is these days more familiar for its association with conflict, the story of these fragments, too, is a story about war – about wars, indeed. They are mute witnesses to how protracted and corrosive violence, like that which has enveloped Afghanistan for three decades, destroys and disperses the physical evidence of a country's historical culture and threatens to wipe the slate of memory clean.

But they are about something more profound as well, summed up by the motto of the National Museum in Kabul: "A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive." They are testament to how memory and culture persist and survive against even the longest odds and in their survival defy what conflict does.

If proof of that is required then it is demonstrated in the Kabul museum's own history. When I first visited, a few weeks after the fall of the Taliban in December 2001, the building was in ruins, its windows blown out by rocket fire, its floors strewn with rubble and garbage. Since 2004, it has functioned as a museum once again, following a $350,000 refurbishment programme.

These ivories, destined to return to Kabul, not only vindicate the museum's motto, but their presence in the British Museum's laboratory is the result of a remarkable mystery whose details even now cannot be fully told. Stolen in 1992 from Kabul at the height of the Afghan civil war which followed the Soviet departure, these pieces were only finally recovered last year following the intervention of officials from the British Museum with their then owner, who was persuaded to return them.

There is no way of escaping how these Indian ivories from the Begram Hoard, an extraordinary, 1st-century trove – named with the old spelling of the town – that demonstrates Afghanistan's trade connections to the far east and the Roman world, are artefacts whose history has been defined by conflict.

French archaeologists Joseph and Ria Hackin, who excavated the ivories between 1937 and 1939, were killed fighting for the Free French Forces in 1941, leaving their interpretation of the objects unfinished. They were last exhibited in 1978 before the closure of the National Museum in the year prior to the Soviet invasion, and disappeared at the height of the fighting in the internecine war that followed the Soviet withdrawal. When they are returned, it will be to a country still at war.

In the London laboratory, conservator Barbara Wills is working on a dozen or so of the ivory and bone inlays. They appear, at first sight, to be complete objects, once broken and then reassembled into coherent wholes from the pieces the Hackins and their collaborators found. Wills turns one over, a figure of a woman, to show the grain of the ivory and how inappropriate fragments stuck in during their first reconstruction, while making sense of once-existing holes, had come from other pieces. One of her colleagues shows another piece depicting a lion. A sliver has been removed from where an earlier conservator had glued a piece in the wrong place so that it now makes sense.

On her table, Wills has resin and a paintbox to colour small sections that she has filled to strengthen the ivories. Sometimes, however, it has been a question of removing the old adhesive from earlier attempts to stick the ivories together.

"This has been reconstructed," she says. "You can see four or more episodes of damage. The last probably happened while it was in the Kabul museum." She picks up another of the delicate pieces and rests it on her blue glove. "You see this as one object. But when it is examined, it has potentially parts of three objects in it."

This is not the only problem to have been caused by older conservation efforts, Wills explains. When the French team discovered the buried storerooms containing the Begram Hoard, the ivories were shattered and in a state of poor preservation. To lift the fragments without disturbing them, Jean Carl, one of the French excavators, devised a new technique, pouring warm gelatin on to the pieces to allow them to be lifted. The problem with the gelatin, Wills says, is that in the subsequent decades it has contracted and threatens to pull off the surface layer.

What is not visible to the naked eye is how the ivories must have once looked when they were attached with metal pins to long-rotted chairs and footstools. Using a special spectroscopic technique and x-ray fluorescence analysis, scientists at the British Museum have identified four different types of pigment once used to colour the pieces: red, dark blue and two types of black, suggesting that the inlays were once painted in vivid colours long since faded.

The museum's conservation efforts, as head of the department, David Saunders, explains, have an important purpose to ensure that when the ivories are sent back to Kabul they will be better equipped to last. "We don't want to send back three loose pieces."

The fact they will be sent back at all is part of the incredible story of these objects – because the ivories were stolen and kept hidden for almost 20 years. In the preface to a booklet that accompanies what will be the ivories' first public showing outside Afghanistan, British Museum director Neil MacGregor alludes to the miracle that brought these ivories back to light. "Exported and sold illicitly on the black market in antiquities," he writes, "thanks to a great act of generosity, they will now return to Kabul." The vagueness is deliberate because of the sensitivity surrounding their return.

St John Simpson, a keeper in the Middle East department at the museum, fills in some of the blanks. "These pieces were very well known. But between 1992 and 1994, the National Museum in Kabul, where they were kept, was repeatedly looted. During this period of civil war, they were stolen. Their whereabouts was completely unknown. We did not know if they had even survived."

Renewed interest in recovering the ivories was stoked by the success of the exhibition Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, which has toured six cities in the US, Canada and Germany before its arrival at the British Museum next month. It is in the London leg that the ivory inlays will go back on show for the first time.

"With all the publicity surrounding the travelling exhibition, the ivories were back on the radar," says Simpson. "We were approached by various parties last year to see if we could get them back. We were advised that they had entered the UK and were in private hands – I can't speculate about motives – but we were told it might be possible to 'receive' them."

There is considerable caution in the way Simpson describes the efforts to recover the pieces, not least because whoever had them must have known they were stolen. Indeed, in the decades since they disappeared, the ivories have been included on Unesco's watch list of missing artefacts, a fact no legitimate museum, collector or dealer could have been unaware of.

"It was the director of the National Museum who had an understanding that they were here in the UK. The owner knew they belonged to the museum in Kabul," says Simpson. "You know there were individuals who held objects from the museum in good faith to protect them during the Taliban period, so I can't speculate why the owner of these ivories returned them or what pressure might have been applied."

Their recovery, however, speaks of another, longer mystery, less elusive in the way it has unravelled: precisely what these objects have to say about Afghanistan's culture 1,900 years ago.

It was not the French who first discovered the ancient city of Begram, but the 19th-century English explorer Charles Masson, who believed he had discovered one of the cities established by Alexander the Great as he progressed through Asia – Alexandria ad Caucasum, set close to a pair of strategic mountain passes linking Bactria with northern Pakistan.

While Masson collected coins and minor antiquities, it would not be until a century later, when the French signed a treaty giving them a monopoly on archeological exploration in Afghanistan, that the city would be properly excavated, starting in the 1920s. Alfred Foucher, one of the first to dig, was unconvinced by Masson's claim. Instead, he proposed that the city was Kapisa, the summer capital of the Kushan kings, who ruled a state stretching from northern India to Afghanistan between the 1st and 4th centuries AD. By the 1930s, another group of French archeologists was working at the site, first, Jean Carl and Jacques Meunié, and later the Hackins. Naming their site the "New Royal City", it was in 1937 that two bricked-up strongrooms were found, containing large amounts of bronze, alabaster, Roman glass and ivory, even Chinese lacquer.

Located on the ancient Silk Road, academics have long debated the meaning of the site and the discoveries found. For a long period, it was believed the storerooms represented a royal treasure that had been hoarded by the Kushan kings in a series of treasure houses. But more recent studies have suggested that as many of the objects can be dated to the 1st century AD, far from being the hoard of kings, the storerooms were commercial warehousing for luxury goods travelling the Silk Road. This would explain the diversity of the objects found.

