Friday, December 2, 2016

North American Silk Road Collections: A Kizil fragment in the Detroit Institute of Arts

It is with great pleasure that I announce that the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) and the IDP have finalized an agreement to include a Buddhist mural painting fragment from the DIA in the IDP database. This will go onto the new IDP website when it becomes lives in 2017. Before this, I would like to introduce this beautiful piece which happens to be one of the Le Coq pieces from the Kizil caves featured in my previous blog post.

The Detroit Institute of Arts was founded in 1885 in Detroit, Michigan, the city known for its auto industry. Since then, the DIA served for the cultural development of this industrial city, boasting one of the top collections in the United States. Its multicultural and multinational collection contains a diverse range of Asian art, including a mural fragment from the Kizil Caves.

Four Heads of Buddhist Divinities, 28.67 © Detroit Institute of Arts

This mural fragment consists of four heads of Buddhist deities, three facing to their right in a three-quarter view and one similarly to the left. It is clear that the fragment was once a part of a larger composition covering the wall of a Kizil cave. Based on its back inscription and stylistic similarity with other fragments and murals in situ, this piece is considered to originate from Cave 224 (Mâyâhöhle, 3. Anlage).

Cave 224 is a type of central pillar cave in the Kizil Caves, in which a circumambulatory corridor excavated in the rear part of the main room creates a square, pillar-like structure which also doubled as an altar for the Buddha’s statue. The DIA’s fragment is considered to belong to one of the side walls of the space in front of this pillar (Ueno 1980, 56). In this type of caves, the preaching scenes of the Buddha were often depicted on these side walls of the front space, and so were those in Cave 224. While the exact location of the DIA piece on the walls await further investigation, the four figures on the mural fragment are most likely attendants of more major figures, most likely the Buddha on the side walls.

Interior of a central pillar cave with wall paintings of preaching scenes and A. Grünwedel at work, B 1739
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Asiatische Kunst

These and other attending figures appearing on many mural fragments preserved in North American collections are rather anonymous in many cases, yet they are indispensable and invaluable as cultural remains. This is not only because of the overall low number of remaining murals from cave shrines, but also because of visual narratives according to which the space for prayer was constructed inside caves. In the case of Kizil Cave 224, scenes based on the Buddha’s past and present life events and preachings adorned most part of the interior walls including the ceiling, and also Maitreya, the future Buddha, was depicted in the guise of Bodhisattva in the Tuṣita Heaven on a lunette above the main room’s exit. After moving from the antechamber to the main room of the cave, visitors were first greeted by a now-lost statue of the Buddha in the niche of the column, then went through the corridor where they saw the scenes of the Buddha’s Great Extinction (parinirvāṇa) on the rear wall of the cave. Following the scenes of events after the Buddha’s departure, such as cremation and division of his relics, the visitors encounter Maitreya in the Tuṣita Heaven above the exit.

As Buddhists revered the statue of the Buddha and circumambulated the pillar, they traveled through the space in devotion to the Buddha and Buddhist teachings, where axes of past, present and future time cross. Attendant figures on mural fragments of the DIA certainly contributed to the orchestration of this devotional space.


Digital Silk Road Project, National Institute of Informatics. 2016. "Database for Buddhist Cave Temples in China."Accessed November 28.

Miyaji Akira. 1992. Nehan to Miroku no zuzōgaku: Indo kara Chūō Ajia e 涅槃と弥勒の図像学: インドから中央アジアへ [Iconography of parinirvānạ and Maitreya : from India to Central Asia]. Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan.

Ueno Aki 上野アキ. 1980. “Kijiru dai san ku maya dō hekiga seppō zu - jō: Ru・Kokku shūshū saiiki hekiga chōsa, 2” キジル第三区マヤ洞壁画説法図—上: ル・コック収集西域壁画調査 2 [Mural paintings of preaching scenes in Māyāhöhle, 3. Anlage, first part: Research on the mural paintings from the Western Regions collected by Le Coq, 2]. Bijutsu kenkyū 美術研究 [Journal of Art Studies] 312 (February):48–61.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the Detroit Institute of Arts, Dr. Birgitta Augustine (former curator of the Arts of Asia and the Islamic World of the DIA), and Ms. Susan Higman Larsen for their support for the Georgetown-IDP project.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

IDP Job Vacancy: GIS Research Curator

An exciting opportunity has arisen in IDP at the British Library for a Geographical Information Systems (GIS) Research Curator. Working as part of a small team, you will be responsible for the development of an online map interface, creation of suitable content for base maps, and implementation of spatial search functions for inscriptions, manuscripts and other archaeological objects. This is a key post in a European Research Commission Synergy Project Beyond Boundaries: Religion, Region, Language and the State, a collaboration between the British Library, British Museum and School of Oriental and African Studies.

The post requires a post-graduate degree, or its equivalent, in a directly relevant field, and the successful candidate will be able to demonstrate knowledge of GIS, digital imaging, web-based map interfaces and spatial data management. Strong IT skills and excellent written and spoken English are essential, as well as excellent organisational, analytical and networking skills and an excellent attention to detail. Also desirable is experience with web programming, for example with demonstrable prior familiarity with Javascript, HTML5, PHP, Ruby, JSON or a subset of these, and/or scripting experience in languages such as Python or R.

Closing date for applications is 12 December. For further information see the full job profile.

Friday, October 28, 2016

North American Silk Road Collections: From Germany to North America

In my previous IDP blog post, I talked about the inscription on the back of the Penn Museum’s fragmentary mural from Turfan. The inscription clearly indicates that it was once a part of the German collection, or to be exact, the Turfan collection originally housed in the Museum of Ethnology (Museum für Völkerkunde). How then did this and other similar pieces ended up in North American collections?

