Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Saudi Arabia discovers 9,000 year-old civilization

“Saudi Arabia is excavating a new archeological site that will show horses were domesticated 9,000 years ago in the Arabian peninsula, the country’s antiquities expert said Wednesday.

The discovery of the civilization, named al-Maqar after the site’s location, will challenge the theory that the domestication of animals took place 5,500 years ago in Central Asia, said Ali al-Ghabban, Vice-President of Antiquities and Museums at the Saudi Commission for Tourism & Antiquities.

“This discovery will change our knowledge concerning the domestication of horses and the evolution of culture in the late Neolithic period,” Ghabban told a news conference in the Red Sea port of Jeddah.

“The Maqar Civilization is a very advanced civilization of the Neolithic period. This site shows us clearly, the roots of the domestication of horses 9,000 years ago.”

The site also includes remains of mummified skeletons, arrowheads, scrapers, grain grinders, tools for spinning and weaving, and other tools that are evidence of a civilization that is skilled in handicrafts.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, is trying to diversify its economy away from oil and hopes to increase its tourism.

Last year the SCTA launched exhibitions in Barcelona’s CaixaForum museum and Paris’s Louvre museum showcasing historic findings of the Arabian Peninsula.

From Reuters.

NW Gansu and Xin - along parts of the Silk Road

Beautiful large size pictures of a trip by Satsu Yin to NW Gansu and Xin on the China Forum of the China Daily

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Sino- Platonic Papers no 211-213 are out !

The Origin of the Kushans, by YU Taishan
Issue no 212 in the series Sino Platonic Papers

The “Guishuang 貴霜” found in the Chinese histrical records must have been the “Kuṣāṇa (Kushan)” seen on existing coins and in the inscriptions found in Central Asia and the northwest subcontinent. The origin of the Guishuang 貴霜 is one of the weak links in research on Kushan history. Up to now there seems to be no hypothesis that is internally consistent.....

The two other new issues in the Sino Platonic Papers series are:
no. 211: Confucius and Lao Zi: Their Differing Social Foundations and Cultures, by ZHOU Jixu
no. 213: Early Development of Bronze Metallurgy in Eastern Eurasia, by Xiang WAN

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Tibet, China and their Struggle for the Silk Road through the Pamir

Wakhan, the remote north-eastern district of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province, is intimately connected with the Silk Road. Wakhan’s archeology is known largely from Aurel Stein’s travels in 1906 and less so from the work of Austrian, German and American teams in the early 1970s.

The Red Buddha Hall Road Revisited: Tibet, China and their Struggle for the Silk Road through the Pamir

Religions of the Silk Road Lecture by John Mock, UCSC

Monday, September 26, 2011
2:00 PM - 3:30 PM
6275 Bunche Hall
University of Calafornia
Los Angeles

UCLA Program on Central Asia
Religions of the Silk Road Lecture Series

On five trips to Wakhan in 2004-2007, John Mock had the opportunity to re-visit all sites described by Stein. This talk expands upon Stein’s descriptions and presents an initial analysis of several new finds. These include the site Lien Yun, which Stein discussed but was unable to locate, Tibetan inscriptions, Tibetan-style fort complexes and watch towers, numerous rock carvings that appear to represent Silk Route caravan trade, and older rock carvings depicting wild yak hunting in the Pamir. These discoveries offer new information on the Tibetan Empire in Central Asia, the history of the Silk Road, and the early inhabitants of the Pamir.

Religions of the Silk Road: Transformation and Transmission in the Heart of Asia, is a lecture series co-sponsored by the UCLA Program on Central Asia and the Center for the Study of Religion

Before the rise of the maritime empires of Europe, the ancient trade routes of Central Asia served as one the world’s most vital thoroughfares of religious traffic. From the goddesses of prehistoric Eurasia through the Iranian religions of Zoroaster and Mani, to the Buddhism transferred from India and the Judaism, Christianity and eventually Islam carried in from the Mediterranean west, almost all of the major religions of Asia were imported into the oasis towns that lined the route between Persia and China. Yet if the monks, books and relics who moved along the ‘silk road’ point to a history of religious transmission both into and through Central Asia, important questions remain about what happened to these religious forms in their long periods in transit. Placing the question of transformation alongside that of transmission, the current series of talks excavates the neglected history of Central Asia’s own contributions to the religions of the old world.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Marco Polo Reloaded

