Sunday, 29 September 2013

Sergey Oldenburg

From the IDP site


Sergey Oldenburg and the Russian Academy

Kira Samosyuk presenting a paper in the Reading Room of the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts, St Petersburg, September 2013.
From St Petersburg, where the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) and the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts (IOM) are honouring the great scholar and explorer, S. F. Oldenburg (1863-1934), with an international conference. Noon here and the daily canon fire from thePeter and Paul Fortress has just punctuated proceedings in the wonderful reading room of the IOM — although given the situation with the proposed reform of the Academy, it is not clear where the IOM and its extensive Central Asian manuscript collection will be next time we come.
Oldenburg was part of a generation of pan-European scholars of Central Asia, the treaties between Russian and Britain enabling exploration and archaeology. The results were shared at the regular International of Congress of Orientalists, which had its inaugural meeting in Paris in 1873. The 1899 Congress in Rome was instrumental in bringing Central Asian explorations and scholarship to the centre of the agenda and Oldenburg was confirmed as a member of theInternational Preparatory Committee on Central Asian exploration. M. Aurel Stein (1862-1943) was also at this Congress, although it is probable that he and Oldenburg had met previously when they were both in Britain in 1885-6: Oldenburg's name appears in the address book Stein started using in 1884.
Much as the scholars of this earlier time might have tried to transcend its concerns, politics was never out of the picture in the story of the exploration and study of Chinese Central Asia. Some, such as Stein and Oldenburg, managed to avoid letting political competition taint their scholarly collaboration. Theirs was a relationship of respect. This respect is clearly shown in their correspondence, held at the Bodleian Library, Oxford and the Archives of the Russian Academy of Sciences, here in St Petersburg. Professor Wang Jiqing of Lanzhou University has researched the Oxford correspondence and we are currently preparing a joint paper for publication.
There are twenty five letters extant, although this is not a complete record. The first is from 1903 but most date from 1923 onwards. In 1923 Oldenburg is staying with Sylvain Lévi in Paris and Stein writes from his Kashmiri mountain camp expressing the hope that Oldenburg will publish the results of his explorations in Dunhuang:
‘I am greatly pleased to learn of the abundant results which our visit to Tun-huang has bourne and shall look forward with keenest interest to their publication. I have long ago learned to appreciate fully the unfailing thoroughness of all your investigations and know how much room there was left for them at many a site.’
This is a hope was not realized at the time: one of the six volumes of typescript prepared by Oldenburg on Dunhuang is currently on display at an Oldenburg exhibition at the Hermitage, curated by Maria Menshikova. However, the volumes remained unpublished for a century: a Chinese translation appeared recently. We are now discussing publication of the original Russian edition and a English translation.
After this time Stein’s letters start show a subtle concern for Oldenburg’s professional position at the Academy. For example, in March 1925:
‘It is truly comforting & encouraging for all fellow students to know you still occupying that leading position in the Academy, which has enabled you in times past to do so much for the studies we have at heart. May it become easy for you to exercise the same beneficient influence also thereafter.’
Oldenburg’s position in the Academy was not secure: he lost his position there in 1929 but continued his work at the then Asiatic Museum, a division of the Academy. This was to become the Institute for Oriental Studies and Oldenburg appointed its Director in May 1930.
IOM has been a collaborating member of IDP for many years and we hope that its valuable work in conserving, curating and researching the Central Asian manuscripts will long continue.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Art from the Islamic Civilization - from The al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait

  • LocationNational Museum of Korea
  • Date07-02-2013 ~ 10-20-2013

al-Fann: Art from the Islamic Civilization - from The al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait -

In this summer 2013, the National Museum of Korea presents the special exhibition al-Fann: Art from the Islamic Civilization from The al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait, introducing the highlights from The al-Sabah Collection, which is regarded as one of the world's finest Islamic art collections. Since the 7th Century, Islamic empires had exerted a strong influence on a vast area from Spain in the west to China in the east. This exhibition showcases a total of 367 treasures, including pottery, glass, metal, textile, stone, wood, jewelry, and miniature painting born through the time and space of the Islamic civilization. The exhibition is largely divided into two parts: the first part is focused on the characteristic elements of the Islamic art arranged in time sequence from the 8th to 18th century. The second part guides viewers to some of the quintessential elements of Islamic art expressed by calligraphy, various geometrical and arabesque patterns as well as a selection of luxurious jewelry which is widely praised as the gem of The al-Sabah Collection.