The ivory inlays, says Simpson, were almost certainly manufactured in India and fitted into furniture that they decorated there. "What does this tell us about Afghanistan in this period? It was a multicultural society which included wealthy individuals fully comfortable with exotic influences." Echoing the ivories' history during Afghanistan's recent conflicts, Simpson believes it is possible that the storerooms may have been walled up in the first place because the area was then going through a period of "instability".

"Culture is a fragile commodity. There are so many different factors in why a lot of cultural objects do not survive. The conditions of burial are against survival, especially cloth and wood. There is also the tendency – in ancient societies as well as modern – to recycle, particularly where the resource in question is limited and very valuable, like metal.

"Why these pieces have survived at all is because the officials at the museum took the very wise decision to remove the objects from the display cases and move them into storage. You have to remember that the museum itself was hit by a rocket. No one could have guessed how long the war would go on or what would happen to the storage facilities or the museum."

The exhibition, Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, is at the British Museum, 3 March-3 July 2011. Further information at

Saturday, 26 February 2011

9th Expert Working Group Meeting for the Preservation and Safeguarding of the Cultural Landscape and Archaeological Remains of the Bamiyan Valley

This two-day meeting follows the International Forum: “Towards Cultural Rapprochement and Tolerance” organized on the 2nd March 2011, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the tragic destruction of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan.

Its 45 participants include national staff from the Afghan Government, international experts and implementing partners. The purpose of the meeting is to monitor and evaluate the project activities that have been carried out and to update and co-ordinate future priority actions for the following year. The Afghan Government participates fully in the co-ordination of the meeting with representatives from the Ministry of Information and Culture, the Ministry of Urban Development as well as the Governor of Bamiyan.

This event is organized by UNESCO World Heritage Centre in close collaboration with the Permanent Delegation of Afghanistan to UNESCO and the Government of Afghanistan.

Source: Unesco

Bamiyan Buddhas once glowed in red, white and blue

TUM conservators research the ruins of the statues and offer an outlook on the prospect of restoration

The world watched in horror as Taliban fanatics ten years ago blew up the two gigantic Buddha statues that had since the 6th century looked out over the Bamiyan Valley in what is now Afghanistan. Located on the Silk Road, until the 10th century the 55 and 38 meter tall works of art formed the centerpiece of one of the world's largest Buddhist monastic complexes. Thousands of monks tended countless shrines in the niches and caves that pierced a kilometer-long cliff face.

Since the suppression of the Taliban regime, European and Japanese experts, working on behalf of UNESCO and coordinated by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), have been endeavoring to secure the remains and restore access to the statues. The fragments are being very carefully examined, as prior to the explosion the Buddha statues had barely been researched. For a year and a half now, scientists from the Chair of Restoration, Art Technology and Conservation Science have been studying several hundred fragments at the TUM. Their findings not only contribute to our understanding of this world cultural heritage site, they may also enable the parts recovered to be reassembled:

Restorers from the Technische Universitaet Muenchen have analyzed hundreds of fragments of the Bamiyan Buddhas.

Coloration: "The Buddhas once had an intensely colorful appearance," says Professor Erwin Emmerling. His team discovered that prior to the conversion of the region to Islam, the statues were overpainted several times, presumably because the colors had faded. The outer robes, or sangati, were painted dark blue on the inside and pink, and later bright orange, on top. In a further phase, the larger Buddha was painted red and the smaller white, while the interior of the robes was repainted in a paler blue. The graphic reconstruction undertaken by the TUM researchers confirms ancient traditions: sources as far back as the 11th century speak of one red Buddha and one moon-white. The other parts of the figures may possibly have had a white priming coat, but that can no longer be proven beyond doubt.

Construction technique: The statues themselves were hewn out of the cliff; however, the flowing garments were formed by craftsmen using clay, which was applied in two or three layers. The remains display an astonishing degree of artistic skill. "The surfaces are perfectly smooth – of a quality otherwise only found in fired materials such as porcelain," says Professor Emmerling. In the clay, the TUM conservators found straw and chaff which absorb moisture, animal hairs which stabilize the plaster like fine glass fibers, and quartz and other additives which prevent shrinkage. The bottom layer of plaster was held in place with ropes attached to small wooden pegs. This allowed the craftsmen of old to apply unusually thick layers of up to eight centimeters. "These have survived not only nearly 1500 years of history, but even the explosion in some parts," adds Professor Emmerling in amazement.

Dating: Previous attempts to determine when the statues originated were estimates based on the style of the Buddha's robes or similar criteria. Now mass spectrometer tests at the ETH Zurich and the University of Kiel have determined the age of the organic material in the clay layers. The TUM scientists have, as a result, been able to date the construction of the smaller Buddha to between 544 and 595 and the larger Buddha between 591 and 644.

Conservation: How can the fragments at this world heritage site be conserved for the future? The ICOMOS teams have in the meantime stacked the ruins in temporary warehouses in the Bamiyan Valley. Larger pieces have been covered over in situ. "However, that will only last for a few years, because the sandstone is very porous," Professor Emmerling explains. Conventional methods of conservation are out of the question. "On this scale, under the climatic conditions in the Bamiyan Valley, the behavior of the synthetic resins usually used would vary too widely relative to the natural rock." Expert conservator Professor Emmerling has therefore joined forces with Consolidas, a company founded by a TUM graduate, to refine a process recently developed by the latter for possible use on the Buddha fragments: instead of synthetic resins, it might be possible to inject an organic silicon compound in the stone.

The bottom layer of the Bamiyan Buddhas' plaster was held in place with ropes.

In addition, the TUM conservators are also working on a 3D model of the cliff face that shows all of the pieces in their former position. Professor Emmerling considers a reconstruction of the smaller Buddha to be fundamentally possible – he argues in favor of reassembling the recovered parts, rather than attempting to reconstruct the original condition in antiquity. As far as the larger Buddha is concerned, in view of its depth of around 12 meters, Professor Emmerling is more skeptical. The smaller figure with a depth of around two meters was more along the lines of a relief. However, even to restore this figure, there are political and practical obstacles to overcome. Conservation of the fragments would require the construction of a small factory in the Bamiyan Valley – alternatively some 1400 rocks weighing up to two tons each would have to be transported to Germany. A conference to be held in Paris next week will consider the continuing fate of the Buddhas.

The illustration shows the colored appearance of the Bamiyan Buddhas’ robes at the end of the 10th century. Parts damaged in later periods, which cannot be reconstructed, are made visible.

Source: Technische Universitaet Muenchen

Beginning of the Silk Road?

The world's largest ceramics art "The Beginning of the Silk Road" - two giant pottery-made walking legs - has "walked" out of the kiln in Foshan, Guangzhou Province, to step into the International Horticultural Exposition 2011 in Xi'an in March.


Source: Global Times

Friday, 25 February 2011

Excavation of Tuyugou Grottoes in Shanshan County, Xinjiang

Tuyugou Grottoes was the earliest Buddhist grottoes in eastern Xinjiang. It was located at the Mazha village Tuyugou Township, Shanshan County in Xinjiang, where was of great geographic significance for the spreading of Buddhist grotto art from the West Regions to Central China. To support the application for listing of Silk Road (Xinjiang section) in UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage list, and the project of dangerous rock reinforcement, archaeologists from Institute of Archaeology, CASS and the Turfan Institute have conducted joint excavations to Tuyugou Grottoes in 2010. The east area, the west area and the north area of the site and an aboveground Buddhist temple have been uncovered.

