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Digital Art History - A Subject in Transition: Opportunities and Problems

Wlodek Witek
National Library of Norway, Oslo

With Camera to India, Iran and Afghanistan: Access to Multimedia Sources of the Explorer, Professor Dr. Morgenstierne (1892-1975)

Keywords: Georg Morgenstierne, Afghanistan, digitisation, multimedia

Georg Morgenstierne (1892 - 1978) was Professor of Indo-Iranian languages at the University of Oslo, Norway. His bibliography lists 221 published books and articles. The National Library of Norway, Oslo and the Institute of East-European and Oriental Languages at the Univerity of Oslo have joined in to create a multimedia database containing source materials from Morgenstierne's study tours to isolated areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Iran. The archive of some 3500 items contains primarily photographs, though sound recordings, moving images and sketches are also included. Some of this material records the last known traces of an ancient Asian culture before it succumbed to Islam.

Only a handful of the University employees had access to the grey steel cabinet in the seminar room of the Indo-Iranian Library at the Oslo campus. Even fewer knew what the many yellowed envelopes contained. Knut Kristiansen, lecturer in Hindi and Indian literature, kept a watchful eye on his old mentor's papers, the Morgenstierne archive. As he approached retirement in the 1990s his concern for the archive made him act. Something had to be done about the long-term preservation and access to the numerous photographs and other records from South Asia brought to the Institute by the respected linguist, Georg Valentin von Munthe af Morgenstierne (Fig. 1). The Institute of East European and Oriental Languages sought a partnership with Norway's major library, The University of Oslo Library (now The National Library of Norway) in order to find a way of preserving this important collection. A deal was struck that a database for the picture material would be created by a joint effort and the actual collection would become the responsibility of The National Library when the work was finished. During the process the condition of the archive was to be evaluated and necessary measures taken to ensure its physical preservation. It was believed that the Library had the means and expertise to cope with the tasks of both preservation and future access.

Georg Morgenstierne photo

Fig. 1. Georg Morgenstierne at fieldwork in Afghanistan.

Geography and politics

Although Georg Morgenstierne travelled extensively throughout South Asia, from Sri Lanka to Iran, by far the most unique were his visits to the inaccessible areas of The Hindu Kush Mountains. The high, snow covered passes and dangerous roads have helped to keep a large mountain area isolated for centuries. Access to the valleys was controlled from the east by the ruler of Chitral, the Mehtar, while the notorious reputation of the mountain people, the Kafirs, as neighbouring Muslims called the unbelievers, did their best to scare off any intruders from any other side of Kafiristan. Kafiristan, or the Land of the Infidel, lay to the East of Kabul, North of Jalalabad, South of Uzbekistan and West of Chitral (Fig. 2). The area, known for its deposits of lapis lazuli, served as a buffer zone between Afghanistan and colonial India fearing attack from the Russian Empire in the North. Undoubtedly, Kafiristan posed a great threat to the stability of the region and thus, unwillingly, became a territory of the Great Game at the end of the 19th century. Better control of the north border of India became a high priority for the Crown. As to the ruler of Kabul, he wanted to expand his influence as far east as possible and convert 'the wild tribes' who for so many centuries molested the neighbouring Muslims with numerous bloody attacks and looting.

Kafiristan map

Fig. 2. Map of Kafiristan, 1880.

History and conflict

The year 1896 was to become fateful for the Kafir culture. It was then that the Durand Line was drawn to limit India's influence over the unexplored Kafiristan. The Line is still the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, north of the Khyber Pass. Shortly after the Durand Line was drawn the Emir of Kabul, Abdur Rahman, successfully conducted a military campaign, sacking Kafiristan and imposing Islam onto the conquered tribes. Kafiristan was invaded several times and eventually stripped of its cultural identity. Altars were burned, priests murdered, boys kidnapped and conscripted to military school in Kabul. Only several hundred Kati Kafirs (the Red Kafirs of the Bashgal Valley) managed to flee across the border. The Mehtar of Chitralís gave them conditional permission to settle in the neighbouring valleys of Rumbur, Bumboret and Urtsun, which were then inhabited by the Kalasha tribe (the Black Kafirs). Being so deeply uprooted, the Kati refugees willingly converted to Islam and by the mid 1930s all had given up their old beliefs (Fig. 3). Effectively, only the Kalash people who lived on the Chitral side of the border remained unconverted. All what used to be known as Kafiristan on the Afghan side of the border became the Land of Enlightment, Nuristan.

last of the Afghan Kati

Fig. 3. The chief Bagashai and the chanting priest Kareik, the last of the Afghan Kati 'unbelievers' (Red Kafirs) and priests. By 1935, six years after this photograph was taken, both were dead.


