MASSON, Charles


MASSON, Charles (alias of James Lewis: 1800-53), traveler, pioneering archaeologist and numismatist, who in 1832-38 produced the first comprehensive archaeological records of eastern Afghanistan from surveys of excavations of Buddhist sites, and a collection of coins and other finds primarily from the urban site of Begram and the Kabul bazaar.

James Lewis, alias Charles Masson, was the eldest son of George and Mary Lewis (born Hopcraft) born 16 February 1800 at 58 Aldermanbury, within the City of London. His father was a member of the Needle Makers Company and is listed in the Post Office address book for the City (1806-14) as “George Lewis & Co., Oil, Colour [i.e. pigments for artists and dyers], Hop and Seedsman,” with premises in the vicinity of Cannon Street. His mother’s family were farmers in Croughton, Northamptonshire, who subsequently became brewers (Whitteridge, 1986, pp. 1-2). Little is known of his early life. He went to school in Walthamstow and evidently received a good education, for he knew Latin and Greek and was fluent in French.

He worked as a clerk at Durant & Co. (silk and insurance brokers) in London before a quarrel with his father spurred him into enlisting as an infantryman in the army of the British East India Company on 5 October 1821 (Meyer and Brysac, 2001, p. 73). He sailed for Bengal on 17 January 1822 and served in the Third Troop of the First Brigade, Bengal European Artillery, from 6 July that year. During his service he was employed by Major-General Hardwicke, the Commandant, in arranging and depicting zoological specimens for publication (Gray, 1832-34), and he fought at the siege of Bharatpur in January 1826.

On 4 July 1827, while with the regiment at Agra, he deserted. Assuming the name of Charles Masson, he traveled on foot with a fellow deserter, Richard Potter (alias John Brown), north-westwards beyond British jurisdiction, across the Bikaner desert of Rajasthan to the Indus River, turning north-east to follow its course upriver into independent Sikh territory. Masson continued alone to Peshawar and on through the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. His account of his travels (1842) traces his route over three years, from Kabul to Qandahar and then back to the Indus, to Lahore, and down river again to Karachi, whence he sailed to Bushire (Bušehr) on the Persian Gulf.

At Bushire, he convinced British East India Company officials that he was an American from Kentucky who had spent ten years traveling from the United States through Europe and Russia to Afghanistan and Iran (Whitteridge, 1986, pp. 44-47). He was befriended by the officers, especially David Wilson, the British Resident at Bushire, who persuaded Masson to write a detailed account of the countries he had traversed for the Bombay Government of the East India Company (Bombay Dispatches, 1834, p. 790). He clearly made such a good impression that John Campbell (1799-1870), the British Envoy to Persia, provided funds for him to begin antiquarian research in Afghanistan. In all, Masson spent ten months in Iran, accompanying various British officers to Tabriz and Baghdad, then down the Tigris River to Basra and Bushire, where he took a boat via Muscat back to Karachi. Landing to the north of the city at Sonmiani Bay, he went to Kalat (Kalāt) and Sind before returning to the coast, where he joined a caravan to Qandahar and Ghazni, arriving in Kabul in June 1832.

In December 1832, Karāmat ʿAli, “news-writer” (intelligence agent) for the British in Kabul, alerted Claude Wade (1794-1861), the Political Agent at Ludhiana, to the presence of an “Englishman by name Masson,” who “understood Persian, had with him two or three books in a foreign character, a compass, a map and an astrolabe. He was shabbily dressed and he had no servant, horse nor mule to carry his baggage” (Whitteridge, 1986, p. 61). The same year an anonymous source described Masson as having “grey eyes, red beard, with the hair of his head close cut. He had no stockings or shoes, a green cap on his head, and a faqir or dervish drinking cup slung over his shoulder” (Grey, 1929, p. 188). These seem to be the only descriptions of his physical appearance. There is no known portrait.

Masson began his exploration of the archaeological remains in Afghanistan with a survey of the Buddhist caves at Bamiyan (Bāmiyān) in 1832. The resulting illustrated account of the site survives in the British Library (Masson Manuscripts, MSS Eur. G 42). In 1833, he submitted a proposal to the East India Company authorities in Bombay for funding to explore the ancient sites further. In forwarding his request, Henry Pottinger (1789-1856), British Resident at Kutch, reported that Masson was said to be “well versed in the language of the East, and of mild and conciliatory manner, so that I should think his success in the project he has in view would be certain, were he furnished with the pecuniary means of carrying on his operations” (Pottinger, 1833). The Bombay Government duly provided annual funding for archaeological research until 1838, in return for all the finds, which were sent principally to the Company’s India Museum in London.