Many archival records of such pieces bear the name of Albert von Le Coq (1860-1930) as the source of the pieces. Albert von Le Coq participated in the second through the fourth German expeditions. Le Coq started his academic career in his forties as a volunteer researcher at the Museum of Ethnology and served as the director of the museum’s department of Indian art from 1923 to 1925. His presence in the archival records indicates that he was partially, if not entirely, responsible for the transfer of these German pieces to North America.

Albert von Le Coq and Mamasit Mirab in front of caves of the 'Eastern Main Group' including 'Cave 163' in Kizil, MIK B 1070 © Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Kunstsammlung Süd-, Südost- und Zentralasien, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

The issue of the dispersion of the German pieces, especially of mural fragments, has been recognized for a long time, and several scholars have already discussed it from the perspectives of both art history and collection history (see works of Lee, Morita, Schlingloff, Ueno, and Zhao in the references). Among them, a recent study by Professor Sonya Lee of the University of Southern California especially details the process through which the pieces in question were brought from Germany to North America.

Around fifty Central Asian mural fragments in the United States are confirmed to have been removed from Germany through their sale in the 1920s. This was a difficult decision for Le Coq, who was planning an exhibition of the Turfan collection in the time of a depreciating German mark and concomitant inflationary pressures. The pieces, selected mainly based on their relative dispensability when compared to those in better conditions remaining in the Museum, were sold through the hands of various dealers. These included Edgar Worch, who was an agent from the firm called Ludwig Glenk in Berlin, and Abel William Bahr, a collector and dealer of Chinese art in North America. (Lee 2015, 11-12)

The same study by Professor Lee also sheds light on the shift of function and meanings of such Central Asian pieces that resulted from these sales and dispersions. Moving into the collections of people with different agendas, some of the German pieces were transformed into art objects serving the goals of their new owners. In the Museum of Ethnology, these Central Asian pieces were exhibited in accord with the museum’s educational agenda for the general public and Le Coq’s intention to tell the narrative of the classical antiquity’s eastern genealogy.

Some of the German pieces ended up in private collections, while many pieces were purchased by North American museums through dealers after the pieces had left Germany. Sixteen pieces of Kizil mural paintings were purchased and later donated to what is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum by John Gellatly (1852–1931). As he was primarily known for his collection of American Art, the Kizil pieces were appreciated aesthetically as art works and exhibited without any indication of their Central Asian contexts. (Lee 2015, 5-11; 12-14)

In other cases, the new owners sometimes appreciated Central Asian pieces as expressing a fundamental unity in artistic or religious works across cultures and times. This was the case for the French author, art historian, and statesman, André Malraux (1901-1976). Malraux saw a striking similarity between Buddhist heads from Afghanistan and the sculpted heads of Notre-Dame de Reims of the French Gothic which led him to promote his Afghan Buddhist heads as the 'Gothic-Buddhist' works, embodying the sentiment found in the French Gothic art works (Levine 2012). Interestingly, according to Ernst Waldschmidt, Malraux's pieces possibly originated from the same source that supplied pieces to the Berlin Museum of Ethnology (Waldschmidt 1932, 3; Levine 2012, 637-638).

Cropped from Buddhist visual narratives of cave shrines and reframed as independent pieces, many buddhas, bodhisattvas, and celestial beings with their serene expressions were appreciated in new ways in new contexts.


Levine, Gregory P. A. 2011. “Malraux’s Buddha Heads.” In A companion to Asian Art and Architecture, edited by Rebecca M. Brown and Deborah S. Hutton, 629-646. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Lee, Sonya S. 2015. “Central Asia Coming to the Museum: The Display of Kucha Mural Fragments in Interwar Germany and the United States.” Journal of the History of Collections. Advanced Access published October 17, 2015. Accessed February 4, 2016. doi: 10.1093/jhc/fhv031.

Morita, Miki. 2015. “The Kizil Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum.” The Metropolitan Museum Journal 50: 115-135.

Schlingloff, Dieter. 2011. Albert von Le Coq und die Wandmalereien von Kizil (Addendum zu der Denkschrift: T III MQR, Eine ostturkistanische Klosterbibliothek und ihr Schicksal). Leipzig: private print.

Ueno Aki 上野アキ. 1978. “Kijiru nihonjin dō no hekiga: Ru・Kokku shūshū saiiki hekiga chōsa, 1” キジル日本人洞の壁画: ル・コック収集西域壁画調査 1 [Mural paintings from Japaner Höhle in Kizil: Research on the mural paintings from the Western Regions collected by Le Coq, 1]. Bijutsu kenkyū 美術研究 [Journal of Art Studies] 308 (October):113–20.

― 1980a. “Kijiru dai san ku maya dō hekiga seppō zu - jō: Ru・Kokku shūshū saiiki hekiga chōsa, 2” キジル第三区マヤ洞壁画説法図—上: ル・コック収集西域壁画調査 2 [Mural paintings of preaching scenes in Māyāhöhle, 3. Anlage, first part: Research on the mural paintings from the Western Regions collected by Le Coq, 2]. Bijutsu kenkyū 美術研究 [Journal of Art Studies] 312 (February):48–61.

― 1980b. “Kijiru dai san ku maya dō hekiga seppō zu - jō (zoku): Ru・Kokku shūshū saiiki hekiga chōsa, 2” キジル第三区マヤ洞壁画説法図—上 (続): ル・コック収集西域壁画調査 2 [Mural paintings of preaching scenes in Māyāhöhle, 3. Anlage, first part (sequel): Research on the mural paintings from the Western Regions collected by Le Coq, 2]. Bijutsu kenkyū 美術研究 [Journal of Art Studies] 313 (March):91–97.

Waldschmidt, Ernst. 1932. “Die Stuckplastik der Gandhära-Schule (Zu Einigen Neuerwerbungen des Museums Für Völkerkunde).” Berliner Museen 53 (1):1-9.

