Silk Road Buddhist Cave Art in American Collections: Recovering the Context

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On a recent visit to Kansas City, I was struck by the Nelson-Atkins Museum's collection of Silk Road Buddhist and Chinese art. Not so much by the usual suspects, though--Tang Dynasty ceramic Bactrian camels, Sogdian riders and the like--but by the disiecta membra, forlorn if beautiful fragments displayed in a back room, pieces grouped as "Silk Road Buddhist," with only the merest provenance or explanation given in the labels. Every American museum with an Asian art collection seems to have a similar room, with similar pieces, including small fragments of Gandharan stucco work from Afghanistan and cave painting fragments from Western China's Buddhist caves. Dunhuang is the best-known of these sites, but American pieces often come from other Central Asian sites, particularly from Kizil, Kucha, and Bezeklik. Why those sites, I wondered? And how did it all get here?

We know part of the answer, as the Buddhist sites of Western China become ever more familiar to scholars and tourists alike. The story of the looting and dispersal of archeological material from the Mogao Buddhist Caves at Dunhuang is well-known from many popular and scholarly accounts, such as Hopkirk's Foreign Devils on the Silk Road (1980). Recently the British Museum has made a concerted effort to make its Dunhuang material more accessible to scholars and the public, and the Dunhuang Research Center at the site itself has become very active in training new scholars. As a result, the field of "Dunhuangology" has been born. It strikes me that it is time for museums to catch up with the new scholarship and dust off the old exhibits.

In this paper I would like to explore some issues these pieces raise in my mind: museological issues involving the collecting, preservation, and display of such material in light of recent advances in Silk Road scholarship, American museum practices, and international cultural property law. I would like to consider some of the ways we can recover some of the lost context for these lonely museum pieces. Provenance is the history of ownership of an object. Ideally, one wants to know precisely where something came from originally, who has owned it and where it has been ever since. This sounds simple, but it usually isn't. To illustrate the complexity of basic provenance issues, I offer the example of a little stucco head in the Nelson-Atkins Gallery (acc. No. 33-1538; my figure 1), labeled "Head of a Donor, Turfan or Khotan, 8th- 9th cent." At first glance this looks reasonable enough: Turfan is on the northern route around the Taklamakan Desert, Khotan on the south route, and both were centers of archeological collecting activity in the early 20th century. Recent research suggests that the Northern silk route sites of kingdom of Kucha, with the nearby sites of Kizil and Shorchuk, were primarily Theravada Buddhist strongholds, while the kingdoms of Khotan and Turfan appear to have been Mahayana in inspiration, reflecting different paths of missionary activity (Hartel and Yaldiz 1982, 22).


A little digging in the major field and museum publications finds many a similar piece labeled "Head of a Brahman," not "Head of a donor," from nearby sites along the Northern Silk Road (Von Le Coq 1922, 23 and Pl. 24). "Head of a Brahman" is also how the piece is listed in the Kansas City archival files, with no other comment on the gallery label's reassignment. Recent German literature continues to call such pieces "heads of Brahmans" and give reasonable explanations for the style, expression, and original provenance of such distinctively bearded and coiffed heads in the background of scenes of the Buddha's life and parinirvana (Hartel and Yaldiz 1982, 139-143). Scenes of the Buddha's preaching, with brahmans scowling incredulously in the margins, are part of the iconography of Theravada Buddhist cave ensembles. I find no particular visual parallels in the heads of donors from any sites in Xinjiang to support the museum label's assertion; the details of the face and hair seem too peculiar, and unlike any of the heads of, say, Uighur donors from the cave art of Khotan or of Turfan. …