The caves in both the east and the west area have the same type of combination, with the column type (the large statue type) or the Buddha-hall type being the distributing center. The arrangement of caves resembled multi-storey buildings. A total of 56 caves in the north part of the east area have been cleaned and renumbered, including praying caves, meditation caves, monk’s dormitory caves and some living facilities. The group of caves centering Cave K18 is very important. This cave has a column in the center with the upper part shaped in a pagoda, This form of cave was the fist finds in Xinjiang. Cave K25, a praying cave at the lowest position in this group, has three rooms. The middle room is decorated with wall paintings. Cave K18, located at the mid-level, is of a large statue type. In front of the central column originally stands a huge statue. Now only the back nimbus and the lotus pedestal are preserved. Murals could be seen on the wall of the vaulted passage. On the south of Cave K18 there is a two-story cave including a meditation cave and a monk’s dormitory. Behind the upper pagoda of Cave K18 there is another group of meditation cave and monk’s dormitory (K11~K14). The highest group of caves, K8~k10, are meditation cave, monk’s dormitory and square cave respectively.

Caves of the central column type in the north part of the west area were dug into the natural mountain. Behind the column is the caved passage. The rest parts, including the left and right passages and the central column (or a huge statue) were built with clay bricks directly on the mountain slope. On the passage side walls was painted rows of standing Buddha and the ceiling was decorated with lotus design. Every side wall of the two side passages has a niche in the middle part. In the inner niche of the left passage there are remained feet of a figure. The back passage has also niches in the middle part and at each end respectively. On the west of this group is a group of meditation caves. Its ground floor has a dormitory in the front of a meditation cave.

In the south part of the east area, an aboveground temple of the Gaochang Uygur Kingdom period was found, which was constructed on a mountain slope. The excavated part includes a Buddhist hall and living facilities. The Buddhist hall at the south has a rectangular throne, with the Buddhist statue above being destroyed. Some murals are remained on the lower surrounding wall, depicting rows of Uygur prayers. Some of them have a Uygur inscription. At the north there are a kitchen and several living facilities, including small storeroom and store pits.

The excavation yielded a great number of manuscripts written in varying languages, including Chinese, Sogdian, Tibetan, Uygur, Brahmi, etc. The contents include Buddhist texts, secular texts and ancient annotated books. Some documents are in good state of preservation with scroll rods and inscriptions. According to the character styles they could be dated to the 4th-5th century. These finds provide new materials for studying the social life, religions and ancient languages in the Turfan regions.
The styles of wall paintings newly found in the two caves of the central column type (the large statue type) in the east and west areas are indicative of an early age. The subjects of painting are also the first finds, which are different from those finds in Hexi, Qiuci and Khotan regions. This will give some valuable clues to study the starting time and the carving sequence of Tuyugou Grottoes.

Source: Institute of Archeology / Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (IA CASS)

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Discovery rekindles legend of rare "blood-sweating" horse

The bones of 80 horses unearthed from the mausoleum of a Chinese emperor who lived more than 2,000 years ago have rekindled an ancient legend about blood-sweating "heavenly horses" from Central Asia.
The skeletons were found in two sacrificial pits within the mausoleum of Emperor Wudi of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC - AD24) in Xingping city, Northwest China's Shaanxi province, said Yang Wuzhan, a researcher with the provincial archaeological institute.
Yang and his team began excavating the two pits in September 2009, but had published few of their findings until Monday.
Each of the two pits was a huge cavern containing 20 caves - each "guarded" by two stallions and a terracotta warrior, Yang said.

He said archaeologists have conducted laboratory work on the skeletons and confirmed all were adult male horses. "Scientists will soon carry out DNA tests hoping to determine the genus of the horses."
The finding was likely to rekindle a centuries-old Chinese legend about the mysterious blood-sweating horse from Central Asia, Yang said.
"The legend goes that Emperor Wudi offered a hefty reward for anyone who could find him a mysterious 'blood-sweating' purebred horse that was said to have roamed Central Asia, but was rarely seen in China," he said.
Today, the horse is identified as the Akhal-Teke, one of the world's oldest and most unique breeds.

Wudi left China's earliest written record of the breed, in a poem he composed for his Akhal-Teke mount, describing it as a "heavenly horse".
The horse is known for its speed, endurance and perspiration of a blood-like fluid as it gallops along. It was also believed to be the horse ridden by Genghis Khan (1167-1227).
Wudi was best known for his opening of the Silk Road, an ancient trade route linking Asia and Europe.
Construction of his mausoleum began in 139 BC, a year after he was enthroned at 16 years of age. It took 53 years to build.
The mausoleum had more than 400 sacrificial pits, more than the mausoleum of the "first emperor" of a united China, Qin Shihuang.

A woman cleans soil from horse skeletons in a sacrificial pit inside the mausoleum in this file photo. [Photo/Xinhua]

Monday, 21 February 2011

Another Stop on a Long, Improbable Journey

Aruna Sharkey, 6, looked at a female mummy at the “Secrets of the Silk Road” exhibit at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia.

From The New York Times, February 20, 2011
By Edward Rothstein

PHILADELPHIA — There are times, at the Penn Museum here, when you are almost hesitant to breathe. And it has nothing to do with the recent flurry of events in which Chinese officials suddenly forbid the display of the remarkable objects in the exhibition “Secrets of the Silk Road,” ultimately relenting and allowing them to be shown for just a short time. These doings (about which more later) are scarcely blinks in the history of these objects.

Most of these astonishing artifacts should have ceased to exist long ago. Exposed to breath and light, you can imagine them disintegrating into powdery mist: silk pillows and robes, thin brocades of cloth with floral patterns and rich colors, woven baskets, felt hats, a braided fried dough twist, feathers from caps and arrows. Ephemera, surely: these are not lasting things of stone, bone and gold, and the newest are at least 1,000 years old.

And speaking of ephemera, what of the bundled infant, whose light-brown hair can be seen peeking out of a blue cashmere cap? It is wrapped in a wool cloth tied with thick cords of red and blue. Two rectangular blue stones rest over its eyes, and at its side is a prehistoric nursing bottle made from a goat’s bladder. The baby’s age? Less than 10 months, or, reckoning from its death, 28 centuries.

In another part of this 6,000-square-foot exhibition lies the body of a woman wrapped in a wool cloak, her lavish brown hair draped to the side of her face, long lashes still framing her sunken eyes. Her skin, tinged with a white coating is eerily sensuous. That must have been a cold winter: she is still wearing fur-lined leather boots. She is in her early 40s, we are told, though that was at least 3,500 years ago. The Beauty of Xiaohe she’s called, and we forgive the poetic liberty, because in her death, against all the cautionary chastisements of later centuries, even that ephemeral aesthetic property remains intact.

These artifacts and bodies have all been uncovered from under the inhospitable sands of the Tarim Basin in the far western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, where the seasonal temperatures range from 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit to 104 degrees above. Bodies seem to have been preserved not by design — the way the ancient Egyptians prepared for the afterlife — but accidentally. When buried during the winters, in tightly sealed coffins, many corpses were preserved from the indignities of decay by mineral salts and dry weather. The harshness of that environment is in sharp contrast to the almost genteel delicacy of the objects discovered there in recent decades in ancient cemeteries.

