Masson Project

The reliquaries and 1st-2nd century AD coins from the relic deposit of the Buddhist stupa no. 2 at Passani, Afghanistan, excavated by Charles Masson in 1834 (Department of Asia).

Project leader: Elizabeth Errington

Department: Coins and Medals

Project start: August 1993
End date: 2010

Other British Museum staff: Paramdip Khera

Other departments: Asia (joint project with Coins and Medals department)

External partners:
Chantal Fabrègues (independent specialist on ancient jewellery)

Project funded by:
Neil Kreitman Foundation (1993–)
Townley Group of British Museum Friends (1998–)

Description:

From 1833-8, Charles Masson was employed by the British East India Company to explore the ancient sites in south-east Afghanistan. He recorded or excavated about 50 Buddhist monuments, bought numerous ornaments, gems and coins in Kabul bazaar and amassed an estimated 60,000 coins, gems, seals, rings and other, mostly bronze, surface finds from the urban site of Begram north of Kabul. His collections were sent to the India Museum in London.Masson’s sketch of the Buddhist stupa at Topdara, Afghanistan in H. H. Wilson, Ariana Antiqua, London 1841, Topes pl. IX.

Most of the finds but only 332 identifiable coins were transferred – unsorted and undocumented – to the British Museum in 1878. The British Library and Victoria and Albert Museum also inherited a few Masson objects from the India Museum. The bulk of the coins were sold at auction in 1887, while others went to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. In 1995, 6641 Masson coins were discovered in the residue India Office collection of around 10,445 coins in the British Library and transferred on permanent loan to the British Museum.

Apart from coins, the Museum’s collection now comprises 27 reliquaries and numerous beads, ornaments and other items from Buddhist relic deposits. These include 14 stucco Buddha heads from Hadda, around 1000 mostly bronze items (e.g. arrowheads, pins, pendants, charms, jewellery) from Begram, miscellaneous ornaments and 210 seals, gems and rings from Begram or Kabul bazaar. The relic deposits provide a contextual frame for Buddhism in Afghanistan of the 1st-6th century AD, while the Begram finds cover the period 2nd millennium BC-13th century AD. The Kabul bazaar acquisitions range in date down to the 1830s.

Objectives:

The project evolved from the realisation that 7 volumes and 149 uncatalogued manuscripts of Masson’s own records survive in the British Library. An archive has been produced comprising all his written archaeological records (on disk), plParamdip Khera sorting the Islamic coins from Begram in the India Office Loan Collection (Department of Coins and Medals).ans, maps and drawings of the sites, coins and finds. This is being used to identify and document his collections in the British Museum and elsewhere, and to reconstruct the archaeological record of the sites, many of which no longer exist.

All objects in the collection are being conserved, sorted and classified according to category, date and site provenance before being registered, imaged and entered on Merlin (the British Museum’s collection database). The resulting database entries will provide the basis for a publishable catalogue. The publication will include the archive of Masson’s archaeological records, an analysis of the coins with a chapter on the monetary history of Begram,  a chapter on the Buddhist sites and finds and a discussion of the ornaments and a catalogue of the collection.

Publications

E. Errington and V.S. Curtis, From Persepolisto the Punjab. Exploring the Past in Iran, Afghanistanand Pakistan (London, The British Museum Press, 2007), passim.

E. Errington, ‘“Boots”, “female idols” and disembodied heads’, Journal of Inner Asian Art and Archaeology I (2006), pp. 89-96

E. Errington, ‘Charles Masson’, Encyclopaedia Iranica online (2004)

E. Errington, ‘Ancient Afghanistan through the eyes of Charles Masson: the Masson Project at the British Museum’, International Institute for Asian Studies Newsletter (March 2002), pp. 8-9

E. Errington, ‘The collections of Charles Masson (1800-53)’, Circle of Inner Asian Art Newsletter 15 (2002), pp. 29-30

E. Errington, ‘Discovering ancient Afghanistan, The Masson Collection’, Minerva 13/6 (2002), pp. 53-5

E. Errington, ‘Discovering ancient Afghanistan’, British Museum Magazine 44 (2002), p. 8

E. Errington, ‘Charles Masson and Begram’, Topoi 11/1 (2001 [2003]), pp. 357-409

E. Errington, ‘Rediscovering the collections of Charles Masson’, in M. Alram and D. E. Klimburg-Salter (eds.)Coins, Art and Chronology. Essays on the pre-Islamic History of the Indo-Iranian Borderlands (Vienna, Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1999), pp. 207-37


Images (from top):

  • The reliquaries and 1st-2nd century AD coins from the relic deposit of the Buddhist stupa no. 2 at Passani, Afghanistan, excavated by Charles Masson in 1834 (Department of Asia).
  • Masson’s sketch of the Buddhist stupa at Topdara, Afghanistan in H. H. Wilson, Ariana Antiqua, London 1841, Topes pl. IX.
  • Paramdip Khera sorting the Islamic coins from Begram in the India Office Loan Collection (Department of Coins and Medals).