If cookies go a few weeks without getting eaten, they turn weirdly soft or dissolve into fine dust. If cookies go 1,300 years without getting eaten, they get carefully preserved in a case at the British Museum.
In the winter of 1915, the British-Hungarian archeologist Marc Aurel Stein opened a tomb in Xinjiang. Known as the Astana cemetery, these gravesites were where residents of the nearby oasis city of Gaochang buried their dead, roughly between the 3rd and 9th centuries. As the membrane between Central Asia and China, and the path to the Middle East, Xinjiang has been fought over for centuries (a fight that continues today, as China uses an iron fist to control it as an autonomous province). Gaochang, meanwhile, lies in ruins. But the Astana cemetery, with more than a thousand tombs preserved in the dry heat of the Turpan Basin, tells the story of the once-prosperous ancient city.
The Astana cemetery shows how Gaochang was once a prominent stop on the Silk Road, especially for Sogdians, a people from Eastern Iran who often traveled across Eurasia as merchants. Opening the tombs, Stein found heaps of evidence pointing to Gaochang’s role as a place of “trade exchange between West Asia and China.” Though the vast majority of the dead at Astana were Han Chinese, Stein saw corpses with Byzantine coins in their mouths and Persian textiles included as grave goods.
But inside one tomb, Stein found neither of these things. Grave robbers had emptied it of everything, “except [for] a large number of remarkably preserved fancy pastry scattered over the platform meant to accommodate the coffin with the dead,” he recalled later. Stein was taken aback by the beauty of the cookies and their wide variety of shapes—flat wafers with elaborate designs, delicate, lace-like cookies, and “flower-shaped tartlets … with neatly made petal borders, some retaining traces of jam or some similar substance placed in the [center].” In the arid earth of the cemetery, the sweets managed to survive to modern day.
Today, the pastries are owned by the British Museum, as part of what Stein described as his “haul” of artifacts sent back to the United Kingdom. During his expeditions, Stein also helped himself to priceless cultural objects, such as the first-known printed book. Stein’s plundering of the Diamond Sutra caused vociferous protests in China. In 1961, the National Library of China released a statement saying that Stein’s book theft was enough to cause “people to gnash their teeth in bitter hatred.” The cookies, in comparison, are regarded more as curiosities. A 1925 article in The Times of Mumbai, describing an exhibition of Aurel Stein’s finds in New Delhi, noted how “the most remarkable of all the objects are the actual pastries deposited with the dead as food objects,” with the author writing that they closely resembled “the ‘fancies’ of a modern confectioner’s shop window.”
London Review of Books, At the British Museum:
Herodotus tells us that when Dariusâ€™ Persian army invaded Scythia, in the late sixth century bce, the Scythians ran away. The Persians followed them over the steppeland north of the Black Sea until, tiring of the pursuit, Darius sent a messenger to the Scythian king to tell him to make a stand or bend the knee. The Scythian king, Idanthyrsus, informed the messenger that as they had no cities or crops they had nothing to defend and could therefore afford to exhaust the Persians by making them traipse across the land. They would fight only if the Persians tried to loot their graves: â€˜Attack those graves and you will soon discover whether we are fighters or not!â€™ Eventually, his army sickening and hungry, Darius gave up and returned to Persia.
Nomadic civilisations pose many of the same difficulties to archaeologists as they do to invading armies. They are difficult to pin down. For one thing the Scythians werenâ€™t so much a people as some peoples. The term â€˜Scythiansâ€™ is a collective name for a number of migratory tribes who spoke early Iranian dialects and enjoyed a similar lifestyle, culture, economy and set of beliefs. Between 800 bce and 300 bce, roughly speaking, these tribes roamed a vast expanse of land stretching from Central Asia in the east to the Hungarian plain in the west (an area that would include parts of south-west Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan today). They were wealthy, allegedly because they controlled the slave trade between Northern Europe and Greece. But being illiterate they left no manuscripts, and being nomadic no ruins. There are accounts of them written by non-Scythians, Herodotus most prominently, but a lot of what we know about them we know because the graves they were so keen to defend have been ransacked and their contents â€“ in many cases well preserved by permafrost â€“ brought to light.
These graves, or kurgans (their Slavic name), provided rich pickings for grave-robbers until looting them was made illegal by Peter the Great in the early 18th century. It was Peter the Great who commissioned the first archaeological excavations of Scythian tombs and his Siberian Collection, on which much of our knowledge of Scythian material culture depends, contains around 240 gold artefacts. One of the most famous pieces of Scythian art and the first exhibit in the British Museumâ€™s current show (until 14 January 2018) is a fourth-century gold belt buckle from Peterâ€™s collection, 16 cms wide and 12 cms tall, which depicts two men in low relief sitting with a dead comrade beneath a tree. The man on the right holds the reins of two horses while the man on the left cradles the head of his dead friend, who lies on the ground in a suit of armour looking a lot like the sculpture of a dead knight one might find on a medieval tomb. A quiver of arrows hangs from the tree. The leaves, horsesâ€™ heads and quiver all droop downwards giving the impression that the whole scene is sinking into the earth, drawn by the gravity of death.
Carving of a head inv. 30001, Mammoth ivory/bone, c.26,000 years old, Provenance: Archaeological excavation 1936 DolnÃ VÄ›stonice.
Lent by: Moravian Museum, Anthropos Institute, Brno, Czech Republic
The above head of a woman, carved in Mammoth ivory, and found in Moravia in 1936 (or 1937) is thought to be 26,000 years old and represents the oldest portrait of a human being ever found.
It is one of a large number of items being featured at the British Museum’s current exhibition titled (Gawd help us!):”Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind,” running 7 February â€“ 26 May 2013.
This handy on-line catalogue, was published as a kind of legal formality, listing loan items immunized by the British Tribunals, Courts, and Enforcement Act of 2007 from seizure resulting from opportunistic contemporary litigation.