Langdon Warner

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Langdon Warner (1881–1955) was an American archaeologist and art historian specializing in East Asian art. He was a professor at Harvard and the Curator of Oriental Art at Harvard’s Fogg Museum. He is reputed to be one of the models for Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones. As an explorer/agent at the turn of the 20th century he studied the Silk Road. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1927.[1]

Frescoes at Dunhuang[edit]

Langdon Warner's work in China is the subject of much controversy among art historians. On the one side, there are those who say that he pillaged certain sites in Asia of their art, in particular frescos from the Mogao caves at Dunhuang, which he certainly did remove.[2][3] Others, including Warner himself, viewed his work as a heroic act of preserving valuable art for posterity. The views of the Chinese government towards Warner have varied as intensively as the government itself over the last century. As of this writing, the position is that Warner was a pillager.

Warner arrived at the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang in January 1924 and, armed with a special chemical solution for detaching wall-paintings, he removed twenty-six Tang dynasty masterpieces from caves 335, 321, 323 & 320. Warner first applied the chemical solution (strong glue) to the painting on the cave wall. He then place a cloth against it. The cloth is then pulled away from the fresco and then he applied plaster of Paris on the back of the painting and transfer the painting to the plaster surface. Warner had found evidence that the caves were the object of vandalism by Russian soldiers and reached an agreement with the local people to purchase the frescoes and remove them in order to save them for posterity. Unfortunately, the removal process resulted in some damage to the site itself. Luckily, frescoes he framed with glue but was unable to remove are still on display in caves today. The murals he removed are now in the Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Today the caves in Dunhuang are favored as tourist stops to showcase the Chinese view that the Americans pillaged their heritage. Certain members of the family have requested that the Museum return the pieces to Dunhuang. The Museum's position is that since they have a bill of sale indicating that Warner legitimately purchased the artwork they have no obligation to return them. The Warner family acknowledges both points of view on the matter and seeks resolution.

World War II[edit]

Warner's archaeological career was interrupted by the United States' entry into World War II and he became part of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) Section of the U.S. Army. He was brought on as an advisor to the MFAA Section in Japan from April to September 1946.[4]

He has been given credit by some for advising against firebombing and the use of the atomic bomb on Kyoto, Nara and other ancient cities to protect cultural heritage of Japan. There are monuments erected in Kyoto, Hōryū-ji (outside the western edge of Hōryū-ji temple), and Kamakura (outside Kamakura JR Station) in his honor for this reason. However, Otis Cary has argued that the credit for sparing Japan's cultural heritage sites belongs not to Langdon but to the U.S. Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson.[5]


  • The Long Old Road in China (1926)
  • The Craft of the Japanese Sculptor (1936)
  • Buddhist Wall-Paintings: A Study of a Ninth-Century Grotto at Wan Fo Hsia (1938)
  • The Enduring Art of Japan (1952)
  • Japanese Sculpture of the Tempyo Period: Masterpieces of the Eighth Century (1959)


  1. ^ "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter W" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 15 April 2011. 
  2. ^ Peter Hopkirk: Foreign Devils on the Silk Road. Amherst : University of Massachusetts Press, 1984, c1980
  3. ^ Sanchita Balachandran: Object Lessons: The Politics of Preservation and Museum Building in Western China in the Early Twentieth Century. International Journal of Cultural Property (2007), 14 : 1-32 Cambridge University Press
  4. ^ Ueno, Rihoko (October 29, 2012). "Monuments Men in Japan: Discoveries in the George Leslie Stout papers". Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 20 September 2013. 
  5. ^ Otis Cary (1975). Mr. Stimson's "pet city": the sparing of Kyoto, 1945. Amherst House, Dōshisha University. Retrieved 23 September 2013. 
  • Theodore Robert Bowie (ed.): Langdon Warner Through His Letters. Bloomington: Indiana U. P., 1966