○ Organizers
 National Museum of Korea, SBS

○ Lender
 The al-Sabah Collection, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, Kuwait 

○ Homepage

Parchment folio from a manuscript of the Qur’an
Tunisia, probably Qayrawan
9th century
19.7 x 31.0 cm
©al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait

Brass basin
Egypt or Syria
First half of the 14th century
22.2 x 48.3 cm
LNS 110M
©al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait

Composite-bodied ceramic crenellation element
12th century
25.0 x 24.0 cm
LNS 189C
©al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait

Gold scent bottle
Probably northern India
1st third 17th century
46.0 x 40.0 x17.0 cm
LNS 102J
©al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait

Cotton "garden carpet"
North-west or Central Iran
18th century
Cotton, Wool
925.0 x 38.0 cm
©al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait

Silla Korea's Golden Kingdom

Silla: Korea's Golden Kingdom
Crown, second half of 5th century. Korea; Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.–A.D. 935). Gold and jade; H. 10 3/4 in. (27.3 cm). Gyeongju National Museum, National Treasure 191

New exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum in New York


Korea's Golden Kingdom

November 4, 2013–February 23, 2014

Accompanied by a catalogue and an Audio Guide
This exhibition will be dedicated to the magnificent art created between a.d. 400 and 800, the seminal era of the Silla Kingdom. Co-organized with the National Museums of Korea in Seoul and Gyeongju and drawn from the holdings of these institutions, it will introduce audiences to the remarkable artistic achievements of a small kingdom that rose to prominence, embraced cosmopolitanism, and gained control of the entire Korean peninsula. Included among the works on display are designated National Treasures with few parallel examples in Western museums. Highlights will include spectacular gold crowns and regalia, rare objects from Central and West Asia, and Buddhist sculptures and reliquaries.

Related Events

Membership Exhibition Preview:Silla: Korea's Golden Kingdom
October 29, 2013 | Free with Museum Membership
Membership Exhibition Preview:Silla: Korea's Golden Kingdom
October 30, 2013 | Free with Museum Membership
Membership Exhibition Preview:Silla: Korea's Golden Kingdom
October 31, 2013 | Free with Museum Membership

Transferts culturels par l’Asie centrale : avant, pendant, après la Route de la Soie

