Hidden, Looted, Saved: the Scientific Research and conservation of a group of Begram Ivories

Thème de la ressource: 
Trafic d'œuvres d'art, d'antiquités, de documents anciens et de spécimens d'histoire naturelle
Sécurité et prévention
Type de ressource: 
Bibliographie - Articles
Technical Research Bulletin of the British Museum
Pages / Longueur: 
15 p.
Langue de publication: 

In 2010 a group of 20 decorative ivory and bone plaques from the late first-century ad Kushan citysite at Begram, Afghanistan arrived on deposit at the British Museum (BM). The plaques had only recently been rediscovered after being looted from the National Museum of Afghanistan (NMA) in Kabul during the height of the Afghan civil war (1992–1994), and through the generous intervention of a private individual were acquired on behalf of the NMA. These plaques are part of a larger group collectively known as the Begram Ivories, the largest body of ancient Indian ivory carving to survive from antiquity. The pieces were scientifically examined and treated at the BM and subsequently displayed in the temporary exhibition Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World held at the BM 3 March–17 July 2011 before being safely returned to the NMA in July 2012.

Immediately prior to the exhibition the first ever scientific examination of these objects was carried out. The organic plaque material, the distribution and composition of the polychromy and the composition of the original metal pins were investigated using non-invasive techniques. Raman spectroscopy established an original pigment palette that included vermilion and hematite (red), indigo (blue) and carbon black, while X-ray fluorescence analysis confirmed that the metal pins were a heavily corroded copper alloy. Multispectral imaging, including ultraviolet-induced visible luminescence imaging, suggested the possible use of a now degraded organic pigment. A manganese-containing black deposit on the surfaces of several of the plaques is believed to be post-depositional, rather than a deliberately applied pigment.

The choice of indigo (an organic colourant likely to have been produced in India) as the blue pigment on the plaques, rather than locally available ultramarine (derived from Afghan lapis lazuli), supports a possible Indian origin. The distinctive Indian style and pattern of the carved designs also suggests that these pieces were either imported ready constructed from India or were produced in Afghanistan by local or imported craftsmen working to Indian styles. The opulent sofas and footstools that the vibrantly coloured plaques would once have decorated are prime examples of the lavish international goods that were being traded and used by courtly elites at this time.