An Interactive journey along the Great Silk Road.
A travel writer on the tracks of the famous medieval traveller.
Breaking new ground - See what's happening.
Marco Polo Reloaded - a web documentary , online from October 2nd, 2011, 6 PM

Marco Polo Reloaded re-travels the Silk Road on the tracks of its most well-known voyager: the mediaeval traveler and writer Marco Polo. Five road movie style-documentaries imagine the past and show today’s reality, in countries like Turkey, Israel, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, the Central Asian Republics and China. The five films accompany a travel writer on a mission. Bradley Mayhew, 39, married, born in England, living in the US, a senior writer for Lonely Planet Publications. He is researching a book on the Silk Road and its legendary voyager. The films show what is happening if one re-travels Marco Polo’s journey again, 700 years after him, his book in mind (“reloaded”), overland, by means of local transport, covering the ancient trade-route on its entire length from Venice to Beijing.

Marco Polo Reloaded shows Bradley “at work”. He researches, takes notes and pictures, he collects content and experiences. Curiosity and discovery is the attitude of Bradley and the films: see what comes. He travels with busses, trucks, trains, through oriental cities, inhospitable mountains and forbidding deserts. With Bradley we wander bazaars and hop dirty bars, we marvel at palaces and wait at dusty train stations. With Bradley we meet people on the road. And share their stories. Some of them already Marco Polo had written about – and they are still burning today.
Some cities, Marco Polo passed through 700 years ago, do no longer exist, others have been ultimately altered by modernity, again others still breathe the Orient. Today as in Polo’s times some areas are off-limits, dangerous, ridden by crisis or war and the traveler is forced detours. Travelling the Silk Road today is as exciting and adventurous as it was in Marco Polo’s time.
5 films of 43’00, HD, stereo.

Monday, 12 September 2011

The Bhudhist Heritage of Pakistan

Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the UN, Ambassador Abdullah Hussain Haroon arranged an exclusive viewing for UN envoys and art lovers of the ongoing exhibition in New York of a remarkable trove from Pakistan.
Ambassador Haroon played a pivotal role in facilitating the release of the precious artifacts from the museums in Pakistan to New York. He wants the people here to see the very rich cultural heritage of Pakistan that is less known here in the US.

Buddhism flourished in the region, near present-day Peshawar in northwest Pakistan, between the 2nd century B.C. and 10th century A.D., giving rise to a distinct style of Buddhist visual art. The statue of Athena and a gold carving of Aphrodite in the exhibit demonstrate the early influence of Greco-Roman culture in the region, which began with its conquest by Alexander the Great. Themes from classical Roman art persisted in Gandharan art even as Buddhism began to flourish in the first century A.D., fostered by Silk Road trade and cross-cultural connections from the Mediterranean to China.

The first textual mention of historical Gandhara, the region that lies in the northwest of Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, was in the ninth century B.C. Over the next nine hundred years the region was conquered by Alexander the Great, the Indian Mauryan dynasty, the Parthians, the Indo-Greeks, and finally the Central Asian Kushan Empire. This complex history, with its many cultural influences, formed the foundation for a region where Buddhism and Buddhist art would flourish and develop unique characteristics.

This exhibition explores the primary characteristics that make works from Gandhara of such profound cultural significance, featuring stone sculptures and reliefs, bronzes, and works in gold dating from the first century B.C. to the fifth century —from the Indo-Greek through Kushan periods, and closing with the beginnings of Sasanian rule there. The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan is the first exhibition to bring works of Gandharan art from Pakistan to the United States in more than fifty years.

Art from Gandhara is notable for its striking stylistic qualities, many of which reflect complex connections to Greco-Roman and Parthian art. The region was a crossroads where the early influences of the western classical world met with Indian imagery and local practices. At the same time, Gandhara is also important for the unique forms of Buddhist imagery that emerged there. These include an array of relief scenes from the life of the Buddha, images of multiple buddhas, and sculptures of bodhisattvas.

The legacy of Gandharan Buddhism and its remarkable art can still be detected throughout Asia. Although its heartland was located in present-day Pakistan, Gandharan culture spread through Central Asia and reached the Tarim Basin. Many ideas and images that developed in Gandhara eventually traveled to China, and from there to Korea and Japan. This extraordinary history makes Gandharan art of enduring importance to scholars east and west.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

The Language of the Kharosthi Documents from Chinese Turkestan

The Language of the Kharosthi Documents from Chinese Turkestan by T. Burrow
Paperback: 146 pages
Publisher: Cambridge University Press (30 Jun 2011)
Language English
ISBN-10: 1107629489

The documents discussed in this 1937 book were found by Sir Aurel Stein at the turn of the twentieth century. In this text, they were interpreted for the first time. Mr Burrow has identified the language in which they are written, and has succeeded in interpreting their meaning. He here presents a grammar of the language, with a full discussion of its peculiarities and its relation to other Indian languages.