Colloque, les 12-14 septembre 2013 - Samarkand

Jusqu’à une date récente, la réflexion théorique sur les transferts culturels n’a que rarement débordé du cadre constitué par les cultures européennes, russe comprise, en dépit du fait que certains éléments de ce type d’analyse ont été déjà appliqués par les archéologues aux données centrasiatiques. En décloisonnant l’approche initiale, essentiellement eurocentriste, pour se rapprocher d’autres types de transferts dans d’autres espaces culturels, le colloque vise à questionner sur le terrain de l’Asie centrale l’efficacité des théories sur les transferts culturels et leurs concepts opérationnels (vecteurs de communications, processus de réception, innovations, appropriations, réinterprétations, adaptation, resémantisation, transformations, métissages, etc.). En d’autres mots, le but du colloque est d’étudier aussi bien les concepts, les idées, les techniques, les religions, etc., qui ont été véhiculés le long des voies de communications transcontinentales à travers l’Asie centrale, que les moyens qui ont été utilisés et leur réception, leurs métissages et leurs transformations et adaptations.
Sous l’Asie centrale nous entendons ici l’ensemble des anciennes républiques soviétiques centrasiatiques et les territoires avoisinants du Xinjiang, de la Mongolie, de l’Afghanistan, de l’Iran, de l’Azerbaïdjan ou pour utiliser des dénominations anciennes la Sogdiane, la Bactriane, la Transoxiane, le Turkestan, etc.
L’Asie centrale offre dans la très longue durée un terrain d’étude optimal pour ce type d’enquête. Que l’on considère les contacts d’Alexandre avec les Scythes, des Sogdiens avec les Chinois ou les Arabes, enfin des Ouzbeks avec les Tadjiks ou les Persans, puis avec la Russie, on a affaire à une stratification extrêmement complexe de transferts culturels aussi bien synchroniques que diachroniques. D’ailleurs, chaque strate a laissé suffisamment de traces pour que leurs interactions fassent l’objet d’une étude globale.
Les transformations historiques de l’Asie centrale – un carrefour où tout converge et d’où tout diverge – ne sont pas réductibles aux théories des « influences culturelles », des « échanges culturels » ou du « dialogue des cultures ». L’analyse de la région ne peut pas davantage se borner à l’unique concept de la « Route de la Soie », une construction économico-socio-politique au singulier, inventée au XIXe siècle par Ferdinand de Richthofen et parfois présentée comme la seule notion apte à expliquer la diversité des paysages culturels de l’Asie centrale, à la fois hybrides et homogènes. Tenant compte de ces approches, tout en gardant volontairement une certaine distance par rapport à elles, les organisateurs du colloque voudraient suggérer que la « Route de la Soie », prise comme un phénomène historiquement limité, peut être analysée comme pur  symbole des transferts culturels qui se sont manifestés dans le cadre bipolaire Orient-Occident. Elle doit aussi être appréhendée comme lieu de croisement des cultures multiples issues des civilisations qui viennent s’y rencontrer (mondes iranien, scythe, indien, chinois, arabe, turc, russe, européen).
Cette tentative d’appliquer la théorie des transferts culturels à l’histoire de l’Asie centrale diffère par sa structure des analyses précédemment menées dans cette direction. Sans vouloir se limiter à une période historique, ni à un cadre local – tant national qu’ethnique – les organisateurs du colloque proposent de discuter d’un certain nombre de sujets dans la perspective du « temps long », de l’époque antique et médiévale à l’époque moderne impériale et contemporaine.
Au-delà d’une indispensable synthèse de travaux préalables et sans vouloir reprendre tous les aspects d’une histoire déjà en partie écrite, il s’agirait de mettre à l’épreuve, à partir d’exemples précis, une approche théorique des relations entre les cultures, en mettant en relief des régions géographiques et les moments-clé des transferts, engendrant des recréations et reformulations liées au passage d’un contexte culturel à l’autre. L’attention porterait moins sur les programmes politiques ou culturels des envahisseurs que sur les glissements sémantiques résultant des transferts.
Les transferts en Asie centrale relèvent d’abord de l’archéologie, puis  de l’histoire de l’art, de l’histoire des religions, et enfin de l’histoire des sciences humaines, mais ils ont aussi une dimension littéraire et linguistique. Dans le contexte de l’Asie centrale les transferts culturels ne peuvent en aucun cas s’appréhender à partir d’une unique discipline.
Indépendamment de l’apport que peut présenter la modélisation de tels transferts pour une meilleure compréhension d’un paysage culturel complexe, on pourra espérer retirer de ce travail toute une série de renseignements sur l’application à l’Asie centrale des résultats de la recherche sur les transferts culturels et dresser des parallèles avec les transferts liés à d’autres géographies culturelles.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Dunhuang under new colors

An inside view of a cave of the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, Gansu Province Photo: IC
An inside view of a cave of the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, Gansu Province Photo: IC
Hua Liang from the Art Institute of Dunhuang Academy touches up a painting. Photo: CFP
Hua Liang from the Art Institute of Dunhuang Academy touches up a painting. Photo: CFP
Guan Jinwen, who went to the institute in 1983, works on her copy in a cave of the Mogao Grottoes. Photo: CFP
Guan Jinwen, who went to the institute in 1983, works on her copy in a cave of the Mogao Grottoes. Photo: CFP
Painter Wu Shuangqin copies a wall painting in a cave of the Mogao Grottoes. Photo: CFP
Painter Wu Shuangqin copies a wall painting in a cave of the Mogao Grottoes. Photo: CFP
A copy of a wall painting from the Mogao Grottoes is displayed in Wuhan. Photo: CFP
A copy of a wall painting from the Mogao Grottoes is displayed in Wuhan. Photo: CFP
While the ambitious plan to revive the Silk Road by building an economic belt hit recent media headlines, dozens of painters are working silently in the gloomy caves of the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, Northwest China's Gansu Province, once a major stop along the ancient route.

With brushes and mineral pigments, they copy wall paintings stroke by stroke, trying to preserve the Buddhist art made by their ancestors over a millennium dating back to AD 366.