Zhao Li 赵莉. 2009. “Kezi’er shiku bufen liushi bihua yuanwei kaozheng yu fuyuan” 克孜尔石窟部分流失壁画原位考证与复原 [Historical retrospect on mural outflow in Kizil Grottoes and restoration in its original site]. Zhongguo wenhua yichan 中国文化遗产 [China Cultural Heritage] 2009(3):88–99.

Note: I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Dr. Michelle C. Wang for her insightful suggestion for this blog post.

Friday, September 30, 2016

North American Silk Road Collections: In Search of Provenance

One of my tasks as a research fellow for the Georgetown-IDP project for the North American Silk Road Collections is to locate the pieces’ original locations, including their placement within the archaeological sites. Such information can be derived from various sources, such as stylistic analyses, the materials used, published archaeological reports, and archival records. And sometimes, such provenance information has been inscribed on the pieces by the archaeologist.

Reverse of Object C412. Photographer: Miki Morita

The picture above shows the back of one of the fragmentary murals which I introduced in my last blog post (Penn Museum, C412). The inscription incised directly into the stucco plaster base reads as follows:

III Reise M. Ŏ. M.
Hŏhle I
im Schutt gefunden.

This simple inscription carries much information about this piece’s provenance. First, it is written in German, and we know from colleagues in the German collections that the German expeditions used various abbreviations to denote the provenance. So the first line, 'III Reise' (the third tour), indicates that this fragment was obtained during the third of the four German expeditions held between 1902 and 1914. The third expedition (1905–1907) covered sites around the areas of Kucha and Turfan.

The rest of the inscription gives information on where the fragment was discovered. This part of the inscription is usually straightforward, but sometimes confusing due to abbreviations and errors. In the case of this fragment at the Penn Museum, Professor Adam Smith of the University of Pennsylvania, Stephen Lang of the Penn Museum, and I worked together to reconstruct and translate this inscription, also consulting colleagues at IDP Germany.

The first two letters 'M. Ŏ.' are most probably an abbreviation for 'Ming-Öi', namely 'thousand houses'. This was a general term often used by the locals for Buddhist cave temples. However, it can be confusing. Aurel Stein, for example, used 'Ming-Öi' to refer to the Buddhist cave temples near Shikchin. In the case of some other fragments from the Kizil caves, these characters are followed by 'Q', indicating the transcription used by the Germans for Kizil, namely 'Qyzil'. Accordingly, the third 'M' should indicate a cave temple site visited in the third German expedition. In fact 'M' is most commonly used by the German expeditions to refer to 'Murtuk' (or Murtuq as transcribed by the Germans), and this is also reinforced by the style of the bodhisattva.

Although there are cave temples known as Murtuk, another cave temple site nearby was also included under this designation, namely that of Bezeklik. It was visited during the third German expedition, and 'Höhle I' (Cave 1) of the German numbering of the caves corresponds to Cave 9 in the current numbering. In Altbuddhistische Kultstätten in Chinesisch-Turkistan by Albert Grünwedel, the archaeological report for the third German expedition, we are able to find a record of the rear wall of 'Höhle I', which is filled with rows of praying bodhisattvas (Grünwedel 1912: 231).

Wall painting of adoring bodhisattvas from “Höhle I” (Asian Art Museum, National Museums in Berlin, MIK IB 8492 [lost during the Second World War]; retrieved from the IDP database [Le Coq 1926: 23, pl. 23; Dreyer, Sander, and Weis 2002: 152])

Fortunately, parts of these bodhisattva paintings on the back wall and also on the sides of niches of the corridor remain in-situ in Cave 9 (Höhle I), and they show great similarities to the bodhisattva on the Penn Museum’s piece. Therefore, we concluded that the reconstruction and translation of the inscription should be '3rd expedition, Ming-Öi, Murtuk; Cave 1; Found in the rubble', and this piece most probably originates from Cave 9 (Höhle I) of the Bezeklik caves.

It is confirmed that several museums in North America hold fragments of similar bodhisattva heads. Although I have not seen their inscriptions, the stylistic features and archival information of some of the pieces suggest that they most likely belong to the same Bezeklik cave. While each piece consists of a small bodhisattva’s head, together they would complete the beautiful wall of adorning bodhisattvas.

The question now arises of how pieces from the German state-sponsored expeditions, most of which are now in museum and libraries in Germany (and Russia), found their way to North America. I will explore this in a future blog post.


Dreyer, Caren, Lore Sander, and Friederike Weis. 2002.Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Dokumentation der Verluste, vol. 5. Berlin: Staatliche Museen, Preußischer Kulturbesitz.

Gabsch, Toralf. (ed.). 2012. Auf Grünwedels Spuren: Restaurierung und Forschung an zentralasiatischen Wandmalereien. Leipzig: Koehler & Amelang.

Grünwedel, Albert. 1912. Altbuddhistische Kultstätten in Chinesisch-Turkistan; Bericht über archäologische Arbeiten von 1906 bis 1907 bei Kuča, Qarašahr und in der oase Turfan. Berlin: G. Reimer.

Härtel, Herbert, and Marianne Yaldiz. 1982. Along the Ancient Silk Routes: Central Asian Art from the West Berlin State Museums: an exhibition lent by the Museum für Indische Kunst, Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, Federal Republic of Germany. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Le Coq, Albert von. 1926. Die buddhistische Spätantike in Mittelasien, vol. V Neue Bildwerke. Berlin:Reimer u. Vohsen.

The Kucha Academy and the Asian Art Museum, National Museums in Berlin, are currently also engaged in an an international project to locate the mural fragments from the Kucha region. Their aims include the reconstruction of the murals in selected caves, in which these inscriptions found on the back offer important clues. Thanks to colleagues in Berlin for their help with this work.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Cataloguing North American Collections

My name is Miki Morita, and I am a new postdoctoral fellow for a joint project between IDP and Georgetown University in Washington D.C.* In this role I will be collecting data and conducting research on Chinese Central Asian manuscripts, art works, and archaeological artefacts in North American collections for inclusion on IDP online.