Georg Morgenstierne was clearly attracted by the mysterious stories of Rudyard Kipling, such as Kim. Like the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, he was driven to search and discover what was yet unknown. His linguistic background was a good start, but it was his marriage to Agnes Konow that made his dream of becoming a discoverer come true. Agnes was brought up in India. She was a daughter of the Norwegian Indologist Sten Konow (1867-1948) who was instrumental in two monumental publications: The Archaeological Survey of India by John Marshall (1906-07) and The Linguistic Survey of India by George A. Grierson (1903-28). Morgenstierne's letters to his wife give us a valuable insight into what it was like to be on a linguistic mission to the lands where few Europeans ever ventured.1

Nuristan's unknown languages

A brief political thaw in Afghanistan allowed Morgenstierne to obtain a permit and visit the country for the first time in 1924. He started his journey from Peshawar in an automobile with his hired Pathan assistant, Yasin Khan, as well as a Russian and an Italian. In those days the dangerous road from Peshawar, through Jalalabad to Kabul claimed many victims to crime. Even today the road still retains its bad reputation. The middle leg of the trip across the Kunar River continued on the back of an elephant, at times a more reliable means of transport. Once in Kabul, Morgenstierne set to work straight away. Despite a favourable political climate in Afghanistan, the linguist was still prohibited from leaving a closely defined perimeter outside of Kabul. His faithful Yasin spotted the first Kafir-language speakers in the bazaar and persuaded them to speak in their native tongues in front of the linguist. The Nuristani from the Kabul marketplaces were to provide a valuable first insight into the complex patchwork of the unknown languages of Nuristan 2. Morgenstierne was to wait for over 25 years before he could return to Afghanistan and travel to Nuristan proper, which he did for the first time in 1949. His second linguistic expedition, however, started in 1929. Only Chitral was open to his linguistic research and strict orders were given not to cross the Afghanistan border. This trip and years of comparative studies that followed resulted in a proposed map of the distribution of the many surprisingly ancient languages in this area (Fig. 4). 3 Morgenstierne argued that the Nuristani (Kafir) family of languages that includes Kati, Prasun and Ashkun, was possibly formed even before the separation of the Iranian from the Indian language over 3000 years ago. Highly controversial at the time, this claim remains his most important discovery.

Chitral language distribution

Fig. 4 Nuristan (Chitral and Nuristan language distribution map)

Ancient languages and religions

The ancient origin of the Kafir culture is an indication of the age of the indigenous peoples and their northern origin. The Kafir religion resembles the Vedic religion of the Aryan invaders of the Indian continent who destroyed the rural Harappa culture of the Indus Valley around 1500 BC. It is believed that the Kafirs could be descendants of the Aryan invaders who stayed in the Hindu Kush Mountains.

Tough traveller

Throughout his career Morgenstierne did his fieldwork in the East on eight occasions, spanning a period of nearly 50 years of exploration. He climbed high mountain passes, visited feared tribes in the jungle of Assam, rode horses, donkeys and elephants, moved by car, steamer and airplane, but when it really mattered just set off on foot like a typical mountain-loving Norwegian. On one of his last trips to Afghanistan, when he was 76, he was deeply hurt for having been refused on grounds of his advanced age "permission to enter Nuristan".

Records of a disappearing world

Morgenstierne's trip of 1929 was by far his most exceptional. We are today in possession of a surprising wealth of information few researchers know about. Scarcely any other serious traveller before him brought so much diverse documentation, not to mention moving images and audio, of the Kafir culture. Nearly all the material symbols of the Kafir culture were destroyed by the invading Afghan army in 1896. A few trophies, rare wooden sculptures, found their way to Kabul Museum and a total of 18 were recorded there in the 1960s 4. After the Soviet invasion of 1978, the civil war of the 1990s and recent Taliban rule, the museum is a ruin with only a fraction of the mainly Islamic collection surviving. The wooden Kafir art was probably used as firewood.