But the extremes may be in keeping with the political environment that led to recent controversies. The two mummies (on view until March 15) and the artifacts on loan from China (on view until March 28), are part of an exhibition organized by the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Calif., that opened there a year ago; it also traveled to the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Victor Mair, a leading scholar of these artifacts and a professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, is editor of the informative exhibition catalog and has served as a consultant, shaping the show for the Penn Museum (formally known as the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology).

This, the show’s final stop, was to last from Feb. 5 through June 5. Special timed tickets were sold, events and lectures planned. The exhibition was expected to elevate the income and stature of this already distinguished museum.

Just days before the opening, though, the Chinese government announced that no objects could be shown at all, even though they had already been displayed in Santa Ana and Houston. No explanations were offered, and no museum official would comment. Photographs were substituted for the missing items and admission prices eliminated. One museum spokesman attributed the problem to a “miscommunication” and would not elaborate. Then, last week, negotiations led to the abbreviated schedule.

Look around and you can begin to see why these artifacts might have more than a purely anthropological or aesthetic importance. It would be foolhardy to think that they reflect a single culture. The Tarim Basin is a sixth the size of China and nearly the size of Western Europe; artifacts here range over thousands of years from multiple sites.

Moreover the exhibition’s title is too narrow. The Silk Road, a network of trading routes that crossed the Basin region, was in its prime during the first millennium. These artifacts reach back to the Bronze Age. Sometime between 1800 B.C. and 1500 B.C., the Beauty of Xiahoe was buried. Would she have had any familiarity with the uncannily well-preserved pastries shown here that have a freshness date of sometime in the ninth century? A lot happens in 2,500 years.

In addition the exhibition text points out that even before the height of the Silk Road the basin was a multicultural area. Records of 28 different languages have been found there, including Tocharian, unique to the region. Buddhism was practiced (as several artifacts show); so were Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity and Judaism. Conquests by Islam and by Genghis Khan’s armies led to still other transformations.

One of the most remarkable sets of artifacts are the trappings of a man found at Yingpan, dating from the third to the fifth century. His mummy was too fragile to travel, but his clothes are arrayed in a coffinlike space and reflected in a tilted mirror. He was 6 feet 6 inches tall and buried with a Roman glass bowl that might have come from Syria. The pillow he rests on, we are told, shows the influence of Han Chinese culture, but his elaborately decorated clothes include images from Greek and Roman mythology. The hypothesis is that he was a Sogdian trader from the eastern region of Iran. His features do not have any affinity to those of Eastern Asia.

This is the crux of the matter, for most bodies found in this region have what are called Caucasoid features. And though many objects here are clearly associated with later Chinese traditions — like the delicate figurines of women making pottery (from the seventh to ninth centuries) — others come from cultural worlds that can still not be clearly identified.

A felt hat from the fifth to third centuries B.C. could easily be imagined atop the head of a Tarim leprechaun. (The exhibition notes that some textile patterns seem related to Celtic styles.)

The Beauty of Xiaohe mummy not only has features that seem alien to the region, but she was also buried in a style that has little connection with local traditions of later millenniums. The wooden coffins in her cemetery are shaped like overturned boats and sealed with clay and mud; women seem to have been buried with icons representing the phallus, men with icons of the vulva. (That cemetery is near a dried up riverbed, which may help account for the boatlike coffins and the ready use of wood in burial artifacts.)

As Mr. Mair points out, the basin, because of its geographic isolation and brutal climate, was one of the last areas on the planet settled by humans. It also proved, he says in the catalog, to be an “unparalleled storehouse of genetic, anthropological and cultural material of peoples who entered it from all directions at different times during the last four millenniums.” Recent genetic research on DNA samples also suggests that there was far more migration of populations than was once thought in the era before the Silk Road.

The problem is that right now this is the worst possible news, given the political climate. There are hints in the catalog of problems Western scholars have confronted: incomplete skeletal remains, unreleased photographs, difficulty in conducting genetic analysis. The unexpected appearance of non-Chinese-seeming cultures and bodies in this region is being treated a bit like the way some American Indian tribes treated the 1996 discovery of Kennewick Man in Washington State, his prehistoric remains showing Caucasoid or Asian features; the tribes asserted ownership over the remains and wanted to prevent scientific analysis.

In this case the issues have ramifications in territorial claims on this oil-rich region. One museum in Xinjiang insists that the territory “has been an inalienable part of the territory of China.” But in 1993 the Chinese government was concerned enough to prevent Mr. Mair from leaving China with 52 tissue samples after having authorized him to go to Xinjiang and collect them. And the region’s Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people, have hailed the discovery of these non-East Asian mummies as proof of their own historical claims. There is a separatist movement of Uighurs; there are also Chinese attempts to rein in Islam in the region.

But the DNA and cultural analysis support neither opposing claim. (Nor would it matter if they did.) In a helpful essay in the current issue of the Penn Museum’s magazine Mr. Mair points out that xinjiang means “new borders.” That’s what were established in the region when it was conquered by the Chinese in the 19th century and what were created again, when, after an era of independence, Chinese control was reasserted in the 20th century, turning it into an “autonomous region.”

In the catalog Lothar von Falkenhausen, an art historian at the University of California at Los Angeles, suggests, “The present exhibition, for reasons connected with the historical situation of Xinjiang today, particularly emphasizes the Chinese cultural impact on the ‘Western Regions.’ ” Maybe Mr. Mair’s particular emphasis on cosmopolitan themes made the Chinese particularly nervous, but other visitors, can only react with something like awe at how much there is still to learn from what is buried in the sands, and what an enduring impact ephemera can have.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

The Lost Oasis on the Silk Road

Again one of these great documentaries from CNTV from New Frontiers.
Over four hours with good quality. Enjoy!

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Part Six

Part Seven

Part Eight

Part Nine

Revealing the secrets of Xinjiang relics

The Biography of Xuanzang in Uygur Script

From the China Daily

An exhibition of rare books, documents and currency, excavated in Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, is now on display at the National Library of China.
With its 320 items drawn from 22 institutes, it is reportedly the first comprehensive exhibition of its kind in the capital since 1949 and will last two months.
A smaller exhibition held in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Museum in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi from August to October 2010 drew more than 100,000 people.
Part of the area known as xiyu, or the western regions, Xinjiang has been home to numerous ethnic groups since ancient times. An important trading post along the Silk Road, it has remained a center of the confluence of many different cultures.
The exhibition presents the pre-Qin period (before 221BC) to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in four sections.
The Shanhaijing (Mountains and Seas) segment of the pre-Qin period presents the geography of the western regions in great detail.
The letter scripts of the Sogdians and Jews, who were lured to the business opportunities of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), reflect the historical status of the area as a bridge between the West and the East.
The colorful edition of the Atlas of the Western Regions, or Xiyu Yutu, done in the traditional landscape drawing style of the Qing Dynasty, gives detailed geographical details from Jiayuguan Pass in Gansu province to today's Pamirs.