Housing 45,000 square meters of murals and 2,415 painted sculptures, the 492 caves of the Mogao Grottoes were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1987.

Starting in 1941, Chinese artists, including Zhang Daqian and Chang Shuhong, moved to Dunhuang with their families and spent years copying and preserving the spectacular relics.

"Such copies can help the paintings endure and display this unmovable art to more people," Wang Xudong, director general of Dunhuang Academy, told the Global Times. The academy, established in 1944, is dedicated to safeguarding the relics in Dunhuang.

Copying the paintings in the caves is an arduous job. From using torches and candles, to kerosene lamps and flashlights, to now fluorescent light, several generations of artists have devoted themselves to this cause.

"Nevertheless, less than 20 caves have been fully copied so far," Wang said, adding that about 40 painters now are working full-time on this Herculean task.

Today the painters can finish their first draft by using images in art studios. But they still need to spend lots of time in the caves to finish off every detail in terms of colors and strokes.

 "I thought we did a good job in protecting the grottoes. But when comparing the earliest photos taken in 1908 with images taken today, we find that the artworks today are much more blurred. The relics are deteriorating," Fan Jinshi, president of the Dunhuang Academy, said in a documentary film.

"The daily visitors exceed 6,000 to 7,000 nowadays. But it would be reasonable to restrict this number to 3,000," Fan told the Guangming Daily in August.

People's activities will affect the environment and directly threaten the lifespan of the cultural relics. To limit these side effects to a minimum, people are only allowed to visit under 10 caves each time and each tour is limited to two hours. These restrictions have met with complaints from many tourists.

To counter this, a digital museum offering 3D virtual views of the grottoes is being built near the site. The Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes Visitor Center, which started construction in 2010 with an investment of 300 million yuan ($49 million), is set to open in May 2014.

"However, digital recordings can never replace manual copies. The relics carry the beliefs, culture and techniques of the ancient painters and artisans. Only by being there can the current artists truly feel and understand them," Wang noted.

Global Times

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Ancient Chinese bamboo slips displayed at UN headquarters

A man watches an exhibition on ancient bamboo slips showcasing early Chinese civilization debuts at the United Nations headquarters in New York, on August 27, 2013. Themed on "Chinese Classics Inscribed on Bamboo slips," the exhibition displays photos and illustrations of the bamboo manuscripts collected by Tsinghua University, one of the most prestigious universities in China. (Xinhua/Niu Xiaolei)   2013-08-28 12:45:46
UNITED NATIONS, Aug. 27(Xinhua) -- An exhibition on ancient bamboo slips showcasing the early Chinese civilization debuted at the UN headquarters on Tuesday.
Themed on "Chinese Classics Inscribed on Bamboo slips", the event displays photos and illustrations of the bamboo manuscripts collected by Tsinghua University, one of the most prestigious universities in China.
Liu Jieyi, China's permanent representative to the UN, said he believed the exhibition will deepen the understanding of China's culture, and contribute to the exchanges and dialogues among different cultures.
"The bamboo slips shown today represent Tsinghua's major research achievements in recent years," Liu said at the opening ceremony of the exhibition.
"On these slips 2,300 years ago, Chinese classics including the Book of Songs and the Book of Change were written in the ancient Chinese language. They are not only jewels in the treasure house of Chinese culture, but also the shared wealth of the whole world," Liu noted.
The Chinese envoy also highlighted that before paper was created, Chinese people had inscribed on these bamboo slips, ideas that are familiar to the ears of today -- "harmony without uniformity", "inclusiveness" and "peace and cooperation among states".
"Over thousands of years, these ideas have been encoded in the genes of Chinese people, and have been guiding China in its interaction with other countries," he said.
"Today, in these manuscripts, we find the thoughts in line with the current trends of peace, development and cooperation, as well as the purposes and principles of the UN Charter."
In July 2008, Tsinghua University acquired in Beijing a rare collection of late Warring States period bamboo slips that had been smuggled out of China. Written in the script of the ancient state of Chu, the 2500 slips represent the largest number of Warring States bamboo slips ever discovered.
These bamboo manuscripts were made around 305 B.C., just in the era when Mencius, Chuang Tzu, and other great Chinese philosophers lived. Not affected by the Burning Books and Burying Confucian Scholars Alive event during the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, these manuscripts preserve the original appearance of pre-Qin ancient books.
Tegegnework Gettu, Under-Secretary-General for General Assembly Affairs and Conference Management of the UN, praised the exhibition as a manifestation of successfully intensive work by Chinese leading scholars, which will have significant influence in many disciplines such as history, archeology, biography and literary studies.
"The Tsinghua slips are a group of bamboo manuscripts that are related particularly to texts traditionally categorized as classics and histories, including material that is at the core of traditional Chinese culture," Gettu said during the opening ceremony.
The under-secretary-general also pointed out the direct descendent of language on the bamboo slips is still be used by more than one billion people today.
For his part, Chairman of the University Council of Tsinghua University Hu Heping introduced the academic significance of the collection of bamboo slips, which is over 2,300 years ago from now.h "After five years' intensive work on arranging and transcribing the bamboo manuscripts, we have found a large amount of lost Chinese classic works covering philosophy, politics, history, geography, astronomy and so on," Hu said.
In addition, he said "the Tsinghua bamboo manuscripts are not only important for us to study the ancient Chinese civilization and scientific achievement from a new prospective, but also bring powerful impact on the inter-cultural communication between China and the rest of the world."
In China, before the invention of paper, bamboo, wood, and silk were the most important writing materials. The characters on bamboo slips were written with a writing brush and ink. Bamboo and wood slips and tablets probably began to be used around 3,000 years ago.
After Cai Lun perfected paper-making technology between the 1st and 2nd century AD, over the next four hundred years, paper gradually replaced bamboo, wood, and silk textiles as the most important writing material in China.