Very few North American items have been studied extensively, and even fewer have been incorporated into the IDP database. When I was cataloguing some mural fragments from the Kizil Caves (Baicheng County, Xinjiang) in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I came to notice the existence of less-known Chinese Central Asian works of art and archaeological artefacts, and felt a strong need to create a universal catalogue for scholarly purposes. IDP was, of course, aware of such Chinese Central Asian materials and had already been working with some of North American institutions. I feel very fortunate that I can take part in this project, which allows me to pursue my research interest in Chinese Central Asian pieces in North America.

The most thrilling part of this project is that we do not know what can be found in the North American collections. Some of the pieces have been recognised and studied in the past, such as a major collection of manuscripts in the Library of Congress and Kizil mural paintings at the Smithsonian Institution. On the other hand, there are pieces that have not yet attracted scholarly attention, such as the following mural fragment (C411) from the collection of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology.

Object C411. Courtesy of the Penn Museum.

This fragment, containing busts of three Buddhist deities in the Indo-Iranian style II of Kizil mural paintings, was displayed in one of the galleries, yet was not known and studied by art historians until recently. It turns out to be a part of a lunette of Cave 38 in the Kizil Caves in Xinjiang, and was originally collected during the fourth German expedition led by Albert von le Coq in the early twentieth century.

While the Cave 38 fragment of the Penn Museum is a relatively major piece with three figures, many Chinese Central Asian pieces in the North American collections could be small and fragmentary pieces. For example, the same museum also owns two small mural fragments (C412, C413B) that each depict the head of a Buddhist deity.

Object C412. Courtesy of the Penn Museum

Object C413B. Courtesy of the Penn Museum

Despite their size, such small pieces are part of a limited number of remaining Chinese Central Asian pieces and represent very important pieces in the effort to complete a picture of the history and culture of this region. Moreover, each piece comes with unique provenance information that collectively offers a perspective on the formation of the Chinese Central Asian collections in North America.

Fingers crossed that there remain many more pieces residing within the North American collections! I am very excited to see what new scholarly developments can be made based on the outcome of this cataloguing project.

*Thanks to the Henry Luce Foundation for funding this post, and to the Dunhuang Foundation US for funding the training visit of Dr Morita to IDP at the British Library.

Friday, June 17, 2016

A guide to orientating your tomb

Among the manuscripts found in the library cave of the Mogao Grottoes complex, near Dunhuang, there are a number of fascinating divination works. These include the scroll Or.8210/S.3877, recently conserved by colleagues Wong Wing-hui and Vania Assis (see related blog post).

Made of thin yellow paper and written in a rather rough hand, this manuscript was probably intended for personal, rather than more official, use. It includes extracts from different titles, as well as a lay society circular and contracts, some of which are dated from 897, 902 and 909. Its sketches are of particular interest for us as they illustrate a form of divination crucial in ancient China: one that focused on where best to build a tomb.

Geomancy, sometimes referred to as 'siting', dictated the positioning of both domestic and funerary structures, from palaces to graves. It led to practices often better-known nowadays under the term fengshui, literally translated as "wind-water" and thought to go back to the Song Dynasty. Its primary focus, nonetheless, remained on the deceased.

The front of scroll Or.8210/S.3877 is entirely filled by a drawing depicting four different topographical configurations. This appears to be a concrete example of how to determine the appropriate location for a funerary site. First is a group of mounds evoking hills. A patchy inscription, of which only the characters "大吉" (daji) survive, indicates a "very lucky, highly auspicious" spot.

Another caption at the centre of this mountainous formation states that a sepulture positioned there would bring unending riches and honour: "葬得此地,富貴不絕" (zang dei cidi, fugui bujue).

The other three landforms, though not as easily identifiable, are all named as mountain ridges: Baozi Gang (抱子崗), shown in the photograph below, Sangai Shangang (散盖山崗), and Xionglong Shangang (雄龍山崗).

Again, auspicious sites are designated by inscriptions: chu erqian dan 出二千石, lingzhang 令長, chu jiuqing xiang 出九卿相, chu fangbo 出方伯. Unfavourable sites for a sepulture are equally singled out by the character xiong 凶, meaning "ominous, inauspicious".

Two mysterious human figures are also represented. Who are they? Despite looking very similar, it seems that each of them is engaged in a different type of activity. One is bare foot, while the other is wearing boots. It is hard to know what the first one is doing because of the fragmentary nature of the document, but the second one seems to be holding something.

Could they be the geomancer? Or are they the individual who commissioned the document? My guess is as good as yours, so if you have any thoughts please let us know!

On the back of the same manuscript is an incomplete diagram of an auspicious familial gravesite, with several scribbled notes.

Three circles indicate the respective grave mounds of a grand-father, '祖父' (zufu) and of two of his descendants, both buried with their three children. The tombs are arranged across a square plot of land, which is delineated by an open-topped enclosure, probably the entrance, and marked in each corner by what could be watch-towers.

Such a distribution of the sepultures must have been fairly popular during that period, as scroll Or.8210/S.2263 - also in the Stein collection - possesses a very similar representation.

As demonstrated in this manuscript, extra care was thefore paid to the location and orientation of familial graves. Concern with divination as a device to assure a proper burial for one's parents already appeared in the Classic of Filial Pity 孝經 (Xiaojing), during the Western Han dynasty (206BCE-8CE): "[The filial son] determines the burial place [of his parents] by divination and puts them to rest." Over the following centuries, Chinese people increasingly started to believe that an auspicious burial site would also bring good fortune to succeeding generations, and geomancy came to be seen as a way of influencing the future.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Gilgit manuscript at the British Library

The Gilgit manuscripts, which were found in the village of Naupur in the 1930s (now in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan), are one of the most finds of important Asian manuscripts. The cache was first discovered in 1931 by locals in an ancient ruin, which may have been the residence of a Buddhist monk. They are thought to be the remnants of a Buddhist library, dating from the 5th to 7th centuries AD.