The exhibits come in 22 languages, some of which were used by ancient ethnic groups and have since vanished. The Kharosthi script, for instance, was used before the 3rd century, while Kuchean, a branch of the Tocharian language, was used before the 9th century.A few of the documents will be presented in two languages. For example, a Kuchean version of A Script on Stories of Maitreya, or Mile Huijian Ji, written between the 7th and 8th centuries will be displayed along with a Uygur version completed two centuries later.
Systematic preservation of historical documents in Xinjiang began in the 1950s. Over the past three decades, the Annotated Bibliography of Literature on Xinjiang Ethnic Groups and some ancient books found in the region have been published or reprinted.
Since 2007, the China National Preservation and Conservation Center for Ancient Books has invited researchers from Xinjiang to attend its annual training on preserving ancient documents.
In 2010, conservation work in Xinjiang became part of the national Ancient Books Conservation Project, which was launched in 2007.
The crude facility is a challenge for preserving decayed books, says Chen Hongyan, deputy of the library of ancient books. Chen says the majority of books in Urumqi, let alone other cities and counties, have no suitable bookshelves and bookcases.
Visitors to the exhibition can contribute to the preservation efforts by donating 100 yuan ($15.2) for a paper bookcase.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Delhi hosts first ever ancient Chinese heritage expo

To view a video, click HERE

India refreshed its cultural linkage with China by unveiling Friday an exquisite collection of ancient artistic heritage in the first ever Chinese art and craft exposition of its kind at the National Museum in the capital.

The "Treasures of Ancient China" exhibition will be officially inaugurated Saturday by Culture Minister Kumari Selja.

The exhibition showcasing a historic panorama of 95 stone, bronze, jade, pottery, ceramics, gold, terracotta and glazed porcelain Chinese wares and solid sculpted art from 3rd century BC to 18th century AD is a first-of-its-kind collaboration between the Archaeological Survey of India and the State Administration of Cultural Heritage of China.

This is the first ever showcase of ancient Chinese art is in the country, according to organisers.

The exhibits, thrown open to the media Friday, will be on display till March 20 and will then be moved to Mumbai, Hydearabad and Kolkata.

For over two millennia, India and China have shared exchanges in art and culture that travelled along the ancient silk route.

The trade route emanating from China and spanning Asia became a conduit of cultures carrying Gupta, Gandhara and Buddhist art and culture from India to China - first through the accounts and documents ferried home by Chinese travellers to India like Fa Hien, Hiuen Tsang, I-Tang, Meng Zi and Sang Yun and then by traders along the route.

“The cultural and artistic exchanges were also strengthened by monks by Kasyapa Matanga, Dharmaraksha and Kumarajeeva who went to China with Buddhist scriptures. Silk and tea also bound the two nations together," director-general of Archaeological Survey of India Gautam Sengupta told IANS.

Sengupta said excavations by the ASI has revealed “widespread presence of medieval
Chinese art and artifacts in the capital (Delhi) during the 14th century AD when the capital was ruled by Mohammed Bin Tughlaq and his sucessor Feroz Shah Tughlaq.”

According to ASI additional director general B.R. Mani, remnants of Chinese pottery was found at Lalkot, Purana Qila and at Feroz Shah Kotla.

“We excavated Chinese pottery at Lalkot between 1992-1994 and before that at the Purana Qila and Feroz Shah Kotla in 1960s. We have listed the Feroz Shah find in our catalogue. It comprises 73 full (intact) Chinese pots and is believed to be the largest collection of ancient Chinese art outside China. The pots came to India during the 14th century AD,” Mani told IANS.

Two terracotta warriors from the mausoleum of Chinese emperor Qin Shihuang, were examples of the peak that terracotta carving had scaled during the Qin era between 221 to 207 BC.

A selection of glazed porcelain vases from the Ming and Qing dynasties dating back 1368 AD were majestic in their interpretations of Chinese folklores and dragon myths on their shimmering surfaces.

The exhibition will be officially inaugurated by Culture Minister Kumari Selja Feb 19 at the National Museum in the capital.

The Hill of Gold

Treasures from Tillya Tepe ... a pair of gold clasps depicting warriors. Photograph: National Museum of Afghanistan © Thierry Ollivier/Museé Guimet

From The Guardian, Saturday 19 February 2011
By Peter Thonemann

In 1978 a hoard of treasures was discovered at Tillya Tepe, Afghnistan. Having survived thirty years of shelling, looting and Taliban raids it's the highlight of a new British Museum exhibition

Are you keen to help finance the activities of warlords and insurgents across Afghanistan and Pakistan? As I write, eBay is inviting bids on no fewer than 128 ancient Bactrian and Indo-Greek silver and bronze coins, from sellers in Pakistan, Singapore, Thailand and the United States. Probably every one of them is the product of looting over the past 20 years. With luck, you might even pick up one of the tens of thousands of items plundered from the collections of the old National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul between 1992 and 2001. For those with deep pockets, I can particularly recommend the eBay seller "The Precious Art from Past", who is currently offering 289 looted AfPak objects for sale, including an extraordinary ancient Gandharan sculpture of a seated Heracles in near-perfect condition, yours for £18,950 plus postage and packing.

Such are the hazards of living at a "crossroads of civilizations". It must be said that this kind of briskly utilitarian attitude towards Afghanistan's pre-Islamic heritage is nothing new. In 1999, the leader of the Taliban government, Mullah Omar, issued a decree forbidding any damage to the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan, on the grounds that the Taliban considered the Bamiyan statues "as an example of a potential major source of income for Afghanistan from international visitors". Aside from their potential economic value, no obvious benefits derived from the existence of the Bamiyan Buddhas: as Omar rightly noted "In Afghanistan there are no Buddhists to worship the statues."

Why should a Pashtun Muslim feel any sense of responsibility for the culture of Gandharan Buddhists? Dozens of times over the past 3,000 years, the plains and valleys around the foothills of the Hindu Kush have changed hands between Iranians, Greeks, Chinese, Scythians, Turks and Indians. An oft-photographed plaque outside the National Museum in Kabul reads: "A Nation Stays Alive When Its Culture Stays Alive". No one should be taken in by the bland phrasing – this is as provocative as it gets. Which culture? Whose nation? In March 2001, Omar gave one answer, by revoking his decision of two years earlier and ordering the dynamiting of the Bamiyan buddhas. Simultaneously, most of the few remaining pre-Islamic objects in the Kabul museum were also smashed or sold off. It would be quite wrong to see the events of March 2001 as merely an act of barbarous vandalism (though they certainly were that too). They also represented a particular claim about which bits of Afghanistan's history were worth preserving: for the Taliban, the only "national culture" that mattered was the one that began in AD622.

For an alternative account of Afghanistan's bloody history – one, as it were, with the Buddhists left in – we can look to a spectacular exhibition which opens at the British Museum next month. Neil MacGregor, director of the museum, hopes to show that "We are at a historically anomalous moment when the country is seen as remote and isolated . . . Afghanistan's relationships are long and deep." At the heart of the exhibition is the miracle of Tillya Tepe, the "hill of gold", a huge earthen barrow 80 miles west of Mazar-i Sharif, between the Hindu Kush mountains and the streams of the Amu Darya. Some time in the mid-first century AD, this mound was chosen by a nomadic prince as his burial kurghan. The prince himself was interred at the peak of the hill, and a horse was sacrificed and buried alongside him. In a ring around the prince's tomb were the graves of five women, probably his five wives, all of them clad in gorgeous textiles and jewellery of extraordinary splendour.

