Wednesday 15 March 2023

What do You do if you Want to Study Illicit Antiquities Floating Around the Market Without Raising Comment? Get the Buddhists to Help You.

Dr Allon Left, foreground seals a deal 20 December 2022 

With the support of something called the "Khyentse Foundation", it has been arranged that what is described as "a major collection" of decontextualised ancient Gandhari birch bark Buddhist manuscripts was deposited in December 2022 in the Islamabad Museum, Pakistan ('2,000–year–old Gandhari Buddhist Manuscripts Find Permanent Home in Pakistan' Khyentse Foundation News March 2023). They only need a 'permanent home' because having been dug up by looters, they were circulating on the antiquities market.
This extraordinary collection consists of birch bark scrolls and scroll fragments containing Buddhist texts in the Gandhari language and Kharoshthi script that date from approximately the 1st century BCE to the 2nd century CE. Although the collection is yet to be fully conserved, a rough estimate is that it consists of at least 50 to 60 scrolls or scroll fragments, constituting the largest collection of Gandhari birch scrolls known to date. The manuscripts, which are thought to have originated from northern Pakistan, are of inestimable value to the study of the development of Buddhist thought in South Asia [...] Indeed, these and similar manuscript finds have been referred to as the Dead Sea Scrolls of Buddhism. The conservation, photography, study, and publication of the manuscripts in the collection will be undertaken by the Gandhari Manuscript Project (GMP). This initiative is headed by Mark Allon, University of Sydney, and includes an international team of scholars
Where have we heard that sort of thing before? Of course what these "scholars" are handling and looking at are artefacts that have been ripped out of archaeological contexts, trashing the sites and losing (forever) any other infromation that the context of deposition of these(now-loose) artefacts held.

One notes the range of "scholars" Dr Allon has gathered in his team, reportedly: "scholars with expertise in the Buddhist literature, languages, history, art, archaeology, and epigraphy of ancient Gandhara, as well as in digital humanities and museum governance and curatorship". So, no forensic criminologists, law-enforcement agencies or cultural property lawyers. Nobody engaged to research the recent passage of these artefacts onto and through the antiquities market, to catch and apprehend those responsible, to stop further damage being done to the sites from which the commerce they are involved in is ripping these "priceless" (not really, because they were given a price and sold) artefacts out and selling them to the highest bidder. Indeed the Khyentse Foundation is very well aware that these (ahem) "rescued"* manuscripts are only part of the problem
The Islamabad Museum Gandhari manuscript collection is, in fact, one of several such collections to have surfaced since the early 1990s. These other manuscript collections, all of which must originate from Pakistan or Afghanistan, have found their way onto the antiquities market, with some being donated to major public institutions such as the British Library and others ending up in private collections in Europe, Japan, the USA, and Pakistan. The Islamabad Museum collection is unique in that it has found a permanent home in a major public institution in Pakistan. This agreement sets a precedent for the reversal of the common scenario whereby such materials are taken out of the region as part of the antiquities trade, resulting in a great loss of cultural heritage to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The housing of these Gandhari manuscripts at the Islamabad Museum and their conservation there will form the basis for collaboration with Pakistani scholars and for training Pakistani students in order to promote the conservation and study of such materials and the documentation of Pakistan’s rich Buddhist heritage.
Bla bla. It also effectively 'launders' the items allowing a Sydney University team to research them with a clearer conscience. On their website, we read:
The Gandhari Manuscript Project (GMP) was established in 2019 within the School of Languages and Cultures, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, at the University of Sydney for the purpose of conserving, photographing, studying, and publishing the Gāndhārī manuscript collection held at the Islamabad Museum, Pakistan. [...] The Islamabad Museum Collection of Gāndhārī Buddhist manuscripts consists of birch bark scrolls and scroll fragments containing Buddhist texts in the Gāndhārī language and Kharoṣṭhī script, with the exception of one scroll that has Gāndhārī/Kharoṣṭhī on one side and Sanskrit/Brāhmī on the other. With the support of the Khyentse Foundation, these manuscripts were donated to the Islamabad Museum, Pakistan, on 26 December 2022.
The timing of this is odd, they were " established in 2019 [...] at the University of Sydney for the purpose of" conserving, photographing, studying, and publishing a collection that the Islamabad Museum, Pakistan did not yet possess. Presumably they knew of these manuscripts.. where? On the market still? At what stage was the purchase of these objects negotiated, by whom and precisely how? How was the problem dealt with that they were illicitly excavated from an unknown source, and smuggled to wherever they were held when the negotiations were taking place? Did the NGO "Khyentse Foundation" do the negotiation or was there an antiquities market go-between acting as their proxy? What was the involvement of the Islamabad authorities in this?

Does the Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, Thubten Chökyi Gyamtso, approve of engagement in the trade of illicit artefacts looted from Pakistan, Afghanistan and adjacent areas? Is that in line with his teachings?. if you look at what his foundation does, it is not at all normally involved in historical research. So why here and now? It seems to me that the clue is in the fact that these trophy artefacts, if they really can be linked to "Northern Pakistan" as the GMP claim - presumably on philological grounds, they are physical reminders of the greatness of Buddhism, spread over much of what is now a Muslim area.

What is interesting is that if you look at the Gandhari Manuscript Project website, you can see that the bibliography alludes to some material published earlier that they now reveal came from this collection before it went to Islamabad. In both cases, there was caginess about where the material being handled actually was:
Allon, Mark. 2019. “A Unique Gāndhārī Monastic Ledger Recording Gifts by Vima Kadphises (Studies in Gāndhārī Manucripts 2).” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 42: 1–46.
Harrison, Paul, Timothy Lenz and Richard Salomon. 2018. “Fragments of a Gāndhārī Manuscript of the Pratyutpannabuddhasaṃmukhāvasthitasamādhisūtra (Studies in Gāndhārī Manuscripts 1).” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 41: 117–43.
This suggests to me that we should take a closer look at this journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies - what are they up to? See my earlier post (PACHI Monday, 13 May 2019) on 'Crowdfunding for Gandhari manuscripts' ("Images of these two scrolls in their rolled‐up state (like the one you show on your page) were circulated fifteen years ago by a London‐based art dealer looking for a buyer. Are the scrolls with you in Sydney now? Did you buy them?") and in the same context (PACHI Friday, 14 February 2020) "Gonna Tell You Where Data are From Later" indicating a worrying tendency.

* Of course the meaning of the word rescued is that they are acquired and reserved for "them" rather than getting in the hands of Another. 

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