The Trojan Horse in Pakistan and Questions of Provenance

In the process of preparing to teach a course on ancient trade networks, I encountered a very informative chapter by Rachel Mairs in The Routledge Handbook of Archaeology and Globalization (2017), which introduced me to a fascinating artifact of which I was wholly unaware. It is a schist relief in the British Museum from the region that is now Pakistan. It depicts the Trojan Horse episode. According to the British Museum website, the sculpture likely dates to the second or third century CE. The vivid relief shows the wheeled horse being pushed toward the city, Laocoön stabbing the horse, and Cassandra trying to block the city gates:

Relief showing the Trojan Horse episode, from Gandhara(?), British Museum, 1990 1013 1; image source: British Museum

Mairs puts the relief to excellent use in demonstrating that it was not only people and goods that travelled the ancient trade routes but also stories and ideas.

It is indeed a fascinating object. But there is a problem. Mairs states that the relief “was found at the site of a Buddhist monastery (Allan 1946).” Yet, I can find no evidence for this claim. The publication cited by Mairs makes no mention of a monastery, and indeed no mention of a precise provenance, only the observation that the relief was “believed to have come from one of the numerous mounds in the Mardan subdivision of the Peshawar district.”

This description is in fact a direct quotation from the earliest report of the relief that was published in 1926: John Marshall (ed.), Annual Report of the Archaeological Survey of India, 1923-1924. At pp. 125-126, ” Mr. H. Hargreaves” published a short piece entitled “Two Unidentified Reliefs from Gandhara.” Hargreaves described the panel as “now in possession of F.V. Wylie, Esquire, I.C.S., Mardan” and stated that “the provenance of the sculpture is uncertain, but in all probability the relief came from one of the numerous mounds in the Mardan sub-dvision of the Peshawar district.”

If we turn to the data provided by the British Museum online catalog, we find some (genuinely impressive) educated guessing about the provenance:

“In a printed version of an address to the Tibet Society of 1976, Sir Olaf Caroe, who knew Sir Francis Wylie, states that it came from the Swabi Tahsil, near Hund, a part of that subdivision. Wheeler’s suggestion (1968: 137), on the other hand, that the piece came from Charsada, not in the Mardan subdivision, is supported by Sir Francis Wylie’s having been Assistant Commissioner at Charsada from May 1919 to May 1921. While it is less likely that he acquired the piece during an interval as Political Agent in Tochi, the possibility increases again with his appointment, from September 1923, as Settlement Officer at Peshawar, when it may have come into his possession from one or other source between late 1923 and the first publication.”

The suggested find spots (Mardan, Hund, Charsada, and Peshawar) cover an area of well over 1000 km2, so it would seem we have a general sense of where this piece was found but no specifics.

But there is a bit more to say. In a 2016 article, Peter Stewart unearthed an endnote in Olaf Caroe’s long account of The Pathans (p. 444, note 11). Stewart reports:

“In his acclaimed study of The Pathans, Caroe writes, in reference to the Roman influence on Gandhäran art: ‘These treasures are not confined to representations of the Buddha or his life. They include Western mythology, e.g. a Trojan Horse relief discovered on a well near Hund in 1923.'”

Stewart accepts this account and draws out the implications:

“Traditional wells of the region do not have elaborate superstructures as in the European tradition. They were principally ‘Persian wells’ designed for animals to draw up water for irrigation, although ‘rope and bucket’ wells also existed. Nevertheless, it is very easy to imagine sculptures being built into them as decoration, whether in the structure of the well itself or in the surrounding stone-work, such as walls supporting a water-wheel. The setting is significant because it implies some kind of interest in Gandhäran sculptures as decorative spolia among the rural population in the 1920s, or at any rate in post-antique times, before their commercial value turned them into lucrative collectables.”

This seems reasonable, but it is worth dwelling a moment on Stewart’s grounds for accepting Caroe’s provenance story. Stewart lists six “strong reasons” for preferring this account (he elaborates and supports each of these assertions, but I quote only the salient point):

  1. “It is the most precise and most confident account that exists.”
  2. “Caroe repeated the claim, in general terms but with equal confidence, in his 1976 lecture to the Tibet Society.”
  3. “Caroe seems to have been intimately familiar with the area around Hund.”
  4. “The ‘Trojan Horse’ relief was present in the room when Caroe delivered his lecture to the Tibet Society. … This fact emphasizes Caroe’s familiarity with the sculpture and with the Wylie family.”
  5. “The date which Caroe gives for the discovery, 1923, fits perfectly with Sir Francis Wylie’s career. Hund was at that time part of the Mardän District. Wylie served only briefly as Assistant Commissioner at Mardän, from 21st April to 12th July 1923.”
  6. “Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Sir Olaf Caroe’s unpublished autobiography reveals that he not only worked with Sir Francis Wylie, but was an intimate, life-long friend.”

Of these six reasons, only number 5–the date fits nicely with Wylie’s career–seems relevant. Confidence, precision, repetition, and friendship with the alleged finder and his family remind me too much of the recent debacle with the Kando family and the fake Dead Sea Scrolls.

Caroe’s story is plausible, but it is far from certain. What is certain is that when it comes to the “Trojan Horse” relief, we just don’t know for sure the exact context in which the piece was found or in which it was displayed in antiquity. And in that respect it resembles all too many other schist reliefs from the region.

Bibliography

Allan, John. “A Tabula Iliaca from Gandhara.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 66 (1946), 21-23.

Caroe, Olaf. The Pathans: 550 B.C. – A.D. 1957. London: MacMillan, 1958.

Hargreaves, H. “Two Unidentified Reliefs from Gandhara.” Annual Report of the Archaeological Survey of India, 1923-1924 (1926), 125-126.

Mairs, Rachel. “Lapis lazuli, Homer, and the Buddha: Material and ideological exchange in West Africa (c.250 BCE – 200 CE). Pages 885-898 in  T. Hodos (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Archaeology and Globalization. London: Routledge, 2017.

Stewart, Peter. “The Provenance of the Gandhāran ‘Trojan Horse’ Relief in the British Museum.” Arts Asiatiques 71 (2016), 3-12.

This entry was posted in British Museum, Find Stories, Sculpture. Bookmark the permalink.

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