China excavates Upper Capital of Liao Dynasty

The archaeological excavation team formed by archaeologists from the Archaeological Institute of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Culture Relics Archaeological Institute of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region is excavating the Qiande Gate of the royal city at Upper Capital of the Liao dynasty, which was founded by a minority group called the Qidan more than 1,000 years ago.
The excavation area is reportedly about 2,000 square meters. This marks the first time China has carried out a large-scale excavation of the Upper Capital of the Liao dynasty. This excavation focuses on the investigation of the shape and structure of the Qiande Gate of the Liao dynasty.
The Upper Capital of the Liao dynasty, located in what is now Balinzuo County of Chifeng City in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, was found in A.D. 918 and was used by the Jin dynasty. After more than 300 years, it was abandoned in the early years of the Yuan dynasty.
Surrounded by a 7-meter wall, the Upper Capital has an area of 13.5 square kilometers, where all the buildings are large in size. The Upper Capital was divided into two parts: Imperial City and City of Han ethnic group. In the former there are palaces and government offices, and the Qiande Gate, excavated this time, is western gate city.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Silk Road Monuments Project

NEW NEW NEW NEW NEW Silk Road Monuments Project

The Silk Road Monuments Project is a research and documentary project with a mission to record historically significant sites in Central Asia and Western China that are in imminent danger of destruction.

New economic development in Central Asia and Western China is transforming a region which has been left relatively untouched for the past 300 years. Ambitious developers plan to return Silk Road cities to their former glory, with hopes that these ancient trading posts will again become centers of commercial exchange and global business.
However, this indelicate drive to modernize is jeopardizing unique millennia-old urban and cultural centers. Traditional Silk Road centers of immense value to regional and world heritages are disappearing. The traditional trades, social networks, cultural practices, and arts within these communities may soon be lost as well. This ongoing process is not only endangering archaeological sites of immeasurable value to national and world heritage, but is also helping create modern social and cultural tensions.

Our organization is the only one of its kind dedicated to highlighting and documenting destructive change to ancient places along the Silk Road.

About Us
The Silk Road Monuments Project was formed in August 2011 by Kainoa Little and Yifei Zhang as a non-profit and apolitical organization to research, highlight, record, and document social, cultural, environmental, and economic transformation along the historical regions of the Silk Road.

During our time working at the EastWest Insititute (EWI), a strategic trust-building organization and think tank based in New York City, we recognized our common interest in investigating the links between the world’s often-forgotten historical regions and modern international affairs. Our past work on the complex interconnectedness of food, water, energy, and human security led us to believe in the great relevance of preserving history and traditions in dynamic regions of the world.

We pinpoint areas that are most often ignored by media and conservancy organizations, but nevertheless have a profound influence on the stability of key global regions. We believe that Central Asia and the Silk Road are areas most deserving of attention and which face some of the greatest transformative pressures.

Kainoa Little is a photographer and avid traveler. His past experiences have taken him to some of the world’s most lively regions including South Sudan, Jammu & Kashmir, southeastern Turkey and multiple regions across South Asia, Africa and South America. He has a background in conflict studies and international development. Kainoa received his BA from Lewis and Clark College in 2010 and has a working knowledge of Turkish.

Yifei Zhang has worked as an energy and geopolitics consultant to the UN and the Department of Homeland Security. His past research has taken him into coal mines in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. His writings on nuclear energy have featured in publications from the Federation of American Scientists. Yifei is currently writing a book on Chinese strategic culture and is a recent MA graduate of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown and alumus of the University of Pennsylvania. He speaks Chinese and Japanese.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Sogdian Traders

Sogdian Traders by Étienne de la Vaissière. Translated by James Ward
Original Publication Year: 2005
Reprint Year: 2010
Pages, Illustrations: xiv, 410 pp, 8 illus.pp.