The explorer Aurel Stein, who was passing through the area at the time the manuscripts were first discovered, reported the find in a newspaper article, and several excavations followed. The majority of the Gilgit manuscripts are now held the the National Archives in New Delhi and Shri Pratap Singh Museum in Srinagar (see this essay for more details). The British Library also has a small selection of the manuscripts.

In a letter, Stein wrote:

Meanwhile I have sent some well preserved leaves of two mss. which had been secured from the hands of villagers to Dr. Barnett at the British Museum as a temporary deposit. I have left it to him either to examine them himself or to pass them into competent hands. Kindly put yourself into touch with him, in case you thought it desirable to take up this limited task.

The two manuscripts mentioned by Stein are:

(1) Or.11878A: Eleven folios of a birchbark manuscript containing the major part of the Saṅgharakṣitāvadāna (Divyāvadāna XXIII), and a part of the monastic regulations of the Mulasarvāstivāda school of Buddhism.

(2) Or.11878B: Seven folios of a manuscript containing the Sanskrit text of the Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapuṇḍarīka).

While the vast majority of the Gilgit manuscripts are made from birch-bark, the pages containing the Lotus Sutra (pictured above) are made from paper. The white appearance of the paper is caused by the use of gypsum to 'size' the paper before it was written on. The manuscript had probably travelled west from one of the Buddhist kingdoms of the Silk Road, such as Kucha, where many manuscripts of this type have been found.


Shayne Clarke, Gilgit Manuscripts in the National Archives of India: Facsimile Edition. Volume I. Vinaya Texts. National Archives of India and IRIAB, Soka University, 2014.

Oskar von Hinuber, "The Gilgit Manuscripts: An Ancient Buddhist Library in Modern Research." In Paul Harrison and Jens-Uwe Hartmann (eds.), From Birch Bark to Digital Data: Recent Advances in Buddhist Manuscript Research, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Vienna, 2013. 79-135.

Noriyuki KUDO, "Gilgit Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra Manuscript in the British Library, Or.11878B–G." In Annual Report of The International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology at Soka University 28 (2015), 197-213.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Publication: The Three Hares, A Curiosity Worth Regarding


Hardback, 368 pp., 326 illustrations
ISBN : 9780993103926
England: Skerryvore Productions Ltd, 2016
Price: £30.00
Order online here

From fifteenth-century rural churches in deepest Devon to sixth-century cave temples on the edge of the Gobi desert in China, this book follows its three authors on the tantalising trail of a mysterious medieval motif - three hares running in a circle sharing three ears which form a triangle at the centre of the design.

Along the way, a modern Devon myth is exposed, and the Three Hares in the sacred art of Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism are explored, and tentatively explained, before the trail leads into the Islamic world, and the great Mongol Empire.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Conserving a Chinese scroll

Vania Assis is Conservator of the Dunhuang scrolls at the British Library, and works on various projects supporting IDP's activities. Here is a post about one of her latest conservation jobs.

My colleague Wong Wing-hui and I recently worked on the Chinese scroll Or.8210/S.3877. Like other items in the Stein collection, it had been previously treated during its life as a collection item.

In the past, various materials were used to strengthen and repair manuscripts. In the case of our scroll, silk gauze was pasted on both sides with animal glue. There were, sometimes, several layers on top of each other. Heavy and thick paper was also applied to reinforce weak areas, such as edges, tears and missing areas.

Gauze covering the surface of scroll Or.8210/S.3877

As these materials aged, they became more unstable, causing the item to distort and transferring acidity to the paper. Higher acidity meant that the document became discoloured, which when combined with the texture of the gauze meant that it was difficult to perceive the original aspect of the scroll. In addition, a lower pH also made the item more brittle, making safe handling problematic.

Scroll Or.8210/S.3877 before conservation

Removing these materials proved very challenging: first, because they heavily adhered to the most vulnerable areas; second, because the paper used to make this scroll was particularly thin and transparent.

We worked on a section at a time, using hot water to reactivate the animal glue. We then removed the gauze with tweezers, carefully pulling it away from the paper. One of the most time-consuming processes was to remove the residual animal glue, which had been used in very large quantities. We did so by scraping it with a spatula, while it was damp. During this stage, we also removed old repairs, as they easily peeled away from the original material.

To repair the scroll's countless small tears and lacunae, we used Japanese paper, which is not only more sympathetic to the original paper, but also light weight and acid-free.

Detail of scroll Or.8210/S.3877 before conservation
Detail of scroll Or.8210/S.3877 after conservation

After all treatments, the scroll was lightly pressed for a week, to flatten any distortions. Finally, we rolled it onto an archival quality core support, and it is now ready to be digitised and handled!

Scroll Or.8210/S.3877 after conservation

Monday, April 11, 2016

Publication: La fabrique du lisible


Paperback, 420 pp., colour
ISBN : 9782857570738
Paris: Collège de France, Institut des Hautes Études Chinoises
Order online: Editions de Boccard

Until recently, the history of the book in China focused mainly on the printed book. Admittedly, most works date the invention of the book back to inscriptions on turtle shell or Shang and Zhou bronzes, but they tend not to give much attention to manuscripts on bamboo, wood, silk and paper.

The discovery of a large number of early manuscripts in the Mogao cave 17, near Dunhuang, and elsewhere has opened up new perspectives and allowed parallel lines of investigation to be drawn. The emergence of codicology and the development of research on the history of text production applied to Western manuscripts have also provided a model upon which to open a new chapter in the history of Chinese manuscript books.