Archaeologists recovered more than 20,000 objects from these six tombs, the richest of them coming from the graves of the two women buried closest to the Tillya Tepe prince. One of these two favoured princesses was buried with a silver Chinese mirror lying on her breast; beside her were an Indian ivory comb, a gold seal with the image and name of the goddess Athena in Greek, two distinctly European cherubs riding on the backs of dolphins, and, most remarkably of all, a gold coin of the Roman emperor Tiberius, minted at Lyon in Gaul between AD14 and 37.

Who were these women? What language did they speak? The jewellery from Tillya Tepe is like nothing known from any other part of the world: Chinese, Indian, Bactrian, Siberian and Greek styles are jumbled and fused together into a glorious but baffling kaleidoscope. Many of the gold objects are studded with brilliant coloured stones, above all with turquoise. Particularly common are turquoise stones in the shape of hearts. These probably depict the ivy plant, sacred to the Scythian nomads of central Asia: in 329BC, during his expedition into the central Asian steppe, Alexander the Great saw nomadic burial mounds and trees wreathed with ivy. There are other reasons to think that the nomads of Tillya Tepe might have been Scythians – the main sources of turquoise in inner Asia lie in the hills around Mashhad, around 300 miles west of Tillya Tepe in the heart of Scythian territory in north-eastern Iran.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the finds from Tillya Tepe. Nomads are the quintessential "people without history"; the nomadic encampment normally leaves no traces for the archaeologist to recover. These burials are, effectively, our only evidence for the long nomadic interlude in Afghan history between the fall of the Greek kingdom of Bactria in around 145BC and the rise of the Kushan state in the late first century AD. And crucially, whoever these nomads may have been, they were self-evidently as cosmopolitan as they come. Here, at the intersection of three ancient Asiatic trade routes, the princesses buried at Tillya Tepe were about as isolated from the wider world as Carla Bruni.

As their jewellery clearly shows, the Tillya Tepe nomads sat at the centre of a web of cultural connections and influences stretching across thousands of miles, from the Mediterranean to the Ganges. To the south, across the high passes of the Hindu Kush, the Kabul river valley leads down towards the Khyber pass and India. North of the Oxus river, a tangle of trading routes (the "Silk Road"), stretching from Han China through Xinjiang and central Asia, had grown up over the course of the last two centuries BC. It was in northern Afghanistan, in the region of Tillya Tepe, that the Chinese silk road met the long-established caravan routes stretching west across the Iranian plateau into Mesopotamia and, ultimately, across the eastern borders of the Roman empire. Fragments of Chinese silk have been found across the Roman empire, from Palmyra in the Syrian desert to Holborough in Kent. Whichever route this silk took on its way to Europe, whether overland via Iran or by ship from India to the Roman ports on the Red Sea, it could not avoid passing through the nomadic pastures of northern Afghanistan. The gold coin of Tiberius in the princess's grave at Tillya Tepe, 3,000 miles from its mint in southern France, is just one tiny trace of this vast network linking Beijing to the shores of the Atlantic.

The nomad graves were first uncovered by a Soviet-Afghan team in the autumn of 1978. Afghanistan in the late 70s was far from the ideal place and time for a vast hoard of gold of this kind to emerge. Late in 1979, once the finds had been analysed and photographed, they were handed over to the National Museum in Kabul for safe-keeping. By the end of the year, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. In 1988, as it became clear that the Soviets were preparing to withdraw, the communist president of Afghanistan, Muhammed Najibullah, had the finds from Tillya Tepe and other sites (including Ai Khanoum and Bagram, also on display in the British Museum exhibition) crated up and sealed in the vaults of the Afghan Central Bank. This proved to be a far-sighted move. As the country slid into anarchy in the early 90s, the Kabul museum was repeatedly shelled and looted; it was during these years that the museum's tens of thousands of artefacts began to be dispersed across the world.

When the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, Najibullah was promptly lynched and the bank vaults searched, without success. The few museum staff who knew the location of the Tillya Tepe finds kept it to themselves, and the crates were left undisturbed throughout the period of Taliban rule. Their fate officially remained unknown until 2003, when safes beneath the presidential palace were opened by the Afghan minister of culture. Sadly, the security situation in Kabul was still so fragile that it was impossible to contemplate displaying the Tillya Tepe gold in the Kabul museum itself. Since 2006, the artefacts have been touring Europe and the United States. Few Afghans have ever had the chance to see them in their home country.

Still, the Kabul museum is at least open to visitors again. In 2009, a small exhibition, Rescued Treasures, went on display at the museum, including the pick of more than 2,000 looted Afghan artefacts impounded at Heathrow airport in 2004. The British ambassador to Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, described the purpose of the exhibition as "giving the Afghan people back that sense of cultural heritage that was so nearly taken from them". It is depressing to learn how few of these "rescued" objects actually came from the original, pre-1992 Kabul collection: most were the product of a fresh wave of looting of Afghanistan's ancient sites in the 90s and early 2000s.

Given Afghanistan's recent history, I think we ought to be a little wary about the ambassador's notion of a single Afghan "sense of cultural heritage", on the brink of being lost, but now "given back" to "the Afghan people". The Kabul museum is situated far to the south of the city centre in the Dar al-Aman district, a European-style suburb laid out by the westernising Shah Amanullah Khan in the 1920s. On the opposite side of the road from the museum lie the bombed-out ruins of Amanullah's Dar al-Aman palace, complete with Parisian arcades, neo-classical pediments and formal gardens. The juxtaposition of the two buildings is no coincidence. As in modern Iran, Afghanistan's pre-Islamic "heritage" is a sharply politicised and divisive issue. Iran's ruling Shia clerics view their pre-Islamic past with intense suspicion: the site of Persepolis, in particular, is stamped with the secular and westernising aspirations of the Shah's regime in the 1960s and 70s. Happily for Persepolis, the archaeology of ancient Persia is also central to Iranian national pride, since it proves how much older and more civilised they are than the Sunni Arabs. Afghan archaeology, while also closely associated with the secular wing of the country's urban elite, has no such useful nationalist overtones to protect it.

It is possible to over-analyse the dynamiting of the Bamiyan buddhas and the repeated vandalism of the Kabul museum. Whatever else he had in mind, Mullah Omar's actions in early 2001 had a lot to do with sticking two fingers up to the west. But there is a reason why that provocation was so effective. The Taliban were consciously and deliberately turning their back on Afghanistan's long history of engagement with China, the subcontinent and the west. The destruction of the buddhas was the crudest possible way of rejecting what they saw as a threateningly "secular" and cosmopolitan version of Afghanistan's history. Today, in a political context of de-Talibanisation, we are returning to the notion of a historically open, culturally pluralist Afghanistan – an Afghanistan which acted as a "crossroads of the ancient world" (to quote the title of the British museum exhibition). Which side will win this particular argument remains to be seen. For anyone within striking distance of London in the next four months, this really is Afghanistan as you have never seen it before.

Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World is at the British Museum, London WC1, from 3 March to 3 July 2011.

Reconfiguring the Silk Road: New Research on East-West Exchange in Antiquity

At the Penn Museum:

Reconfiguring the Silk Road: New Research on East-West Exchange in Antiquity
March 19, 2011, 9:00am - 7:00 pm
This public symposium at the Penn Museum is the first major event in over fifteen years to focus on the history of the Silk Road and the origins of the mysterious Tarim Basin mummies. Since the last milestone conference was held on the topic at the Penn Museum in 1996, new archeological discoveries and scholarly advances have been made, creating a need to critically reshape the very idea of the “Silk Road.” Major topics of discussion include ancient transportation and economies, the origins of early westerners in Central Asia, the excavations of textiles in Xinjiang, and a reinvestigation of the Tarim Basin mummies. Distinguished speakers include David W. Anthony, Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Peter Brown, Michael D. Frachetti, Philip L. Kohl, Victor Mair, J.P. Mallory, Joseph G. Manning, and Colin Renfrew.