By 1834, Wade had gathered enough evidence to reveal Masson’s true identity as the English deserter James Lewis (Whitteridge, 1986, pp. 101-02). Masson however escaped the death penalty because his observational abilities had already been recognized, not just in his archaeological work, but also with regard to the political, geographical and other useful information he had already provided and could continue to supply on Afghanistan. In return for a royal pardon in 1835, he was forced to become a news-writer for the Company in Kabul. During 1837, a dispute over Peshawar between the Sikhs and Dost Muhammad of Kabul (r. 1826-39, 1843-63), complicated by the conflicting aspirations of the British, began the escalation of events leading to the first Anglo-Afghan war of 1838-42 (see ANGLO-AFGHAN WARS). Masson’s informed opinion on the actual political situation in Afghanistan was ignored and he was recalled to Peshawar in early 1838. After some months, when no new appointment was forthcoming, he resigned from government service (Whitteridge, 1986, pp. 136-37).

In October 1838, before leaving the Peshawar region, Masson spent five days at Shahbazgarhi (Šahbāzgarhi) producing the first complete and accurate facsimile of the extensive rock-cut inscription at the site. This was done not just by making written copies, but also by taking ink impressions of the inscription on 50 yards of calico cloth (Masson, 1846). Masson spent the rest of 1838 and 1839 in Sind and Karachi, writing an account of his archaeological explorations (Wilson, 1841) and one of his travels (Masson, 1842). At the beginning of 1840, he was caught in a siege at Kalat, which resulted in his imprisonment with the local British Political Agent, Lieutenant Loveday. When he was sent to convey the rebels’ demands to the British Political Agent at Quetta, he was immediately imprisoned as a traitor and spy. Loveday was killed by the rebels; an embittered Masson was finally released in January 1841. He proceeded to Bombay, where he surveyed the cave temples on the islands of Salsette and Elephanta (British Library MSS Eur. G 43), before sailing for England. He reached London in 1842 (Whitteridge, 1986, pp. 151-57).

Masson received a small pension from the East India Company but was never compensated for his wrongful arrest. He spent his time writing and working on his archaeological records and coin collection. On 19 February 1844 he married Mary Anne Kilby, an 18-year-old farmer’s daughter from Watford. They had two children: a son, Charles Lewis Robert Masson, born 13 October 1850, and a daughter, Isabella Adelaide Masson, born 4 March 1853. Masson died in Edmonton, north London, on 5 November the same year, from an “uncertain disease of the brain,” and was buried at the local All Saints Church on 9 November. No tombstone survives.

Masson was proved right in his criticism of the East India Company’s policies that led to the disastrous first Anglo-Afghan war. He was also not tactful in voicing his condemnation, and many of his contemporaries who had been in favor of the policies reacted by dismissing him as a deserter, adventurer, spy and writer of bad verse. As a result and partly because of the paucity of published accounts (Masson, 1834, 1836, 1842 passim; Wilson, 1841), the extent of his archaeological contribution has not been appreciated. However, he left detailed records and illustrations of his discoveries (Masson Manuscripts and Papers). These, together with his collection of coins, Buddhist relic deposits and other finds, are a rich source of information on the ancient sites of Afghanistan, many of which no longer survive.

Between 1833 and 1835, Masson surveyed or excavated more than 50 Buddhist monuments near Kabul, further to the west at Wardak and, above all, at Hadda (Haḍḍa) and in the Darunta district, to the south and west of Jalālābād (Jalālābād) (Wilson, 1841, pp. 51-118). His finds provide numismatic evidence for the spread of Buddhism into eastern Afghanistan in the 1st century CE. The largest number of new Buddhist cult monuments (stupas), or enlargements of earlier structures, date from the late 1st or early 2nd century. The earliest stupas are found in the Darunta district. The monasteries on the Jalabad plain and in the neighborhood of Kabul and Wardak generally appear to be later, with the largest number dating from ca. 150-90 CE, while the principal stupaat Hadda was erected only at the end of the 5th century (Errington, 1999/2000, pp. 196, 199, 214-15). Not all stupasshowed evidence of enlargement, nor did all contain relics. Where found, the relic deposits were variously placed in specially constructed cells in the center of the original core stupa, or in the body of the later enlargement, or both. Some were simply buried in the solid mass of the mound. Masson’s finds also illustrate the varied nature of the deposits, for they include animal teeth, red lead, and human skeletons, as well as the usual reliquaries, ashes, bone fragments, coins, gems, and gold, silver or semi-precious stone ornaments and beads. Two reliquaries are especially important for chronological purposes. First, the gold casket from Bimaran stupa 2 (found with coins of ca. 60 CE) contains the earliest datable images of the Buddha in Afghanistan. Second, the bronze Wardak vase has an inscription that provides evidence for the chronology of the Kushan dynasty and the expansion of Buddhism, for it records the foundation of a stupaby the Mahasanghika (Mahāsāṃghika) sect from Mathura in India, during the reign of the Kushan king Huvishka (Huviṣka) in year 51 (of the era founded by Kanishka I [Kaniṣka]), i.e. ca. 178 CE.