The Sogdian Traders were the main go-between of Central Asia from the fifth to the eighth century. From their towns of Samarkand, Bukhara, or Tashkent, their diaspora is attested by texts, inscriptions or archaeology in all the major countries of Asia (India, China, Iran, Turkish Steppe, but also Byzantium). This survey for the first time brings together all the data on their trade, from the beginning, a small-scale trade in the first century BC up to its end in the tenth century. It should interest all the specialists of Ancient and Medieval Asia (including specialists of Sinology, Islamic Studies, Iranology, Turkology and Indology) but also specialists of Medieval Economic History.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Tokharian Buddhism in Kucha

Rerelease of Sino Platonic Papers no 85 of October 1998

Tokharian Buddhism in Kucha:
Buddhism of Indo-European Centum Speakers in Chinese Turkestan before the 10th Century C.E.
By Mariko Namba Walter

Kucha, in the present-day Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous region of northwestern China, was one of the major Buddhist kingdoms of Central Asia before Islamization began to take place in this area at the end of the tenth century C.E. The other Buddhist oasis kingdoms in the region were Shan-shan, which was buried under sand by the sixth century C.E., and the kingdom of Khotan, which had been a flourishing center of Mahayana Buddhism forcenturies until around the eleventh century C.E. The language of these Central Asian kingdoms varied, as many different kinds of people settled in and around theTarim Basin for many centuries. The Khotanese spoke a Middle Iranian language and the people in the Kucha and Agni region a language commonly called Tokharian. Tokharian is classified as an archaic Indo-European language, belonging to the so-called Centum branch of Indo-European languages. It has two dialects, Tokharian A, used in the Agni region only for Buddhist texts, and Tokharian B found in Kucha for both vernacular and religious textual use. It should be noted that Tokharian is not the name of the language used in Tokharistan in Bactria which was East-Iranian (Bactrian). Despite such complications, the name Tokharian has stuck and continues to be used by both philologists and historians alike up to now. The Tokharian language continued to be used at least up to the end of the eighth century C.E., and Henning suggests that the language faded away eventually, although this was not caused by drastic changes such as war. We do know, however, that the Tokharians disappeared from the stage of history at
the same time the Turkic-speaking Uighurs came to dominate the parts of the Tarim Basin where they were located, so there may well be a causal relationship betwen the two events.
How did such west Indo-European speakers come to exist in the midst of speakers of Chinese, Turco-Mongol, and East Iranian languages? As Tokharian languages have an archaic form showing relatively early separation from the other Indo-European languages, Henning suggested that the proto-Tokharians, originating from South Russia, were the first Indo-Europeans in history, appearing as "Outi" in Akkadian and Babylonian records of Mesopotamia. According to him, these ancestors of the Tokharians moved to Persia and eventually appeared in Chinese Turkestan as the Yiieh-chih fJ~ in the Kan-su region. The question of the origin of the Indo-European speakers in Chinese Turkestan has to be considered along with the movements of peoples over an extremely broad area in Eurasia over several millennia up to ca..1000 C.E.
Wherever they are originated, Caucasian-featured residents of Kucha were fIrst noted by the Chinese in the Han-shu in the first century B.C.E. as one of the barbarian kingdoms in their western region which had been involved in many wars with the Chinese, along with the Hsiung-nu (Mongolian nomads), Turks, and Tibetans. Exactly when Buddhism was introduced to Kucha from India is unknown since there are no historical records describing such a transmission. Nevertheless it is likely to have been
around the beginning of the Common Era, since there were already some Kuchean missionary Buddhist monks in China from the third century C.E., a topic which will be discussed later in this paper.
In this paper I would like to present a survey of Tokharian Buddhism in Kucha from the following three perspectives: first the fragmentary information derived from the Chinese Buddhist literature including traveling monks' records, second from the
Tokharian Buddhist, texts, and third from the art-historical evidence gleaned from the Buddhist paintings in the Kizil caves near Kucha. The issues we are concerned with here are the school affIliation of Kuchean Buddhism in its relation to Indian and Chinese Buddhism, and the relationship between the Kuchean kings and the Buddhist samgha.
Unlike in China, Mahayana Buddhism seems not to have taken a firm hold in Kucha, where monastic-based Nikaya Buddhism flourished for over a millennium until the end of the tenth century C.E. Despite this general tradition of Sthavira Buddhism,Kucha produced a major Mahayana translator called Kumarajiiva, to whom China owes a great deal for the transmission of major Mahayana sutras such as the Lotus Sutra. Through the literature concerning Kumarajiiva and other monks of Kuchean origin, and through the study of Tokharian Buddhist texts, I hope to delineate the features of Buddhism in Kucha.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

New online resource for Tibetan and Chinese manuscripts

A new scholarly resource for manuscript studies has been launched by IDP. It provides an introduction into the script types found in the Chinese and Tibetan manuscripts from Dunhuang. Each type of script is described, with examples, and a transcription exercise.