This publication gathers fifty-one articles from thirteen scholars based at French institutions. Representing a first attempt to write a history of ancient Chinese texts in their context, it examines the production of manuscripts, their utilisation, handling and preservation, as well as their design, the readership for whom they were intended and how they were written and read.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Irene Vincent's photographs: A modern pilgrimage to Dunhuang

Few people may be aware of it, but among the information and images about Dunhuang and other archaeological sites on the eastern Silk Road available on IDP's website, there are also a number of photographs taken by modern-day explorers.

In the twentieth century, as news of the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas spread worldwide following their 'rediscovery' by Sir Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot, an increasing number of travellers, both from China and overseas, started venturing to the site. Irene Vincent, née Vongehr, was one of the foreign visitors who made it, despite the difficulties of the journey.
Detail of a photograph of Irene Vincent at the Mogao Caves, Dunhuang in 1948. Photo 1231/4(49)
Born in 1919 in Hankou, on the Yangzi River in China, she grew up speaking fluent Mandarin and Cantonese, in addition to English. She went to university in the United States, graduating with a degree in International Relations from Sweet Briar College, Virginia. She married John Benjamin Vincent, and shortly after set up home with him in various parts of Asia. They lived in Shanghai at the beginning of the Second World War, then moved to Calcutta for five years in 1942. They eventually returned to China in 1947, where they settled in Beijing with their two daughters.
Film negative of the Vincent family in 1948: Irene, John, Jamini and Bronwen. Photo 1231/1(90)
In the summer of 1948, Irene left behind husband and children to go on her own pilgrimage to the man-made caves of Dunhuang, a dream that had haunted since her student days:
‘In his secret heart almost everyone carries the name of some place on earth which he hopes to see before he dies... In 1939 I had chosen mine — the Thousand Buddha Caves of Tun Huang. The summer school of the University of Michigan offered that year an excellent course in Chinese art. I had spent three months at this heady banquet ... After this hastily devoured—almost indigestible—feast, the memory of the Thousand Buddha Caves had remained to haunt and tantalize me. I never really expected to see them with my own eyes, however. The only westerners who had this good fortune seemed to be eminent scholars, under the wing of important organizations, who spent weeks travelling there in horse-carts, sacks of bullion concealed in their luggage.’

Extract from Irene Vongehr Vincent, The Sacred Oasis: Caves of the Thousand Buddhas Tun Huang. London: Faber and Faber 1953: 43. Reproduced by courtesy of Bronwen Vincent.

The journey, during which Irene Vincent took numerous photographs, lasted eight long weeks. The region was hardly accessible at the time, and although she had been able to fly from Beijing to Lanzhou, the second half of the trip was not as easy. Irene had to search for a 'motorised camel' for the remaining 800 miles, and she ended up taking not one but two trucks in order to reach Dunhuang. The first one, which belonged to the government-owned oil company, dropped her in Jiuquan, in Gansu province, where she jumped on another dilapidated vehicle bound for Dunhuang.
Irene's truck experiencing some difficulties on its way to Dunhuang. Passengers are waiting on board while it is being fixed. Photo 1231/4(2)
Irene covered the last twelve miles to the Mogao Caves on horseback. She stayed as a guest of the Dunhuang Art Institute for ten days, capturing with her camera as many of the caves as possible in the short amount of time available.
Central portion of Mogao Caves, Dunhuang. Photo 1231/4(6)
West wall of Cave 283. Photo 1231/4(25)
Photograph of a view looking across the river to the Dunhuang Mogao caves with Irene Vincent. Photo 1231/5(31)
On her return, Irene met her husband and their daughters, Jamini and Bronwen, and they returned as a family to Dunhuang. There, John Vincent took the first known colour photographs of the wall paintings of the Mogao caves some of which were published — along with some of Irene's photographs — in Basil Gray's  Buddhist cave Paintings at Tun-huang, in 1959.
Irene Vincent and her two daughters in a truck to Qinghai, during their family trip to Dunhuang in 1948-49. Photo 1231/2(56)
Photograph of Cave 257, taken by John B. Vincent. Photo 1231/6(10)
The Vincent Collection of photographs and negatives by Irene and John was generously donated to the British Library by their daughters and son in memory of their parents. It includes several hundred items, recording their respective visits to Dunhuang Mogao Caves, as well as their time in various places across China right up to the Communist Revolution in 1949.

To see all of the Vincent photographs on IDP search the IDP database for 'Photo 1231'.
See IDP News 42 for more on on 20th century travellers to Dunhuang.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Paul Pelliot: Diaries of a French explorer and sinologist

Paul Eugène Pelliot (28 May 1878 – 26 October 1945) was a French sinologist and philologist. In 1906, he was chosen to lead a government-sponsored archaeological mission to Chinese Turkestan, with Doctor Louis Vaillant and photographer Charles Nouette. At a time of scientific competition between Great Britain, Germany, Russia and Japan, he was the first major western scholar to reach Dunhuang after the initial visit by Marc Aurel Stein in 1907.

Portrait of Paul Pelliot (1878-1945). (C) BnF, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image BnF, NA-238-FT 4

Pelliot acquired numerous manuscripts from the site, as well as works of art such as spectacular silk banners, paintings and rare wood sculptures, which now form the core of the collections of the Musée Guimet and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, in Paris. One of the noteworthy achievements of Pelliot's expedition was also to produce thousands of photographs of the caves, still invaluable for the study of their murals.

Dunhuang, Cave 120F, left wall. (C) RMN-Grand Palais (musée Guimet, Paris) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi, 4515353

During his journey along the Silk Road, he wrote very detailed notebooks, which are of particular interest for us as they include fascinating accounts of his time in Dunhuang. Held in the Musée Guimet, these have been transcribed and published in 2008 in Paul Pelliot: Carnets de route 1906-1908. Not only do they give us crucial insight into his travel itinerary, day-to-day life and work, but, because they were never destined to a public use, they are also extremely personal, taking us straight to the deepest recesses of Pelliot's mind.

