Discovered by Joseph and Ria Hackin between 1937 and 1939, the Begram ivory statuettes are the third largest group of objects excavated from the Begram hoard, in Afghanistan, a group of ancient artefacts that includes Roman and Chinese objects exchanged along the Silk Road. Although there has been much debate about the date and place of their manufacture, contemporary scholarship dates these statuettes to the first or early second century CE, when the region was under Kushan rule. The statuettes are usually small in size and were probably used to embellish wooden furniture, their wooden parts having long since decayed. They are stylistically complex and show resonances of motifs and conventions from many contemporaneous Indic traditions such as those of Sanchi, Mathura, Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda, and Kanganhalli in India.
Most of the ivory objects are small bands and plaques which are variously carved in low or high relief, as well as a small number of sculptures carved in the round. The subjects are typically female figures depicted in toranas, arches or doorways, with male figures being relatively rare. The women are usually flanked by vegetal symbols of fertility and plenitude, as well as mythological and fantastical creatures, making them reminiscent of the yakshis or shalabhanjikas that often adorned the walls of ancient Indian temples and stupa complexes. At their least ornamented, the figures are shown wearing an antariya on the lower body, bracelets, necklaces and anklets. Some additionally wear multiple necklaces, earrings, headdresses, rows of bangles and low-slung girdles around their waists. The freestanding sculptures often show a woman in the tribhanga pose standing on a makara, which then acts as the base of the statuette.
Some elements of the imagery offer insights into the lifestyle and daily habits of the time. In one notably elaborate example among the relief sculptures, a figure is shown holding a mirror in her left hand while rummaging with her right hand in a bowl being held by another woman beside her. Given the presence of the mirror, scholars have suggested that the bowl was likely meant to contain cosmetic materials. In the representation of the two architraves above the figures, one can see different mythological creatures from the Indic traditions, including yakshas, yalis and kinnaras. Among the freestanding sculptures, the varying necklaces, headdresses and hair ornaments, as well as the figures’ facial features, reveal the co-presence of Greco-Roman, Central Asian as well as Mediterranean stylistic conventions. Another noteworthy example of cultural confluence is a statue of a woman riding a gryphon, which is a creature typically not seen in later Indic iconography.
For most of the twentieth century, scholars believed that the Begram ivory statuettes were part of the royal treasury of the Kushan dynasty collected between the first and third centuries CE and concealed, in the rooms that they were eventually discovered in 1937–39, in order to protect them from the onslaught of the Persian Sasanian army in the mid-third century CE. However, recent archaeological evidence suggests that the ivories formed part of the vast range of commodities that were exchanged along the Silk Road and reached Begram from different Indic cultural hubs through a combination of land and sea networks. The scholars belonging to this school of thought have generally based their findings on stylistic comparisons between Begram ivories and the stone sculptures of the ancient Indian Buddhist monumental structures.
Scholar Sanjyot Mehendale suggests that the ivories were probably produced in local workshops by groups of itinerant ivory traders and craftspeople who were conversant with the many stylistic and iconographic conventions of ancient India. This argument is bolstered by the representational consistency of the Begram ivory plaques, almost all of which depict women framed by vegetal, mythological and architectural motifs and decorations. Mehendale also suggests that the comparisons between these portable ivory objects and the monumental stone arts of ancient India should be made with caution, as stylistic diffusion spreads more quickly through the exchange of smaller, mobile objects such as the ivories, than through the building of large, monumental works that are rooted in place.
Since their excavation, most of the Begram ivory statuettes have been housed in the National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul. However, during the years of unrest following the outbreak of civil war in the country in 1992, many of these objects were lost, stolen and irreparably damaged. Despite these circumstances, many of these ivories have been identified, acquired and rehabilitated to their original context through the efforts of private individuals as well as institutions, such as the British Museum. The latter, through its exhibition Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, also contributed to the scientific study of these objects. Aside from this, new publications such as Francine Tissot’s catalogue for the National Museum of Afghanistan, have aided scholarly analysis of Begram ivories through its inclusion of photographs as well as speculative illustrations of wooden furniture pieces within which these ivories were originally set. Thus, even though the debates around the antiquity and place of manufacture of the Begram ivory statuettes are far from settled, much useful scholarship has been added in recent years to the existing research which enriches our understanding of these stylistically complex historical objects.
Kabul, Muzih-ʼi. Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul edited by Fredrik Talmage Hiebert and Pierre Cambon. United States: National Geographic Society, 2008.
Mehendale, Sanjyot. “The Begram Carvings: Itinerancy and the Problem of “Indian” Art.” In Afghanistan: Forging Civilizations along the Silk Road edited by Joan Aruz and Elisabetta Valtz Fino. London: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012.
Simpson, John. “The ‘Begram Ivories’: A Successful Case of Restitution of Some Antiquities Stolen from the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul.” International Journal of Cultural Property 23, no. 4 (2016): 459–77.
Stone, Elizabeth Rosen. “Some Begram Ivories and the South Indian Narrative Tradition: New Evidence.” Journal of Inner Asian Art and Archaeology 3 (2008): 45-59.