Monday, 23 September 2013

This Life-Size Sculpture Gives You a Map to the Buddhist Cosmos

Deities in paradise, souls suffering in hell, jealous demigods and flying spirits, mortals gathered for debate—all these and more are depicted on the “Cosmic Buddha,” an extraordinary life-size sculpture on view in the Freer Gallery. Keith Wilson, a curator at the Freer, considers “Cosmic Buddha” the centerpiece of “Promise of Paradise,” the gallery’s exhibition of early Chinese Buddhist sculpture.
The “Cosmic Buddha” was probably made in northern China between 550 and 600 A.D., a period of great vitality for Chinese Buddhism during which the faith enjoyed imperial patronage and believers came from all strata of society. The painstakingly crafted scenes of "Cosmic Buddha” reflect the growing sophistication of Buddhist art; their layered landscape elements, diagonals and vanishing points convey a sense of space receding into the distance.
Every inch of the "Cosmic Buddha" is filled with intricate relief carvings that depict a “conceptual map” of Buddhism’s Six Realms of Existence, from the heavenly realm of the devas at the top to the hot and cold hells of the dead at the bottom. Although the sculpture looks like a human figure dressed in robes, Wilson believes that the surface scenes should be interpreted not as textile patterns but as "emanations from within," in keeping with Vairochana's cosmic nature. This explains why the scenes mingle contiguously, organically, with no clear boundaries between them.
Traditionally an object like "Cosmic Buddha" could only be studied through direct observation, rubbings of the surface or, later, photography; the new imaging method, by contrast, retains the work's 3D character, is completely noninvasive, and allows researchers to see things that cannot be observed with the naked eye.
"With the scanning process, I'm able to map the entire surface," says Wilson. "It's allowed me to see what the boundaries of the scenes were, analyze what the content specifically is. . . and make the information accessible to visitors and scholars."
Some aspects of the sculpture remain shrouded in mystery. No one knows who commissioned it, where it was carved or discovered, how the hands and head were lost. But with the help of 21st-century technology, scholars will be able to see more of its ancient universe than ever before.
At this point, Wilson believes that "Cosmic Buddha" was a teaching sculpture, likely used in a monastery. "The scenes are so complicated and the sources are so diverse [that] they really require a narrator to explain what’s being shown," he says.
Let us, with Wilson’s help, be your narrator. Click on the icons in the image above to learn more about the scenes depicted on the “Cosmic Buddha.”

This video was the result of the work by the Smithsonian’s 3D imaging team, who have been scanning the sculpture since fall 2011, registering every nook and cranny to create precise 3D views from every angle. These images were stitched together digitally and loaded into software that will allow users to move, light and manipulate the object in ways that are physically impossible.