Ancestral effigies

The expressive wooden figures were meaningful in a social context. They symbolized social status of prominent individuals or represented deities. A mounted horseman seated on a twin-headed animal represented the highest status achievable for a tribe member and was earned either by throwing lavish feasts to at least one village or by becoming a successful assassin. The ancestral figures (gandau) were raised after death and placed in a group on the outer perimeter of the burial ground, where coffins were left unburied (Fig. 5).

Kafir effigies

Fig. 5. Effigies of Kafir ancestors by a burial ground.

The skill of woodcarving lay exclusively in the hands of the bari, the lowest ranking artisan caste of the Kafirs. Smaller effigies (kundik) would be raised in the fields where a symbolic figure of a standing, seated or mounted ancestor could watch over and protect the crops of his descendants from the high position, perched in a simple construction of stone and timber. Although Kafir culture was strongly dominated by men, women also could gain high social rank and be depicted seated or standing after death.

Altars and shrines

The few altars and shrines remaining today can only be found in the Kalash valleys of Birir, Bumboret and Rumbur in Chitral. Neither Muslims nor women can approach the sites for fear of 'polluting' them. Altars in the name of the highest god Imra (or Mara) used to be found by every village where sacrifices were made. The altars to Imra consisted of a stone boulder and a flagstone placed as a tabletop where purifying fires of juniper would burn during frequent sacrificial ceremonies. The stone altars are all gone, even in Chitral. A shrine to another powerful god has been preserved in the oak forest where the god, Sajigor, has his place of worship. Mahandeo-dur (altar to the god Mahandeo) can be also found in secluded sites. These sites display similar layout features. They are simple timber and stone constructions with carved vertical and horizontal patterned wood, crowned with protruding long-necked horse heads. The area in front would normally include a number of raised, richly carved poles, each set up in memory of the generous members of the tribe who sponsored feasts. There would also be a hearth for a sacrificial fire in the middle. During important religious occasions a priest would sacrifice bread, cheese, fruit, butter or animal blood. In earlier times bulls were offered. Today, since other domestic animals are no longer plentiful, only precious goats are offered to the gods.

Household utensils and furniture

Practically any wooden surface was an excuse for carved decoration. These were always produced by the bari caste of craftsmen. The emblems and symbols cut into bowls and doors had to reflect the social status of the owner for whom they were made. Chairs in Kafiristan were not as common as in other parts of the world. In fact, the use of chairs outdoors was strictly restricted to only those who earned that right. Women could also attain such a high status, but indoors no such rule had to be observed. Kafir chairs were made in several styles according to area and/or tribe (see Klimburg). The 'horn-chairs' from the Waigal Valley especially attracted the attention of researchers as soon as they had been discovered by Morgiensterne in the village of Kegal in 1949. The figures of mating couples carved on the back of one of the two chairs are extremely rare (see Jones). Such figures seem to also form the high 'horns' of the furniture (Fig. 6).

Kegal chairs

Fig. 6. The Kegal chairs discovered and photographed in 1949 (detail of a larger photograph).

Striking, horned head-dresses crowning the heads of Kati women were commonplace in the Bashgal Valley up till 1896. There are several descriptions and photographs of them (see Jones). The earliest descriptions are from the late 1800s and the most detailed record with an illustration was provided by George Robertson in his book The Kafirs of Hindu-Kush (see Robertson). These peculiarly shaped woollen caps had four long horns made of human hair. When a four-horned goat was born in the herd, it was considered a good omen, a sign of favour from the gods. This is what the neighbouring Kalash tribe believed. Today, there are two known specimens in public collections, one in the Oslo Ethnographic Museum and the other in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (Fig. 7). A variant of a horned head-dress (with short horns and no human hair) is in the Graziozi Collection at the Anthropological Museum in Florence and another one in the Moesgaard Museum in Aarhus, Denmark.

horned headdress

Fig. 7. Horned head-dress worn only by Kati women in pre-Islamic times. Ethnographic Museum, Oslo.

A database of photographs, moving images and audio recordings

The bulk of Morgenstierne's travel records is in the form of some 3000 photographs. The earliest are contact prints from postcard-size negative film from the 1920s; the latest, from the 1970s, are made on colour slide film and Polaroid direct positive colour paper. On one of his early trips to India and Chitral in 1929, he took a movie camera and audio recording equipment with him. The movie archive consists of over 100 short clips from a total of 20 minutes of silent movie. There are about forty speech recordings of about 30 seconds each.

