Lost chance to re­veal hid­den trea­sure trove

Trea­sures of the Silk Road 7.30pm, SBS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv - Stephen Matchett

HOW very SBS. This French doc­u­men­tary is about the loss and restora­tion of Bud­dhist mo­saics in one of a se­ries of cave tem­ples in the Xin­jiang re­gion of west­ern China, by Ja­panese arche­ol­o­gists. Adding to its SBS- ness is the lazy way the net­work presents it. For a start, the press re­lease for the pro­gram refers to the site as Bezelkik, while the rest of the world prefers to spell it Bezek­lik. And the doc­u­men­tary’s ex­pert talk­ing- head, who pro­vides part of the com­men­tary, does it in French, sans sub­ti­tles.

Even worse, there are enough sub­jects in this show for a fas­ci­nat­ing se­ries, but 50 min­utes per­mits only a once- over- lightly treat­ment.

And there is no ap­par­ent or­der to the way the is­sues are an­a­lysed. Un­less you take notes, or know a bit about the reli­gions, pol­i­tics and trade of cen­tral Asia in mil­len­nia past, it is hard to join the dots.

The Bud­dhist cul­ture that cre­ated the Bezek­lik fres­coes and the way it was re­placed by Is­lam re­mains a mys­tery.

The his­tory of the trade routes that made the re­gion an eco­nomic and re­li­gious melt­ing pot where 17 lan­guages and 24 al­pha­bets were used is men­tioned but not an­a­lysed.

There is what might have made an in­ter­est­ing sep­a­rate story about the search for the lost fres­coes. And the work of the Ja­panese re­stor­ers as they puz­zled out how to re­assem­ble those they found and reimag­ine the ones that are gone for good could have taken an hour on its own; some of which time could have come from the di­gres­sion on the lo­cal wine in­dus­try.

Above all, the doc­u­men­tary could have ex­plained the out­ra­geous way West­ern ( and a Ja­panese) ex­pe­di­tions looted the Bezek­lik site at the turn of the 20th cen­tury. Arche­ol­o­gists surgi- cally re­moved the fresco pan­els from the caves and packed them off to Ber­lin and Bri­tish In­dia. The Ja­panese did not even bother to take their loot home, send­ing one to their gover­norgen­eral in oc­cu­pied Korea.

This lar­ceny is ex­plained, even im­plic­itly ex­on­er­ated, with an ex­pla­na­tion that the fres­coes had been lost un­til a Ger­man ex­pe­di­tion un­cov­ered them in the early 20th cen­tury and that Mus­lim lo­cals would have likely de­stroyed them as graven images if they had been left in place.

Fair enough, but what is largely un­said is the way arche­ol­ogy was a form of great power com­pe­ti­tion in the years be­fore World War I: that there was an art, as well as an arms race.

This is a video equiv­a­lent of an old- fash­ioned Na­tional Ge­o­graphic ar­ti­cle. The images are beau­ti­ful and there is some in­ter­est­ing in­for­ma­tion but there is nei­ther over­all struc­ture, nor sub­stance. Per­haps the man talk­ing in French pulls it all to­gether.

An­cient beau­ties: The Bezek­lik caves in China’s far west

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