Read more: 
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Sunday, 22 September 2013

Presentation about life in the Song Dynasty

New Perspectives on Song Period (960-1279 C.E.) Commerce and Medicine from a Recently Discovered Tomb

Evening Presentation by TJ Hinrichs, Associate Professor, Department of History, Cornell University
Drinks Reception at 6:30pm
Presentation at 7:00pm
Closes at 8:00pm
The 2009 excavation in Shaanxi of an eleventh century tomb unearthed three well-preserved murals painted on the inner walls of the burial chamber - one portraying Buddha’s nirvana, one showing a comic theatrical performance, and the northernmost and primary one featuring the only extant depiction of a middle-period commercial pharmaceuticals workshop.  Professor TJ Hinrichs will share images of the tomb and discuss how it illuminates epochal historical transformations. For example, how did the development of printing and its use by the state, the growth of commerce, and increasing social mobility impact pharmaceuticals production and trade in eleventh century China?  How did these historical watersheds re-shape the daily life and religious practices of merchants, a group obscured in the literati-produced writings through which we largely know the period?  What are the implications of the Song’s technological, economic and statecraft revolutions for thinking about the still-vexed comparative historical question: What is modernity?
TJ Hinrichs is an Associate Professor in Cornell University’s Department of History, and co-editor of Chinese Medicine and Healing: An Illustrated History. She is currently in residence as a Visiting Fellow with the Templeton “Science and Religion in East Asia” Project, The Science Culture Research Center, Seoul National University. A central thread running through her research and teaching is the investigation of connections between intimate experiences, such as illness and personal transformation; communal practices, such as medical training and religious rites; and broader historical shifts, such as commercialization and the spread of printing.  Her forthcoming monograph, Shamans, Witchcraft, and Quarantine: The Medical Transformation of Governance and Southern Customs in Song China examines how the Song government made medicine an instrument of its activist social reform policies, and the ramifications of that process for political and medical practice.


7 October 2013
6:30pm - 8:30pm
Asia Society Hong Kong
9 Justice Drive, Admiralty, Hong Kong
HK$180 Asia Society members; HK$230 Non-members

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Photo's from Bamiyan from around 1926

From Llewelyn Morgan's blog Lugubelinus, "the marginalia of an easily distracted Classicist"

Nice Buddha; nice set of wheels.

