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North American Silk Road Collections: In Search of Provenance

By Miki Morita 30 September 2016

One of my tasks as a research fellow for the Georgetown-IDP project for the North American Silk Road Collections is to locate the pieces’ original locations, including their placement within the archaeological sites. Such information can be derived from various sources, such as stylistic analyses, the materials used, published archaeological reports, and archival records. And sometimes, such provenance information has been inscribed on the pieces by the archaeologist.

Cursive German writing scored in to plaster.
Reverse of Object C412. Photographer: Miki Morita

The picture above shows the back of one of the fragmentary murals which I introduced in my last blog post (Penn Museum, C412). The inscription incised directly into the stucco plaster base reads as follows:

III Reise M. Ŏ. M.
Hŏhle I
im Schutt gefunden.

This simple inscription carries much information about this piece’s provenance. First, it is written in German, and we know from colleagues in the German collections that the German expeditions used various abbreviations to denote the provenance. So the first line, ‘III Reise’ (the third tour), indicates that this fragment was obtained during the third of the four German expeditions held between 1902 and 1914. The third expedition (1905–1907) covered sites around the areas of Kucha and Turfan.

The rest of the inscription gives information on where the fragment was discovered. This part of the inscription is usually straightforward, but sometimes confusing due to abbreviations and errors. In the case of this fragment at the Penn Museum, Professor Adam Smith of the University of Pennsylvania, Stephen Lang of the Penn Museum, and I worked together to reconstruct and translate this inscription, also consulting colleagues at IDP Germany.

The first two letters ‘M. Ŏ.’ are most probably an abbreviation for ‘Ming-Öi’, namely ‘thousand houses’. This was a general term often used by the locals for Buddhist cave temples. However, it can be confusing. Aurel Stein, for example, used ‘Ming-Öi’ to refer to the Buddhist cave temples near Shikchin. In the case of some other fragments from the Kizil caves, these characters are followed by ‘Q’, indicating the transcription used by the Germans for Kizil, namely ‘Qyzil’. Accordingly, the third ‘M’ should indicate a cave temple site visited in the third German expedition. In fact ‘M’ is most commonly used by the German expeditions to refer to ‘Murtuk’ (or Murtuq as transcribed by the Germans), and this is also reinforced by the style of the bodhisattva.

Although there are cave temples known as Murtuk, another cave temple site nearby was also included under this designation, namely that of Bezeklik. It was visited during the third German expedition, and ‘Höhle I’ (Cave 1) of the German numbering of the caves corresponds to Cave 9 in the current numbering. In Altbuddhistische Kultstätten in Chinesisch-Turkistan by Albert Grünwedel, the archaeological report for the third German expedition, we are able to find a record of the rear wall of ‘Höhle I’, which is filled with rows of praying bodhisattvas (Grünwedel 1912: 231).

Black and white photograph of several haloed bodhisattvas in a row
Wall painting of adoring bodhisattvas from “Höhle I” (Asian Art Museum, National Museums in Berlin, MIK IB 8492 [lost during the Second World War]; retrieved from the IDP database [Le Coq 1926: 23, pl. 23; Dreyer, Sander, and Weis 2002: 152])

Fortunately, parts of these bodhisattva paintings on the back wall and also on the sides of niches of the corridor remain in-situ in Cave 9 (Höhle I), and they show great similarities to the bodhisattva on the Penn Museum’s piece. Therefore, we concluded that the reconstruction and translation of the inscription should be ‘3rd expedition, Ming-Öi, Murtuk; Cave 1; Found in the rubble’, and this piece most probably originates from Cave 9 (Höhle I) of the Bezeklik caves.

It is confirmed that several museums in North America hold fragments of similar bodhisattva heads. Although I have not seen their inscriptions, the stylistic features and archival information of some of the pieces suggest that they most likely belong to the same Bezeklik cave. While each piece consists of a small bodhisattva’s head, together they would complete the beautiful wall of adorning bodhisattvas.

The question now arises of how pieces from the German state-sponsored expeditions, most of which are now in museum and libraries in Germany (and Russia), found their way to North America. I will explore this in a future blog post.


Dreyer, Caren, Lore Sander, and Friederike Weis. 2002. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Dokumentation der Verluste, vol. 5. Berlin: Staatliche Museen, Preußischer Kulturbesitz.

Gabsch, Toralf. (ed.). 2012. Auf Grünwedels Spuren: Restaurierung und Forschung an zentralasiatischen Wandmalereien. Leipzig: Koehler & Amelang.

Grünwedel, Albert. 1912. Altbuddhistische Kultstätten in Chinesisch-Turkistan; Bericht über archäologische Arbeiten von 1906 bis 1907 bei Kuča, Qarašahr und in der oase Turfan. Berlin: G. Reimer.

Härtel, Herbert, and Marianne Yaldiz. 1982. Along the Ancient Silk Routes: Central Asian Art from the West Berlin State Museums: an exhibition lent by the Museum für Indische Kunst, Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, Federal Republic of Germany. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Le Coq, Albert von. 1926. Die buddhistische Spätantike in Mittelasien, vol. V Neue Bildwerke. Berlin:Reimer u. Vohsen.

The Kucha Academy and the Asian Art Museum, National Museums in Berlin, are currently also engaged in an an international project to locate the mural fragments from the Kucha region. Their aims include the reconstruction of the murals in selected caves, in which these inscriptions found on the back offer important clues. Thanks to colleagues in Berlin for their help with this work.


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