The resource is the result of the palaeographic project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, and was developed by Imre Galambos, Sam van Schaik and Vic Swift. It can be found here on the Technical Resources page of the IDP website.

The Taliban's Least Favorite Buddhist Art, Now on View in New York

From The New republic by Jed Pearl, August 31, 2011

Nearly two thousand years ago, in the stark terrain where modern day Afghanistan and Pakistan meet, a sculptural tradition emerged that joins opulent forms and contemplative feelings and is unlike anything else in the history of world art. Although we know next to nothing about the sculptors who in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries CE developed what amounts to the first great act in the history of Buddhist art, a visitor to “The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara,” the exhibition now at Asia Society in New York, cannot fail to respond to the emotional texture of the work. Carving into dark gray schist, a stone with a dense materiality, these sculptors were giving shape to the Buddhist critique of materiality. There are scenes from the life of Siddhartha and standing and seated Buddhas, as well as themes drawn from Greek mythology and figures that suggest Prehistoric talismans. Despite the intimate relationship that these sculptors had with the classical forms of Greco-Roman art, their work exudes a wonderfully anti-classical fervor, a willingness to embrace confusions and pursue possibilities, to go where no artists had gone before. While I am reluctant to ascribe anything like a modern individualism to these anonymous ancient artists, there is a zest and a freedom to their carving that bespeaks an altogether familiar pleasure in the powers of invention. The image of Buddha is human, sensuous, unpredictable—not yet the gorgeously static abstraction of much later Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan art.

Originally slated to open last March, and for some months a victim of what Melissa Chiu, the director of the Asia Society Museum, has called “political turmoil and tensions in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship,” “The Art of Gandhara” will quite naturally leave some museumgoers thinking about matters of national identity, political change, and religious intolerance that have no immediate relationship with the works on display. Such thoughts are by no means irrelevant. It was in March, 2001 that the Taliban demolished two monumental 6th Century CE Buddhas, 121 and 180 feet high, carved into the live rock in Bamiyan. By dynamiting these gigantic Buddhas, which the Taliban dismissed as idols, the Islamic fundamentalists eradicated one of the wonders of the world and the last great architectural survivals of a lost civilization. I do not want to romanticize the ancient and alien cultures that gave birth to Gandharan art. But I do believe it is possible to see in the luxurious yet somehow ethereal images on display at Asia Society an openness to physicality, fantasy, and philosophizing that mocks the barren fanaticism the Taliban have imposed on the very same part of the world in our own supposedly enlightened times. It is true that the most scrupulous scholars of Gandharan art are often at a loss when it comes to knowing precisely where or when certain works were done, so that there is little hope of making many clear stylistic discriminations. Nevertheless, one can certainly see, in sculpture done over a period of two or three hundred years, a thrilling variety, with hieratic symmetries and architectonic structures living on something like easy terms with a taste for narrative intricacies and a flair for decorative caprice. Who can doubt that there is an experimental impulse lurking somewhere in the heart of Gandharan art?

In a couple of marvelous fragments of capitals from the 2nd or 3rd Century CE, the stylized leaf forms on what amounts to a free variation on the Corinthian capital enclose a tiny figure of Buddha, who feels delicate and almost comical, a philosophical child in an exotic garden. Could it be that the artists who created these capitals had some sense that by dwarfing Buddha with this opulent display of fairy tale foliage they were giving visual expression to his relationship with a vast, strange, and estranging world? There is something in the inventiveness of Gandharan art that brings to mind Romanesque art, something about the variety of the forms and the spontaneity of the carving and the indifference to academic polish. Since the early twentieth century, art historians affected by the anti-classicism and expressionism of much modern art have been suggesting that the teachings of the Church helped to dissolve the classical perfection of Greco-Roman forms, pushing European sculpture and painting into the fresh, surprising, increasingly individualized avowals of the Romnesque and the Gothic. Could it be that the teachings of the Buddha pushed Gandharan artists to reformulate Mediterranean norms? Certainly the sculptors who created the work now on display at Asia Society evince an unexpected frankness when it comes to the actual weight and shape of the human body and the way people plant their feet firmly on the ground. Such honesty can feel disarming, even guileless, at least when compared to the formalized posturing of Greco-Roman art. The Goddess Hariti with Three Children—she was a demon who converted to Buddhism and became a personification of abundance and good fortune—exudes an easy, what-the-hell sensualism that confounds the neat, Grecian folds of her long dress. And many of the Buddhas are not so much spiritual beings as they are flesh-and-blood men, with sensuous lips, sleepy eyes, and the powerful torsos of philosopher warriors.

