Books and Articles Kushan History

The Crossroads of Asia:Transformation in Image and Symbol edited by Elizabeth Errington and Joe Cribb. pp.306. The Ancient India and Iran Trust 1992. 28.50

The catalogue is available through Spink&Sons in London. For details of mail order the books department can be contacted by ringing 0171 930 7888.

Elizabeth Errington and Joe Cribb's catalogue covers an exhibition held at the British Museum on the art of Afghanistan and northern India, ancient Bactria, Kapisa, Gandhara, Sind and Mathura. Exhibitions of this sort are usually accompanied by a book containing plates of the exhibits and some background information. The worst of such books are simply pages of pretty pictures with spurious historical details. The Crossroads of Asia is however among the best, interspersing the plates with a wide variety of readable discussion.

The book begins with an outline of regional history for period covered by the exhibition. This includes a brief discussion of Kushan chronology in which the date of Kanishka features prominently. Errington and Cribb settle for a date of c.100AD. The section is very nicely illustrated with maps and charts of the rulers of the period. The introduction continues into an overview of the art in which the schools of Mathura and Gandhara are compared and contrasted with earlier schools. An excellent introduction for someone not already familiar with the period it covers the Greeks, Persians and Sasanians as well. The catalogue is well photographed and each piece receives details of weight, composition, size and some notes on its date and provenance. The division is first by type, Images of Alexander, Coins, Vessels, A few particular pieces, and then images of the Buddha. Within each section the pieces are arranged in chronological order. The authors are not however bound by this convention, and where it aids the the text, have changed the order.

Of particular interest for anyone interested in the Kushan period is the detailed account given of the Kanishka reliquary casket found at Shah-ki-Dheri. This was the supposed site of Kanishka's great stupa, described by Chinese pilgrims as seven hundred feet high. The casket was discovered in a deposit chamber under the stupa and associated with the legendary deposit made by Kanishka himself. The interpretation of the casket has proved awkward in the past. Many possible dates have been offered, inside and outside the reign of Kanishka. Readings of the text vary a considerable amount and make it difficult to decide if the casket was a royal gift or presented by buddhist monks. The section nicely summarizes this debate and provides the three important translations of the inscription.

The crowning achievement of the book is the detailed technical analysis included at the back. Very little technical analysis work has been done on the art materials of the period and this highlights the need for more work. As it stands it poses many questions. The analysis of metals shows the use of zinc which further supports the sophistication of mining operations in northern India, Lynn Willies has previously established that the oldest zinc mine in the world belongs to Rajasthan province in northern India. The metals work also includes details of known sites of production and may imply quite an extensive trade network in the region of modern Pakistan, further research is needed. In contrast the fashioning and fabrication of art objects appears to have remained rather unsophisticated. This lack of technical skill is apparent compared with developments in the middle ages, and the contemporary Roman empire. The section poses more questions than it answers, but will repay careful reading.

Errington and Cribb have done a superb job. Anyone looking for an overview of Kushan art put into context will not be dissapointed. Those who already have a background will not find any startling new ground broken here, they might however find the extensive pictures useful. The bibliography may be useful for the reader who wishes to go further. The section on technical analysis will be a great deal of use to all readers, though it may require considerable effort.

Kushan History - General Contents
Military History of the Kushans
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