I hope you’ll agree this is a pretty evocative photo:
Thanks to Dilek Taş for finding it (and three other photos of Bamiyan) among the papers of Aurel Stein, the great archaeologist of Central Asia (in a box of photos sent to him in letters); and when she found it, bless her, for thinking of me.
Of course, the moment I clapped eyes on it I wanted to identify the car-owner and the date. The place was clear enough: Bamiyan, Afghanistan: in the background the larger, 55-metre Buddha, carved out of the sandstone cliff face, somehow set off so effectively by the stylish motor in the foreground.
I had a hunch the best evidence would be found inside that box of photos, but over the weekend I tried to get what I could from the photograph itself. First the car: from Bozi Mohacek, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of classic cars, I learned that this was a British make (he could tell from the position of the headlights), a Wolseley tourer of about 1926 (“Earlier possible, later by a tiny bit but unlikely. No tiebar on the lights”). Two of the other photos offered a little help, as well. One was a view from the top of the 55-metre Buddha, with the silhouettes of local people sitting on the Buddha’s head:
This offers a small clue in itself, since the head of this larger Buddha had been inaccessible for many centuries, and it was only with the construction of a path along the cliff face by the French archaeologist André Godard, in 1923, that it was possible to reach it. So another terminus post quem. Finally, in this photo in front of the smaller, 38-metre Buddha my first thought was that the European figure on the left, in the white shirt, was a woman:
Yesterday morning I finally got to look at the box of photos. There I found a slip of paper with a bare indication of the sources of the photographs Stein had collected. For these three photos, plus a fourth of the 38-metre Buddha, the provenance was a succinct “Amps, 1929″. The photos had come to Stein in a letter from Amps, in other words, but who on earth was Amps? A quick consultation of the Handbook to the Collections of Sir Aurel Stein in the UK told me no letters between Stein and Amps have survived, and none of my biographies of Aurel Stein mentioned an Amps either.
Like the world-class researcher I am, I resorted to Google: “Amps, Afghanistan.”
I got dogs, loads of them. It turns out that one Mary Amps was a very big noise indeed in Afghan Hound breeding, importing the animals from Afghanistan and running her highly successful “Ghazni kennels” at Penn near Wolverhampton. Most of the Afghan Hounds around today seem to be descended from hers. Go here, and you will start to discover the strange, obsessive world of Afghan Hounds, and find lots of articles by Mrs Amps advertising her kennels with picturesque detail of her collecting trips in Afghanistan. What had taken Mary Amps to Afghanistan in the first place was her husband’s attachment to the British Legation in Kabul, effectively the embassy. Major Leon Williamson Amps was an officer of the Royal Engineers, posted to Kabul through the 1920s, a particularly volatile period in Afghan history between the Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919 and the overthrow of the modernizing King Amanullah in 1929. I don’t at the moment know whether Leon or Mary were among those rescued in what is considered the first major airlift, the rescue in 1929 of foreigners from Kabul when it was in the grip of the revolt against Amanullah.
So we’ve identified the two Europeans in the photos, Major and Mrs Amps, travelling around Afghanistan to see the sites, but also presumably to scout out any promising looking canine bloodstock. I can’t spot any dogs in the photos, disappointingly. The pictures must date to somewhere between 1926 and the time of the letter to Aurel Stein (and the departure of all the British from Afghanistan), 1929. It all looks very jolly in these photos, but we shouldn’t be in any doubt how adventurous you had to be, as a foreigner, to travel around 1920s Afghanistan, and for that matter how uncomfortable a trip into the Hindu Kush would have been on 1920s suspension.
Mary Amps’ business thrived, as we know, and Major Amps rose to be Major-General, honoured for his work building the British Legation compound in Kabul. He died in 1989, at the respectable age of 97.
I’m pleased I’ve identified the owners of the Wolseley tourer, but Aurel Stein is where this started, and I think his reasons for preserving (perhaps even requesting) these images of Bamiyan are worth a final thought, too.
Aurel Stein travelled all over Central Asia, and in the process transformed our understanding of that space where India, China and the West encountered each other. But it’s true to say that what drove this irrepressibly energetic man more than anything else, as he himself candidly admitted, was the intense fascination he had felt since boyhood for the Greek colonisation of what are now Afghanistan and Pakistan during and after Alexander the Great’s campaigns. At the heart of this Greek “presence” in central Asia was Bactria, the territory around Balkh in northern Afghanistan where Stein expected that rich evidence would be found of the meeting of East and West, and the Buddhist cultures that emerged from it. As for Bamiyan, it was generally believed at the time, and Stein shared the belief, that the giant Buddhas and cave temples were also connected to this Greek moment in Afghan history. We now know that the Buddhas are much later than Stein and his contemporaries assumed, and not in any significant way Greek in inspiration, but for Stein Bamiyan was part and parcel of his Bactrian Eldorado, and it was one of the places he tried again and again to get official permission to visit.
But throughout his long and remarkable career, that one burning desire to visit Afghanistan was constantly denied to Stein. The Afghans were determined to “twist the lion’s tail,” make things as difficult as possible for the British, and given the history of relations between the two countries, it’s hard to blame them. In 1902, 1912 and 1919-22 Stein made concerted efforts to persuade the Afghan authorities to let him visit, but each time his request was refused. Finally, in 1943, permission for him to visit the country was granted, but the eighty-year-old Stein caught cold in the famous National Museum in Kabul, and died just a week after arriving. His grave is in the British Cemetery in Kabul.
Shortly before he died, Stein told a friend, “I have had a wonderful life, and it could not be concluded more happily than in Afghanistan, which I have wanted to visit for sixty years.”
I just wonder about Aurel Stein’s thoughts, a decade earlier, as he pondered Major and Mrs Amps’ vivid photographs of a place he just could not seem to get to, no matter how desperately he wanted to.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Extraordinary Kurgan burial shines new light on Sarmatian Life