Extract from one of Pelliot's small notebooks, open on the date of 7 March 1908. (C) Musée Guimet, bibliothèque, Pel. Mi 7

On the 26th of February 1908, exactly 108 years ago today, Paul Pelliot started to explore the caves of the Thousand Buddhas. He had arrived from the nearby town of Daquan at 6 pm the night before, after delays due to the disappearance of his guide's horse. Here is a translation of the extract where he recounted his first day in the caves:

"I spent my day in the first ten caves at Qian Fo Dong. I unearthed a Chinese stele in clay and cob, with white characters inscribed on a black background: but only a few characters on each of the 32 lines are distinguishable; a date is precise concerning the day and month, but the nianhao and number of the years are missing. However, I have already managed to find quite a few names of patrons, plus some Mongolian [language], a bit of Xixia and some 'Phags-pa. Finally, I completed Xu Song’s decipherment of Li Taibin’s inscription as well as the one on the back; I managed to establish that the latter one was dedicated to a certain 李明振 [Li Mingzhen]. I am quite proud of having succeeded where Xu Song had failed.

Tonight, we were to get some straw, but the monk who was supposed to bring carts back could not find any for hire: there is nothing specific to be learned from Ting who is, like every night now, under the influence of alcohol; he is becoming truly unbearable. On top of that, the man who guided me to the Xihu did not show up today to give me news of the horse. Early in the morning I will send Ting to the yamen to try and organise a different means of transport.

(Some Chinese people who came to Qian Fo Dong today were telling me that they came to get some saksaoul (Suosuo chai) which is abundant in the mountains 70 or 80 li from here.)

Small difficulties aside, I am thrilled to practise some of my career here."

Many days followed after this one, when Pelliot meticulously kept examining Dunhuang caves and their content. He notably managed to get access to the Library Cave which contained an important hoard of manuscripts, going through them at an incredible speed thanks to his impressive command of Classical Chinese and other central Asian languages.

Paul Pelliot, shown seated in Cave 17 at Dunhuang in 1908 reading the manuscripts. (C) The Musée Guimet, AP8187

Upon his return to France, Pelliot was criticised for wasting public money and suspected of coming back with forged manuscripts. Ironically, these charges were only proven false with the publication of Ruins of Desert Cathay in 1912 by his greatest rival, the British-Hungarian explorer Aurel Stein. In this book, Stein supported Pelliot's account and clearly stated that he had left some manuscripts behind after his visit, clearing Pelliot from all accusations.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Revisiting Kharakhoto

The ancient Tangut city of Kharakhoto lies north-east of Dunhuang in the Gobi Desert, just inside the present-day Chinese border with Mongolia. For Colonel Pyotr Kuzmich Kozlov (1863-1935), leader of the 1907–1909 Russian Expedition to Mongolia and Sichuan, it was the city of his dreams: 'ever since reading about the ruins in the explorer Potanin's book Kharakhoto has been constantly on my mind'. His discovery of the site in March 1908 was undoubtedly the triumph of Russian activity in Central Asia and heralded the start of Tangut studies.

IDP's photograph of the ruined city, The British Library,
Photo 1187/1(48) Photographer: Rachel Roberts.

Kharakhoto was a major city of the thriving Tangut state of Xia (known in China as Western Xia: Xixia) and many documents written in Tangut were found by Kozlov. The city was one of the first to be overthrown by the Mongols when they invaded in 1226. They later established a Tangut province within their empire and the city continued to be known by its Tangut name, Edzina or Etsina, as attested by Marco Polo:

'When the traveller leaves this city of Ganzhou, he rides for twelve days until he reaches a city called Edzina, which lies on the northern edge of the desert of sand. This is still in the province of Tangut. The inhabitants are idolators. They have camels and cattle in plenty. The country breeds lanner and saker falcons, and very good ones. The people live by agriculture and stock-rearing; they are not traders.' (after Yule 1903: 223)

Kozlov sent ten chests of manuscripts and Buddhist objects to St. Petersburg after this initial visit in 1908 and acquired more material, including Buddhist paintings, on his return journey in May 1909. The artefacts he discovered reflect the cultural richness of the Tangut Xia State. The paintings and other pieces (3,500 items) are now in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg while the manuscripts and printed documents (8,000 items) are with those from Dunhuang at the Institute of Oriental Studies (some are on IDP, ms. prefix=Tang.). Kozlov was leading an exploratory rather than an archaeological expedition and the site was too large for a complete excavation. Several years later when Sir Aurel Stein arrived he found many more artefacts and manuscripts. Stein recorded his first view of the city in 1914:

'It was a striking site, the most impressive perhaps that I had seen on true desert ground, this dead town, with massive walls and bastions for the most part still in fair preservation, rising above the bare gravel flat which stretches towards it from the river bank ... There was nothing in the surroundings of the dead town to impair the imposing effect created by the massive strength of the town walls and the utter desolation which reigned within.' (Stein 1928: 437)

Stein's photograph of the ruined city, The British Library,
Photo 392/29(95)

In the field Stein excavated several parts of the ancient city. Whenever he found remains of manuscripts he marked them according to their find site with a site id. (K.K. for Kharakhoto) and site feature number (given in roman numerals, I, II etc.,). Most of the manuscripts collected by Stein were fragments, the more complete material having been removed by Kozlov. In many cases the manuscripts were found too fragmentary and compressed conditions to separate. These he carefully collected and placed inside sheets of local paper, inscribing the wrapper with the find site. The wrappers were often secured with pins.

Some of the unconserved bundles, The British Library, December 2015. Photographer: Alexis Matilla.