While there is much about “The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara” that will feel alien to contemporary museumgoers, there is no reason to reject our own, strong impressions. The visitor who makes sense of Gandharan art in his or her idiosyncratic and even unabashedly ahistorical fashion is at least taking the leap of the imagination that the Taliban so brutally rejected by dismissing half a millennium of Gandharan art as idolatry and nothing more. For years now there have been intellectuals who argue that museums distort the products of far-flung civilizations by turning them into what we in the West regard as “sculptures” and “paintings,” categories some say are nothing more than an invention of the modern romantic (and maybe even colonial or imperialist) imagination. But those of us who dare to imagine that we understand something about Gandharan art are not necessarily claiming that it only exists in our terms, or asserting that we know what it meant to those who made it. I do not think we are wrong to sense in these dark, powerful statues an openness to experience that is not entirely alien. To allow materiality and spirituality to live side by side, if that is in fact what the Gandharan artists were able to do, is to set art on a path that finds distant echoes in the inimitable blendings of naturalism and symbolism forged in the late nineteenth century by Redon, Gauguin, and Van Gogh. By insisting on what is modern in Gandharan art we also seek to embrace something ancient in ourselves.

Jed Perl is The New Republic’s art critic.

A Mysterious Stranger in China

Wall Street Journal, 3 September 2011 by Lee Lawrence
The first thing you notice is the pose: About 11 inches tall, he sits with his right leg bent inward as though riding sidesaddle, his upper body torqued, his left leg extended. Then you see the face, most of which is hidden by a cloth that drapes across the bridge of a rather prominent nose, revealing only thick, arched eyebrows and eyes that stare down with fierce intensity.

Fondazione Torino Musei
This Tang dynasty burial figure in a Turin, Italy, museum has left curators and scholars puzzling over its origins.

Made in China during the latter part of the eighth century, this unusual Tang dynasty burial figure today sits on a shelf in the Museo di Arte Orientale (MAO) of Turin, Italy, exuding as much mystery as he does energy. To date, nobody can say exactly who or what he is—his clothes, his pose, his expression don't add up. Even his manufacture is atypical: While almost all other known burial statuettes are hollow and cast in molds, this one is solid clay and appears to have been sculpted by hand.

For the moment, MAO has him down as "a Persian riding a camel or a horse," says Marco Guglielminotti Trivel, MAO's curator of East Asian art. And this is plausible enough. One among 500 ancient Chinese works that the Agnelli Foundation donated to the museum, the figure's eyes are rounded, his nose aquiline, and though most figurines show a male rider straddling his mount, sidesaddle is not unheard of. The raised fists, Mr. Guglielminotti notes, might have held reins, while the face cover—as well as a flap of cloth over the back of his neck—would have protected against wind, sun and sand.

"Keep in mind that at the height of the Tang period, the population of the imperial capital was about one million and, of these, at least a fourth were probably foreigners," Mr. Guglielminotti says. And many of them were Sogdians, a Persian people who dominated trade along the Silk Road. So it stands to reason that, when creating a microcosm of everyday reality to accompany the deceased in the afterlife, wealthy Chinese often included foreigners. It also showed just how cosmopolitan they were.

But the camel-rider interpretation is not entirely satisfying. Just ask Marcello Pacini, who headed the Agnelli Foundation for 25 years and acquired the statue at auction some 20 years ago for its collection. "I have never seen a rider with such intensity in his eyes," he says. "His is the expression of a priest honoring a god, not that of a camel rider facing some banal complication." He speculates that our riveting mystery man is a Zoroastrian priest feeding the sacred fire. He points to the fact that Zoroastrian Sogdians had a visible presence in Tang China and that Zoroastrian priests wore a face cover during rituals to avoid polluting the fire with breath or saliva.