From one of the best blogs in the field: Past Horizons

Detail of insitu Sarmatian kurgan burial. Image: Leonid Yablonsky


By Leonid T. Yablonsky
ASarmatian burial mound excavated this summer in Russia’s Southern Ural steppes has yielded a magnificent but unusual treasure.
The artefacts contained within the mound are helping to shed light on a little-known period of the nomadic culture that flourished on the Eurasian steppe in the 1st millennium BC.
The archaeological study of this remarkable ancient tomb, or kurgan, was carried out by the expedition of the Institute of Archaeology (Russian Academy of Sciences), led by Professor Leonid T. Yablonsky.
Project Director - Prof. Leonid T. Yablonsky. Image: A. Mirzakhanov
Project Director – Prof. Leonid T. Yablonsky. Image: A. Mirzakhanov

No written language

The nomadic peoples had no written language therefore scientists can only learn about their cultures and traditions through archaeological data.
The kurgans which are scattered across the steppes contain many Scythian and Sarmatian relics and while the nomads successfully interacted with the Persian Achaemenid and Greek civilizations, they still preserved a unique culture of their own.

Completing the study of an extraordinary monument

This year archaeologists excavated the eastern part of Mound 1 at Filippovka 1 kurgan in the Orenburg region. This section was approximately 5m high and 50m long and was left unexplored by the previous expedition more than 20 years ago. The aim was to complete the study of this extraordinary monument, which had already famously entered the annals of world culture with the discovery of 26 “golden” deer statuettes.
Another major challenge for the archaeologists was to ensure the preservation of this unique cultural heritage which faces a large number of imminent threats with robbery being a major problem.

Massive cast bronze cauldron 

An underground passage near the entrance was the first area of exploration this season. A massive cast bronze cauldron with a diameter of 102 cm was discovered there. Its handles were fashioned in the traditions of the Scythian-Siberian animal style with an image of two griffins, beak to beak.

Cast bronze cauldron with griffin handles. Image: Leonid Yablonsky
Cast bronze cauldron with griffin handles. Image: Leonid Yablonsky

Burial chamber

Under the eastern mound an undisturbed burial chamber was discovered measuring approximately 4x5m and 4m deep. At the bottom of the chamber several stratified layers of debris were excavated to reveal exceptionally rich and varied grave goods accompanying a human skeleton. The material associated with the burial seemed to belong to a woman as it contained what is regarded as representing typically female artefacts and jewellery. However, initial osteological examination of the skeletal morphology revealed the occupant of the burial to be male; though DNA-analysis is still to be carried out.

Grave goods

A small wicker chest that is thought to be a vanity case was found near the skull. It was filled to the brim with items including a cast silver container with a lid, a gold pectoral, a wooden box, cages, glass, silver and earthenware bathroom flasks, leather pouches, and horse teeth that contained red pigments.
Burial chamber showing skeleton accompanied by rich assortment of grave goods. Image: Leonid Yablonsky
Burial chamber showing skeleton accompanied by rich assortment of grave goods. Image: Leonid Yablonsky
Nearby lay a large silver mirror with gilded stylized animals on the handle and embossed decoration on the back with the image of an eagle in the centre, surrounded by a procession of six winged bulls.
The garments were decorated with several plaques, depicting flowers, rosettes and a panther leaping on a saiga’s (antelope) back. There were also 395 pressed pieces of gold leaf sewn onto the breeches, shirt and scarf. A fringed shawl was held together with a golden chain and the sleeves of the shirt were embellished with multicoloured beads, forming a complex geometric pattern. Two cast gold earrings decorated in places with cloisonné enamel were found in the area of the temporal bones.

Tattooing equipment

The archaeologists also uncovered equipment used in the art of tattooing, including two stone mixing palettes and iron, gold covered needles, as well as bone spoons used to blend paints and pens decorated with animals.
More than one thousand artefacts were recovered from the tomb and they constitute an invaluable research resource that will add to the growing corpus of data that is shedding light on the history of the Eurasian continent.
This excavation represents a major breakthrough in the study of the mysterious Sarmatian culture of the Early Iron Age.
Contact details:
Prof. Leonid T. Yablonsky, 
Head of the Scythian-Sarmatian department of the Institute of Archaeology, RAS (Russian Academy of Sciences).

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Leonid T. Yablonsky - Extraordinary kurgan burial shines new light on Sarmatian lifePast Horizons. September 11, 2013, from