British Museum

 Discovering Ancient Afghanistan: The Masson Collection
12 September 2002 - 9 January 2003
Gallery 69a, Admission Free

The deliberate destruction of the gigantic, rock-cut Buddha statues of Bamiyan in 2001 brought the loss of Afghanistan's rich pre-Islamic cultural heritage to the world attention, and has rendered the surviving records and relics of that past all the more important. This exhibition traces the development of our understanding of the history of Afghanistan through an early 19th collection of its antiquites. The British Museum is fortunate to have a comprehensive array of archaeological finds collected by Charles Masson ( 1800 - 53 ), the first explorer and recorder of ancient sites in the neighbourhood of Kabul and Jalalabad. The artefacts range in date from the Greek though to the Islamic period ( 3rd century BC - 16th century AD ). They include important relic deposits excavated from Buddhist stupas
in the region, as well as some 7,000 coins and a quantity of rings, seals and other small objects,
principally from the urban site of Begram to the north of Kabul. Begram ( ancient Alexandria of Caucasus, the city founded by Alexander the Great ) now lies buried beneath Baghram, the military air base so much in the news during the recent conflict. The coins collected and recorded by Masson provide unique and comprehensive numismatic evidence for reconstructing the history of this lost city, as only a very small area of the site was ever excavated.

Charles Masson (alias James Lewis) was dismissed by many of this contemporaries as a deserter (albeit pardoned ), adventurer, spy and writer of bad verse. Her was also unforgivably proved correct in his criticism of the British East India Company's policies that led to the disastrous First Anglo-Afghan War (1838 - 42). As a result, the archaeological value of his work in Afghanistan (1833 - 38)has been largely ignored ever since. This exhibition will mark the culmination of the Masson Project, which, since 1993, has sought to redress this oversight by studying his comprehensive manuscript records in the British Library in conjunction with his rich collection of finds now in the British Museum. It will reconstruct the archaeological record of some of the sites, based on Masson's written accounts of his excavations,his original drawings and maps in the India Office archives of the British Library, and photographs from 20th century surveys of the sites. It will also display a wide range of his discoveries, including such spectacular finds as the gold Bimaran casket, a key item for dating the first appearance of the Buddha image in the art of this region.