An object a day #28: war zone Buddha head

Fri 15 May 2020 Opinion

Every day for 30 days we will be featuring a museum object that has inspired or intrigued us, in the hope that “an object a day keeps the doctor away.” We love creating exciting, meaningful storytelling through engaging experiences, but still firmly believe that it is hard to beat the thrill of being in the presence of authentic artefacts. Today’s object is: war zone Buddha head.

Moulded and painted clay head of a female bodhisattva

Culture is a war zone. And war zones have their own cultural dimensions. This is the story of a war zone Buddha head.

In 2002, wooden crates at Heathrow airport off a flight from Peshawar in Pakistan were found to contain nine sculptural heads and a torso. These 4th-6th century terracotta Buddha heads (from a time when Buddhism was the main religion in Afghanistan) had probably been hacked off by the Taliban during their modern reign of cultural terror.

The illegal looting and smuggling of artefacts from Afghanistan and Iraq became big business in the last decade or so. After a lengthy legal process, these objects were finally sent to the British Museum in 2018 to be analysed, conserved and catalogued. Since 2009 the British Museum has helped return 2,345 objects to Afghanistan, Iraq and Uzbekistan – mostly the result of illegal trafficking. These artefacts were returned to the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul at the end of 2019.