The Begram ivories are a series of over a thousand decorative inlays, carved from ivory and bone and formerly attached to wooden furniture, excavated in the 1930s in Begram, Afghanistan. They are rare and important exemplars of Afghan and Indian art of the 1st or 2nd centuries AD, attesting to the cosmopolitan tastes and patronage of local dynasts, the sophistication of contemporary craftsmanship, and to the ancient trade in luxury goods.
The ancient city of Kapisa, the modern Begram, was the summer capital of the Kushan Empire, which stretched from northern Afghanistan to northwest India between the 1st and the 4th centuries. Some eighty miles from Kabul, the strategically located city dominated two passes through the Hindu Kush, connecting Bactria with northern Pakistan.
The Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan conducted excavations at the site between 1936 and 1940, uncovering two walled-up strongrooms, Room 10 and Room 13. Inside, a large number of bronze, alabaster, glass, coins, and ivory objects, along with remains of furniture and Chinese lacquer bowls, were unearthed. Some of the furniture was arranged along walls, other pieces stacked or facing each other.
The finds were divided, in accordance with the system of partage, between the Musée Guimet and the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul. After the Kabul Museum closed in 1978 the whereabouts of the ivories was uncertain, and many items were looted in the 1990s.
A number of the missing items were located in 2004, and a further group of twenty pieces, illicitly traded by antiquities dealers, was later recovered and is to be repatriated. After conservation treatment in the British Museum they were exhibited there in 2011.
After carving the surfaces were smoothed and lightly polished. Traces of colour survive, showing the use of alternating red and blue pigments, and the highlighting of plain backgrounds with red or black. The mineral pigment vermilion and the organic colorant indigo have been identified.
The inlays were attached to what have been identified as chairs and footstools by copper alloy rivets, through pre-drilled holes. The woodwork itself has disintegrated, preventing identification of the species and source of the timber, but metal nails and clamps survive.
Organic materials such as ivory and bone are fragile and prone to environmental deterioration. In order to stabilise the ivory fragments and lift them from the ground they were coated in gelatine and faced in tissue. Trapping dirt and deteriorating and shrinking over time, these and subsequent coatings have resulted in damage to the ivory and loss of pigmentation. Cracks and breaks have been filled with a variety of adhesives, without consolidation of the edge, and differing reconstructions led to the accumulation of residues from previous treatments.
Technical analysis by the British Museum provided information on materials and techniques of production, present condition, deterioration phenomena, and previous interventions. Subsequent treatment included the reduction of previous coatings, consolidation, and fills using reversible and compatible materials, with subsequent toning.
The range of motifs include lions, elephants, birds, flowers, female nudes, musicians, dancers, personal ornaments, and architectural backdrops. Some inlays are inscribed with fitters' marks in Kharosthi, Brahmi, and a third unidentified script.
Dating, attribution, influences and parallels
The rarity of parallels has resulted in disputes as to the origin and date of the ivories, although the stratigraphy would suggest a date no later than the 2nd century. A caryatid found in the Via dell'Abbondanza in Pompeii with a Kharosthi fitter's mark provides further evidence of long-distance trade in Indian furniture decorated with ivory.
- Simpson, St John (2011). The Begram Hoard: Indian Ivories from Afghanistan. The British Museum. ISBN 978-0-7141-1178-0.
- Beaumont, Peter (27 February 2011). "The Begram ivories: rescuing Afghanistan's lost history". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 March 2011.
- Simpson, St John (2011). "The discovery of Begram (pp. 8–15)". The Begram Hoard: Indian Ivories from Afghanistan. The British Museum. ISBN 978-0-7141-1178-0.
- Hamilton, Adrian (7 March 2011). "Ancient wonders of Afghanistan". The Independent. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
- Simpson, St John (2011). "Introduction". The Begram Hoard: Indian Ivories from Afghanistan. The British Museum. pp. 6–7. ISBN 978-0-7141-1178-0.
- Simpson, St John (2011). "The significance of the 'Begram ivories'". The Begram Hoard: Indian Ivories from Afghanistan. The British Museum. pp. 16–25. ISBN 978-0-7141-1178-0.
- Simpson, St John (2011). "Conservation and scientific research". The Begram Hoard: Indian Ivories from Afghanistan. The British Museum. pp. 30–35. ISBN 978-0-7141-1178-0.
- Simpson, St John (2011). "Catalogue of the individual pieces". The Begram Hoard: Indian Ivories from Afghanistan. The British Museum. pp. 36–91. ISBN 978-0-7141-1178-0.