For more information, click HERE

Traveling the Silk Road: Alexander the Great to Genghis Kahn

At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston:
Traveling the Silk Road: Alexander the Great to Genghis Kahn

In this four-session course, enjoy an overview of the geography, history, religion, art, and music of the Eurasian land routes—traveled by conquerors and countless others—known as the Silk Road. In the 4th century BC, Alexander the Great crossed the Indus River into India. Genghis Kahn 1,500 years later began extending his empire from Mongolia to the Mediterranean.

From April 12, 2011 till May 5, 2011
For more information, click HERE

Friday, 18 February 2011

3000-year-old tomb group found in Hami region

To watch the video, click HERE

The Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology reported on Feb. 14 that it discovered an ancient tomb group covering an area of more than 10,000 square meters 100 kilometers south of Hami City in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. This is the first time that a tomb group dating back 3,000 years has been found in Hami region.

Chinanews reported that the tombs group has a large scale and a dense distribution. It was also the first time that a tomb with a sacrificial altar was found in the Xinjiang region. Most burial objects were made of pottery and wood, but some objects made from stones, bones, horns, bronze and iron were also found here.

The director of Hami's Cultural Relics Bureau said archaeologists had already excavated more than 150 ancient tombs in the last two months.

At the excavation site, archaeologists found something special, including some materials never before discovered, special construction styles and some unique burial customs. In addition, they also found various precious cultural relics under unique cultural background.

Judging from the current situation of the group, archaeologist said it might be remains of an early Iron Age settlement dating back about 3,000 years ago.

The tomb group was located at the southern margin of ancient Silk Road. From those unearthed cultural relics, archaeologists were able to ascertain that the ecological environment, including the amount of water and plants, was much more favorable at the time than they are currently.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Dismantling the crown

From the British Museum Blog
Sarah Price and Xavier Duffy, Museum Assistants / February 14, 2011

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.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Interaction on the Maritime Silk Road: From the Persian Gulf to the East China Sea

Interaction on the Maritime Silk Road: From the Persian Gulf to the East China Sea
Edited by Kauz, Ralph

In the recent years, trade, cultural exchange and transfer of knowledge in the Indian Ocean have come increasingly into the scope of various scholarly disciplines. The previous perception that the exploitation of this sea did only start with the European colonial expansion at the end of the 15th century had to be abandoned: The Europeans absorbed the long existing structures rather than creating new ones. This concept of the Indian Ocean as a coherent space of transfer is also adopted in this volume. Some of the articles were presented at a conference held in Vienna, while the others were supplied independently. The contributions are arranged around the two "poles", represented by the western and the eastern part of the Indian Ocean, especially Iran and China, but also other cultures and the manifold relations with the land-based Silk Road are discussed. The time frame ranges from the 14th to the 17th century.

You can order this book HERE or read it on your IPAD

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Secrets of the Tang treasure ship

From National Geographic.

Historians have long speculated that thousands of wooden ships plied a Maritime Silk Route.

Historians have long speculated that thousands of wooden ships plied a Maritime Silk Route from the Middle East to China, braving long distances on white-capped seas, but time and the deep ocean have destroyed any evidence . . . until now. In 1998 German engineer Tilman Walterfang found a shipwreck from the 9th Century blanketed by intact gold, silver and ceramic items. As we uncover clues and reveal the story of the wreck, reenactments transport us back in time to an age of the legendary Sinbad the Sailor, when vicious seas ravaged wooden boats like matchsticks. Through interviews with maritime archaeologists and ceramic experts we bring these characters to life by examining unique items recovered from the wreck and painting a vivid picture of glorious 9th Century Tang China. We reveal where the treasure now lies, in high security storage in Singapore. We show the incredible 60,000 pieces recovered - amid them are unique gold and silver items never before seen. It is a time capsule from a distant seafaring age that will take generations to fully understand. We piece together the last days of the ship's journey before its untimely end in the treacherous straits of Indonesia and reveal one of the ancient world's greatest trading routes and the brave men who sailed it.

Rebuilding Bamiyan

In 2001 the Taliban swept through Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley. Their target was the colossal stone Buddha statues which had stood for over 1500 years. The world watched powerless as one of its true wonders was lost. In Rebuilding Bamiyan Al Jazeera's Nadene Ghouri travels to Bamiyan to explore the restoration work being done on the site, and to talk to those planning to rebuild the statues.

This video is from 2007.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

The Mongol Empire by Angus Stewart

The Mongol Empire [Hardcover]
Angus Stewart

This is a fresh and engaging perspective of the Mongol achievement - and brutality. When Genghis Khan had conquered Bukhara in 1220, he gathered the wealthy from among the survivors in a mosque. Amid a scene of desecration, he berated them: 'O people, know that you have committed great sins...If you ask me what proof I have for these words, I say it is because I am the punishment of God'. Whether, like the Persian scholar and civil servant, one saw the Mongols as the wrath of God, or, like the Mongols themselves, saw them as the chosen people to whom God had given the world, their impact was apocalyptic: for many, it really did represent the end of the world. While the Mongol steppe - empire was not unprecedented, Genghis Khan transcended his predecessors in terms of conquest, and in terms of massacre. Certainly, while the unified Mongol Empire was short lived, none of the world that it touched would ever be the same again. Angus Stewart provides a gripping account of the history of the Mongol empire, drawing on his personal research and offering a fresh, engaging perspective.
About the Author
Dr Angus Stewart lectures in the School of History at the University of St Andrews. His main research interests lie in the diplomatic, cultural and military interaction in the Mediterranean world in the age of the Crusades focusing on the Fatimids, Seljuks and Mamluks; the Armenian kingdom; and the Mongols in the West.

The Silk Road: Key Papers Part I: The Pre-Islamic Period

The Silk Road: Key Papers
Part I: The Pre-Islamic Period

Edited by Valerie Hansen, Yale University
Expected: June 2011
Series: Key Papers, 4
ISBN-13 (i): 978 19 06 87623 4
ISBN-10: 19 06 87623 1
Cover: Hardback
Number of pages: Set: 2 Vols; 700 pp.

This is the first of two collections by top scholars in their field on the history of the Silk Road. This collection’s main focus is the first millennium CE when the Silk Road trade was at its height. Most of the entries are organized chronologically and geographically, concentrating on the sites (like Niya and Loulan) which flourished in the third and fourth centuries, then Turfan and Samarkand (500-800), and closes with the period after 800, when Tang China withdrew its troops from the region and the local peoples reverted to a largely barter economy. Coverage ends in 1000, when the first cities on the western edge of the Taklamakan converted to Islam. Introductory texts provide general overviews of the trade (including classic pre- and post-war studies), followed by a brief survey of the ancient trade routes. Of particular interest in this collection are the Silk Road’s most famous group of travellers, the Sogdians, a people from the region of Samarkand (in today's Uzbekistan) thanks to Chinese archaeologists who have recently uncovered several tombs that allow us to see how the Sogdians gradually adjusted to Chinese culture, decorating their tombs with detailed scenes of everyday life.