Stein's Third Expedition material was first sent to Srinigar, arriving there in October 1915. As Stein remarked, 'war risks would have made its temporary transmission to London, as originally contemplated, a very unwise course.'(Innermost Asia: 981). Here Fred Andrewes, Principal of the Technical Institute of the Kashmir State, was entrusted with their sorting and numbering: he had worked with Stein on material from his previous expeditions. He was joined in early 1919 by Miss Lorimer, who had being working with the Stein collections in London since 1909: they had worked together on these until 1913 when Andrewes had left for Kashmir (Wang 1998). However, it appears that little was done on the Tangut manuscripts. Miss Lorimer completed her contract and returned to England in 1922. By this time Andrewes was in new Delhi working on the collections from Stein's first and second expeditions, a portion of which had been sent to India.

In January 1924 Stein asked the British Museum for space to store and work on this Third Expedition material while he completed his detailed report (Or.15495). 44 boxes arrived at the Museum in May 1924.

In 1925 there was an exhibition at the British Museum of a selection of material from Stein's third expedition (I will report separately on this). Most of the Tangut illustrated material, described by Stein in Innermost Asia, was sent to India (now in the collections of the National Museum of India in New Delhi). While the artefacts from the Third Expedition were given Museum registration numbers in 1928 (the number prefixed with 1928), the manuscript material was treated separately. Chinese and other languages material was appended onto existing sequences, Or.8211 and Or.8212 (both sequences were assigned in 1919). The former was originally for material mainly in Chinese catalogued by Chavannes, and the second sequence originally for other language material from Stein's first and second expeditions). The third expedition material was later added to these.

We have to assume, however, that the Tangut material remained unsorted for several decades as it was not assigned a manuscript number until 1959. This work was probably prompted by two factors: first the completion and publication of the catalogue of Chinese manuscripts from Dunhuang by the former Keeper of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts, Lionel Giles (1875-1958). Giles had retired in 1940 but continued work on the catalogue. The second was the appointment of Eric Grinstead (1921-2008) as Assistant Keeper. Grinstead took an interest in Tangut and probably led work on the sorting of this material.

In 1959 the manuscript prefixes Or.12380-85 were assigned to the Tangut material. It must have been at this time that the first 1839 fragments were conserved and encapsulated within glass: they remain in glass today (Or.12380/1-1839). (The prefixes Or.12381-5 do not seem to have been used, a point noted by in the Register of Oriental Manuscripts, March 19 1970.) Grinstead wrote a short article for the British Museum Quarterly introducing the material in 1961 (Grinstead 1961).

A few more complete items, such as the scroll Or.12380/1840, were lined — a typical treatment for this type of material at the time. In 1962, in another article for the British Museum Quarterly, Grinstead discussed the text on the scroll Or.12380/1840, 'The General's Garden', describing it as 'a twist of paper when first studied, is now mounted in its original form as a roll, 230 x 20 cm, containing 115 columns, complete at the top, but most unfortunately incomplete at the bottom and lacking the first third of the work altogether.'(Grinstead 1963: 36).

The General's Garden The British Library,

It is clear that other material started to be sorted, possibly by Grinstead, but was then deemed too fragmentary or delicate for conservation. Some material, for example, was removed from the original wrappers used by Stein and sorted into envelopes — often recycled standard issue British Museum brown ones, as seen below.

The image below shows such an envelope originally addressed to Grinstead containing several fragments. Grinstead's name has been crossed out and the site id. inscribed instead.'K.K.II.0284.a.xxii.' and the description 'Debris inscrit.'The postmark is dated 29 January 1959.

Other material was placed inside new paper sleeves (see below). But, judging from the comments on the envelopes and papers, when sent to the conservators (then the British Museum Bindery) they deemed much 'impossible' to conserve. They were returned to Grinstead and thence to storage.

Grinstead continued his research, publishing another article in 1967. However, by this time he had left the Museum to join the Central Nordic Institute for Asiatic Studies in Copenhagen. More activity was started when Professor Nishida visited the British Library to work on the collections. His first visit was in 1963. Professor Nishida identified fragments belonging to the same texts and these were conserved in codex format. However, the mass of unconserved material remained undisturbed.

In 2001 Ksenia Kepping from the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts, St Petersburg, visited the Library and some funds were found for her to compile a new catalogue. Unfortunately, Dr Kepping died before this work could be completed. However, during this period some of the material in plastic was reencapsulated into Melinex and preliminary records added to IDP.

Now, thanks to the support of the Ningxia Archives in China, the British Library has now been able to employ a new conservator to work on this material and for the production of 8000 images in the initial funded stages (up to summer 2016). The first step has been to make an inventory of all the remaining unconserved bundles and this revealed some of the working practices outlined above. We hope to learn more as we do more on this material.

IDP Conservator, Vania Assis, and IDP intern, Feichi Gao, preparing the inventory of unconserved bundles.
Photographer: Alexis Matilla


Galambos, Imre. 2015. Translating Chinese Tradition and Teaching Tangut Culture. Berlin: de Gruyter. Open Access.
Grinstead, Eric D. 1961. 'Tangut Fragments in the British Museum.' The British Museum Quarterly 24.3/4: 82–87.
Grinstead, Eric D. 1962. 'The General's Garden: A Twelfth Century Military Work.' The British Museum Quarterly 26.1/2: 35–37.
Grinstead, Eric D. 1967. 'The Dragon King of the Sea.' The British Museum Quarterly 31.3/4: 96-100.
Stein, M. Aurel. 1928. Innermost Asia: Detailed Report of Explorations in Central Asia, Kan-su and Eastern Iran. London.
Wang, Helen. 1998. 'Stein's Recording Angel: Miss F. M. G. Lorimer.'Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 8.2: 207–228.
Yule, Henry. 1903. The Book of Ser Marco Polo. (3rd ed.). London: John Murray.