In July 1833, Masson discovered the remains of an immense ancient city on the plain of Begram, to the north of Kabul. Modern opinion confirms his identification of the site as Alexandria ad Caucasum (see ALEXANDRIA), one of the cities founded by Alexander the Great (Bernard, 1982). After 1835, when his political appointment curtailed his freedom of movement, he employed local people to collect all surface finds from the site. These included rings, intaglios, a large quantity of miscellaneous bronze objects (such as seals, arrowheads, ornaments, and pins) and an estimated 68,877 (mostly bronze) coins, ranging in date from ca. 4th century BCE to the 13th century CE. As only a very small area of the site was ever excavated and it now lies buried beneath the military air base of Baghram, Masson’s collection provides unique and comprehensive numismatic evidence for reconstructing the general history of the region, as reflected by a single important city site. In addition, he purchased intaglios, miscellaneous objects of interest, and ca. 10,000 gold, silver, and bronze coins, primarily in the Kabul bazaar, which range in date from the 3rd century BCE to the early 19th century CE. In a period when numismatic interest in these regions concentrated on gold and silver coins, he recognized the supreme importance of bronze coins for the purpose of historical research. In realizing that they tend to remain restricted to their place of issue (unlike gold and silver) and therefore are more representative of local conditions, he was far ahead of his time.

From studying his collection of bilingual coins issued by Greek and later dynasties (ca. 200 BCE-127 CE), Masson realized as early as 1834 that the Greek legends on the obverse of the coins were directly translated into the then unknown script on the reverse (Prinsep, 1835, p. 329). This provided the first key to unlocking the script now known as Kharoshthi (Kharoṣṭhī). On his return to London in 1844, Masson presented his copies and ink impressions of the Kharoshthi rock inscription from Shahbazgarhi to the Royal Asiatic Society (Masson, 1846). As a result of his painstaking work, it was possible to produce a “nearly perfect” transcription of the text (Norris, 1846, pp. 303-14; Wilson, 1850). By 1845, it was realized that the inscription was another edict of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka (Aśoka) (ca. 273-32 BCE), with the same text as his already deciphered Brahmi (Brahmī) edicts found elsewhere in India, and this fact provided the final key to deciphering Kharoshthi.

An assessment of the topographic, ethnographic and related information gathered by Masson is best summed up by Holdich, who remarks on the “surprising accuracy” of the descriptions, despite the fact much must have been written from memory. He added that “the most amazing feature of Masson’s tales of travel is that in all essential features we knew little more about the country of the Afghans after the second [British] war with Afghanistan [1878-79] than he could have told us before the first” (Holdrich, 1910, pp. 361-62; Whitteridge, 1986, p. 41).

After the death of Masson’s wife from pneumonia in 1855, the East India Company paid the guardian of their children 100 pounds for his papers and coins. When the India Museum closed in 1878, most of the Masson collection of Buddhist relic deposits and miscellaneous small finds from Begram and the Kabul bazaar, together with a small proportion of the coins, were transferred to the British Museum. Other coins were donated to the Royal Asiatic Society, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (Desmond, 1982, pp. 38-39); a few items are in the Victoria and Albert Museum. There are no exact figures, but most of the India Office coin collection seems to have been auctioned by the Government of India in 1887. The residue was deemed “mere rubbish” and remained in storage until 1995, when it was transferred from the British Library on permanent loan to the British Museum: it includes about 6,200 of Masson’s coins, the majority being bronze issues from Begram. Masson’s unpublished manuscripts, drawings and maps remain in the India Office Collections of the British Library (Masson Manuscripts and Papers).



P. Bernard, “Alexandrie du Caucase ou Alexandrie de l’Oxus,” Journal des Savants, 1982, pp. 217-42.

Bombay Dispatches, Bombay Political Department, Political Consultations 1230/183, 16 April 1834, no. 6, pp. 781-90.