Korea’s cartographic legacy

This digitally enhanced copy of the Gangnido was restored by Ryukoku University of Japan. The 1402 map outlines China, Arabia, Africa and Europe and an exaggerated Korean Peninsula. Provided by Choi Seon-wung

About two months ago, renowned Korean scholar Choi Suh-myun received an unexpected package from Atsushi Hirata, director of the Ryukoku University Library in Japan.
Choi was taken aback by its content: a masterful digitally enhanced recreation of a 15th century world map - the oldest world map in existence.
The map has immense historical significance, not only for the world - but especially Korea. Originally drawn in 1402 by three Koreans, it easily predates any comprehensive world map by Chinese, Japanese or European cartographers.
The name of the map originally created by Kim Sa-hyeong, Yi Mu and Yi Hoe is called the Map of Integrated Lands and Regions of Historical Countries and Capitals, also known as the Gangnido. The Gangnido is the cartographers’ synthesis of two Chinese maps, both of which have long been lost.
Little is known of the original map’s fate. At some point in the 15th century, historians assume it was copied in Korea before being stolen by invading Japanese forces later in the next century. This is the copy that exists at Ryukoku University today.
Choi said he found the digitally enhanced map’s exuberant colors and elegant calligraphy even more vivid than the centuries-old Gangnido copy, which he saw a few years ago at Ryukoku University in Kyoto. In fact, it took 10 years for the university to digitally restore the modern Gangnido’s faded color and blurred letters.
The Gangnido incorporates the known world at the time of the early Joseon Dynasty. Because its production was before Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America in 1492, the ancient map only delineates Asia, Europe and Africa. The map is also celebrated because it clearly marks the Nile River.

This world map produced by Johannes Schnitzer in 1482 shows Africa connected to Antarctica, separating the Atlantic from the Indian Ocean. [JoongAng Ilbo]
Although the proportions representing the continents are not accurate, the contours of coastlines closely outline those of today. Ryukoku University’s 15th century copy was colored and hand-drawn on silk measuring 168 centimeters (5.5 feet) wide and 158.5 centimeters in height.
King Taejong, the third king of the Joseon Dynasty, commissioned the production of the map a decade after the foundation of Joseon in 1392. According to a postscript by Joseon official Gwon Geun, the Gangnido combines two Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) Chinese maps; the Map of Vast Reach of Resounding Teaching by Li Zemin and the Integrated Map of Regions and Terrains by Qing Jun. The Korean map also incorporates the Map of the Eight Provinces of Joseon, along with a Japanese map known as Gyoki-zu, which were made during Emperor Shomu’s reign (701-756).
The 1402 map offers proof of Korea’s awareness of the world during the early Joseon Dynasty.
“If I had to choose Korea’s most valuable cultural asset, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick the Gangnido,” said professor of geography Yang Bo-kyung at Sungshin Women’s University.
Like many of Korea’s significant cultural artifacts, the 15th century copy of the Gangnido remains in Japan. Some historians say the map was probably taken during the Imjin War (1592-1598) in one of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasions or possibly more than 200 years later during Japan’s Meiji Restoration. Hideyoshi reportedly gave Japan’s Gangnido map to the Honganji, a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, which later divided into two branches, one of which is associated today with Ryukoku University, which would explain why the map rests there today.
Due to preservation issues, Ryukoku University has not uncased their Gangnido.
It was not until 1982 that Korean scholars were even aware of the map’s existence. Lee Chan, a late professor at Seoul National University, acquired a photograph of the Gangnido. He then asked painters and calligraphers to reproduce the map as best they could. However, there were major gaps between the Gangnido in Japan and the version that Lee commissioned.
"Though the copy version of Gangnido was delicately depicted, there were some differences when compared to this digital version in terms of shape and calligraphy,” said Choi Seon-wung, CEO of map production company Mapping Korea.
What made the resurrected world map more intriguing was that digital technologies emerged in the last 20 years allowing scholars to restore damaged portions of Ryukoku University’s Gangnido. The school’s science and engineering department devoted a decade to the restoration process since 2000, applying state-of-the-art technology, including a precision digital camera and fluorescent X-ray.
Their efforts paid off. Previously unrecognizable markings on the map were revealed to be the Great Wall of China and the Amur River, which now forms the border between eastern Russia and northeastern China. More place names were also revealed.
“There were some errors in place names on the China portion - since the original was not legible. We are trying to fill the blanks through the digitalized copy,” said Choi Suh-myun.
The Korean map is said to be superior to contemporary maps of the time. Scholars mostly agree that the next best world map from the time was produced in 1482 by German cartographer Johannes Schnitzer. The Korean and German maps differ significantly in that the latter connects the African continent to Antarctica, while the former does not. With the German map, it would have been impossible to traverse the Atlantic and the Indian oceans.
Schnitzer’s map stems from another map drawn up by Ptolemy (90-168), a Greek astronomer and geographer.
The Gangnido, on the other hand, accurately delineates the southern tip of Africa surrounded by the sea. The size of the continent is much smaller than it actually is, but its coastlines closely match modern maps of Africa’s contours. Scholars especially praise the Gangnido’s precise marking of the Cape of Good Hope. The original map predates the first European explorer’s discovery of the southern tip of Africa by 86 years. Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias is said to be the first European to reach the cape in 1488.
How could cartographers of the Joseon Dynasty create such an extensive map without ever having set foot in Africa? Experts point to East-West cultural exchanges. Unlike the Europeans of the time, the Arabs had superior cartographic knowledge of Africa, which was transmitted to East Asia via the Mongol Empire.
The Gangnido reflects the inquisitiveness of Koreans of that time. Gwon Geun - the Joseon official - said on the map’s deny_deny_deny_deny_postscript: “As the map is neatly written and displayed, one is able to see the world without venturing outside,” adding, “looking at the map and gauging the distances of regions provides helpful information for governing the nation.”

Sinocentric of Joseoncentric?

Another distinct feature of the Gangnido can be found in the exaggerated size of the Korean Peninsula, which was deliberate. The postscript explains: “In the Li Zemin’s ‘Shengjiao guangbeitu,’ there are a lot of territorial omissions.
“The map of our country was especially expanded,” he added.
Some experts see the enlarged peninsula as a gesture of defiance against the rein of the Yuan Dynasty.
Professor Lee Chan evaluated the Gangnido in the preface of his 1991 book, “Old Maps of Korea.”
“The Gangnido is a breakaway from the Sinocentric perspective,” he said.
Professor Yang echoes his theory.
“The map was produced to emphasize the fact that Joseon is not only large but stable, like China.”
Oh Sang-hak, a professor at Jeju National University, said that based on cartographic knowledge passed on by Arabian traders, the Gangnido surpasses the perspective of a Sinocentric world by incorporating Europe and Africa. “Those history textbooks that posit the Gangnido is a reflection of Sinocentrism should be revised,” Oh explained.
While it is true that the Gangnido greatly exaggerates China’s scale and places the country at the map’s center, cartographer Choi said labeling it “Sinocentric” would not be an honest assessment. “People should not just look at these old maps, but they have to ‘read’ them,” he said.

By Yeh Young-june []