Gandharan sculpture fragments: Seated Buddha, 1st century
Schist metamorphic rock
Gifted in 1872
Art Collection: EU1336
This sculpture of a seated Buddha was made in the 1st or 2nd centuries CE and comes from a region located at the foothills of the Himalayas that was then known as Gandhara, which now corresponds to northwest Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. For centuries, Gandhara was an important trade centre on the Silk Road, linking China to South Asia and the Mediterranean, becoming a place where many different cultures fused together influencing one another. We can see this merging of different cultures in many sculptures from the Gandharan region, including this one. It is modelled in the naturalistic style seen in early Greek sculpture but retains classical Indian Buddhist iconography, such as the elongated ears and the cranial mound, disguised by an elegant top knot. Both these features reference the Buddha’s enlightened status. A large halo frames the Buddha, highlighting his exalted status as the founder of the Buddhist faith.
The sculpture, along with others from the Gandharan region, was presented to the University in 1872 by Colonel Henry Campbell Johnstone, an alumnus of the University, who later worked in the area of ancient Gandhara as a revenue surveyor. Taking objects such as these – often without the permission of the people who it had meaning to – was a typical practice of the British military and elite stationed throughout the then Empire.
Today this practice is broadly understood to be ethically unacceptable, and a hangover of colonialism or the dominance of one group of peoples over another. However, as legacy objects remain in the collections they were donated to, complex questions still linger over how to address the issues of provenance, cultural appropriation, and who the ‘rightful’ owner or home should be.
Story by Laura Beattie, Community Outreach Officer and Andy Grout, CRC Honorary Research Fellow