R. Desmond, The India Museum 1801-1879, London, 1982.

E. Errington, “The British East India Company Collection,” in P. Callieri, Seals and Sealings from the North-West of the Indian Subcontinent and Afghanistan (4th century BC-11th century AD), Naples, 1997, pp. 18-23.

Idem, “Rediscovering the collections of Charles Masson,” in Coins, Art and Chronology. Essays on the pre-Islamic History of the Indo-Iranian Borderlands, ed. M. Alram and D. E. Klimburg-Salter, Vienna, 1999, pp. 207-37.

Idem, “Numismatic evidence for dating the Buddhist remains of Gandhāra, “Silk Road Art and Archaeology 6, 1999/2000, Papers in Honour of Francine Tissot, pp. 191-216.

Idem, “Ancient Afghanistan through the eyes of Charles Masson: the Masson Project at the British Museum,” International Institute for Asian Studies Newsletter, March 2002, pp. 8-9.

Idem, “Discovering ancient Afghanistan. The Masson Collection,” Minerva 13/6, Nov/Dec 2002, pp. 53-55.

Idem, “Charles Masson and Begram,” Topoi, Oriental Occident 11/1, 2001 [2003], pp. 1-53.

E. Errington and V. Sarkhosh Curtis (eds), From Perspepolis to the Punjab: Nineteenth-century Discoveries, London (forthcoming).

J. E. Gray, Illustrations of Indian Zoology... from the Collection of Major General Hardwicke, 2 vols., London 1832-34.

C. Grey, European Adventurers of Northern India, 1785 to 1849, ed. H. L. O. Garrett, Lahore, 1929.

T. Holdich, The Gates of India, being an Historical Narrative, London, 1910.

C. Masson, “Memoir on the ancient coins found at Beghrām, in the Kohistān of Kābul,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 3, 1834, pp. 153-75.

Idem, “Second memoir on the ancient coins found at Beghrām, in the Kohistān of Kābul,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 5, 1836, pp. 1-28.

Idem, “Third memoir on the ancient coins discovered at a site called Beghrām in the Kohistān of Kābul,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 5, 1836, pp. 537-48.

Idem, “Suggestions on the sites of Sangala and the altars of Alexander, being an extract from notes of a journey from Lahore to Karychee, made in 1830,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 6, 1837, pp. 57-61.

Idem, Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan and the Panjab, 3 vols., London, 1842 (repr. Karachi, 1974).

Idem, Narrative of a Journey to Kalat. Including an Account of the Insurrection at the Place in 1840, and a Memoir on Eastern Balochistan, vol. 4 of Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan and the Panjab, London, 1843.

Idem, “Narrative of an excursion from Peshawar to Shah-Baz Garhi,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 8, 1846, pp. 292-302.

Idem, Legends of the Afghan Countries. In Verse, with Various Pieces, Original and Translated, London, 1848.

Idem, “Route from Seleucia to Apobatana, according to Isidorus of Charax,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society XII, 1850, pp. 97-124.

Masson Manuscripts, British Library India Office Collections MSS Eur. (listed in E. H. Kaye and E. H. Johnston, Catalogue of Manuscripts in European Languages, vol. II, part II, section II; M. Archer, British Drawings in the India Office Library, London 1969, pp. 248-53).

Masson Papers, British Library India Office Collections (uncatalogued Masson manuscripts). K. Meyer and S. Brysac, Tournament of Shadows. The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Asia, London, 2001.

E. Norris, “On the Kapur-di-Giri rock inscription,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 8, 1846, pp. 303-14.

H. Pottinger, Letter no. 456, dated 27 November 1833, to Charles Norris, Chief Secretary to Government, Bombay: British Library India Office Collections, MSS Eur. E 161/I, f. 3(9).

J. Prinsep, “Further notes and drawings of Bactrian and Indo-Scythic coins,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 4, 1835, pp. 327-48.

G. Whitteridge, Charles Masson of Afghanistan. Explorer, Archaeologist, Numismatist and Intelligence Agent, Warminster, 1986.

H. H. Wilson, Ariana Antiqua. A Descriptive Account of the Antiquities and Coins of Afghanistan: with a Memoir on the Buildings called Topes, by C. Masson, Esq., London, 1841 (repr. Delhi, 1971).

Idem, “On the rock inscriptions of Kapur di Giri, Dhauli and Girnar,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 12, 1850, pp. 153-251.


June 16, 2004

(Elizabeth Errington)

Originally Published: July 20, 2004

Last Updated: July 20, 2004