Still, the case is not airtight. Zoroastrian priests, for example, wore belts with tassels, yet the belt here is plain; priests usually appear standing, while our man sits; and their face cover—or padam—is square, while this one falls in a triangle like a folded kerchief. Not a deal breaker, according to Mr. Pacini. He speculates that communities of Sogdian traders might have adapted rituals and costumes to caravan life.

Could outside experts resolve the issue? Although intrigued by the Zoroastrian theory, Prof. Suzanne Cahill of the University of California, San Diego, nevertheless warns against reading too much into the disconnect between the eyes and hands. She specializes in Tang material culture and notes that in foreign figures the gaze is often intense "whether or not their bodies are tense. The artists fixate on the big round eyes and often caricature them." But the face veil mystifies her; "it might be part of a dancer's costume," she muses.

In a similar vein, Tonia Eckfeld, who wrote "Imperial Tombs in Tang China, 618-907" (2005), thinks the figure in Turin might be a musician. "His loose sleeves would be consistent with a drummer, and the positions of his arms and hands suggest he could have been holding drumsticks," she emails after examining images of the statuette. But Mr. Guglielminotti, who has the advantage of examining the actual object, says the pose is not quite right for that—one sleeve falls too far over the lap to allow enough room for an instrument.

Mr. Guglielminotti then reluctantly admits to harboring a secret theory of his own. The only other tomb figures he knows that also appear to be sculpted portray four actors—they, too, are in the MAO collection. "Similar dynamism and originality, but," he adds, "there is more: The actors sport 'exotic' clothes that are practically identical to that of the veiled man." Not only do tests indicate that the works probably come from the same atelier, but Mr. Guglielminotti thinks they might depict the same subject: an actor, maybe playing a robber surprised midtheft.

Just a theory, he is quick to add, hoping that future research will investigate this possibility too. In the meantime, only two things are certain: As unusual as our man is among burial figures, he is authentic according to thermoluminescence tests; and whatever he represented to eighth-century Chinese, to 21st-century scholars he is a riveting work of art.

—Ms. Lawrence is a writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Remains of horses and chariots unearthed from tomb

It could have been as early as 700 years before the birth of Jesus Christ that these horses were moved on to greener pastures - and no one has laid eyes on them until now.
Archaeologists have painstakingly uncovered the almost 3,000-year-old remains of horses and wooden chariots in a Zhou Dynasty tomb in Luoyang, Henan Province, China.
The completed excavation unearthed four horse-and-chariot pits, dating back as far as 770BC.

Watering the horses: A staff member sprays water to maintain the humidity of one of the horse and chariot pits unearthed in Luoyang, China. The main pit has five chariots and 12 horses buried almost 3,000 years ago

Astonishing find: Archaeologists say this is the most complete find of any tomb of its era. The wooden chariots have completely rotted away, with only the ash residue remaining

Funeral procession: The main pit contains five chariots and 12 horses. Archaeologists say that the animals were not entombed alive

The pits have well-preserved evidence of bronzeware and ceramics from the Early Western Zhou dynasty.
Though a far smaller tomb than the famous 'terracotta army' found in 1974 in the Lintong District, this find has been undisturbed while buried and has not suffered the ravages of grave robbers.
Archaeologists believe that the tomb belongs to an official of some renown during the dynasty - pottery, metal weaponry and inscriptions are consistent with a man of mid-level importance.
Apart from the artifacts themselves, the tomb is an exciting discovery for historians, as it provides unquestionable insights into funeral customs in the early Western Zhou dynasty.
The unearthed tomb is a vertical earthen pit tomb, which is very common in that period.
Because of the age of the site, the traditionally wooden coffin and body within have long-since carbonised.
But the most valuable discovery by far is the complete set of chariots and horses, of all shapes and sizes.
Animal lovers can breathe a small sigh of relief - archaeologists say the position of the horses, lying on their sides, show that the animals were slaughtered before burial, and not entombed alive.
At the time of this official''s death, large-scale irrigation projects were being instituted across China, and the nation's writing system was being further developed.
It was also the time of the great Chinese philosophers of antiquity, including Confucius, Mencius, and Zhuangzi.
Many nearby tombs have fragments similar to the Luoyang find, but most have been emptied of their funeral relics by thieves.

Intact: While other tombs in the region have been stripped of their contents, the Luoyang tomb includes pottery, copper weaponry, jade and other objects

Historical riches: Apart from the physical objects uncovered in the tomb, historians now have a richer understanding of funeral rites and customs of the Zhou dynasty

Source: Daily Mail, 2 September 2011