All the images, even some dubious landscapes and poor quality images are included in the database. It was possible to identify all images, even those with little detail. It was felt that this 'all-inclusive' approach was the only acceptable way to approach a serious researcher's archive of images from little known parts of the world. This way the original material was spared unnecessary handling and be kept in conditions suitable for photographic archives. All images were put in transparent, archival polyester sleeves, chronologically sorted and stored in archival quality boxes in an air-conditioned room at the Norway National Library, Oslo. Access to the database is unrestricted and free of charge.

The Norway National Library Website (

Certain interesting cultural aspects of the collection may seem to be too well hidden in the large number of items represented. Some researchers may also be inexperienced in the use of search tools provided by databases. It was therefore thought useful, if not entirely necessary, to create a few web pages in order to emphasize some records (Fig. 8). Subjects of dance, music and sacrifice were therefore singled out and some recent video, audio and photographs were added. These are accessed from the homepage. The website and all records are written both in Norwegian and English.

Morgenstierne website

The project team

The project team was formed in 1997 as a small group of four specialists, but ended in 2000 with just two. None of the group worked full time. Knut Kristiansen's role needs to be emphasized as he was crucial to the success of content identification. He both knew G. Morgenstierne well, was familiar with some of the Indian languages and had visited Chitral in the recent years. His tragic and unexplained death in 1999 was a hard blow, yet his professional contribution had already been so fruitful that the rest of the project was not jeopardised.

The prototype software, MediaFinder was used for the database input. It was designed by Kolbjørn Aambø for the Oslo University Library in 1990, when it was created for the Nansen picture network-archive (intranet), the library's first picture database that gave access to a sizable collection of photographs.

Elisabeth Eide, Head of the National Library collections, made the Morgenstierne project possible. She was also responsible for proof-reading and the budget.

Technical notes

Scanning the images was spread over time and was carried out in-house by hired personnel. Digitisation of the moving images was carried out externally in 1998 from only one existing film copy, the original nitrate film being lost. All the audio recordings, also copies of wax cylinders, now lost, were copied from 78 rpm copy records to digital audio and converted to QuickTime files. The audio and moving image editing was done by the project team who were familiar with the content of the whole collection. The Library phased out its Apple Mac equipment by 1999 and the core material is now editable through direct access to the Trip database, now available to world wide web users.

November 2001


1. Morgenstierne, G. (1992), På sprogjakt; Hindukush: Dagboksnotater fra Chitral 1929. Oslo: Eva M. Lorentzen.{back to paper}

2. Morgenstierne, G. (1926), Report on a linguistic mission to Afghanistan, Oslo, Instituttet for sammenlignende kulturforskning, Serie C ; 1:2{back to paper}

3. Edelberg, L. (1960), Statues de bois rapportées du Kafiristan a Kabul après la conquête de cette province par l'Èmir Abdul Rahman en 1895/96. Artes Asiatiques, vol VII-4.{back to paper}

4. Edelberg, L. (1960), Statues de bois rapportées du Kafiristan a Kabul après la conquête de cette province par l'Èmir Abdul Rahman en 1895/96. Artes Asiatiques, vol VII-4.{back to paper}

Select bibliography

Edelberg L. & Jones S. (1979), Nuristan. Graz.

Grierson, G. A. (1903-1928), Linguistic survey of India. Calcutta.

Jones, S. (1970), "The Waigal horn chair." Reprinted from Man vol. 5 nr. 2. London.

Jettmar K. (1986), The Religions of the Hindukush. Vol. 1. The religion of the Kafirs. London.

Klimburg, M. (1983), "The Monumental Art of Status among the Kafirs of Hindu-Kush." In: P.Snoy (Ed.), Ethnologie und Geschichte. Festschrift fur Karl Jettmar, Weisbaden.

Klimburg M. (1987), "Notes on the Architecture of Nuristan". Archiv für Völkerkunde, Vol. 41, Wien.

Klimburg M.(1976), "Male-Female Polarity Symbolism in Kafir Art and Religion, New Aspects in the Study of the Kafirs of the Hindu-Kush." East and West, N. S., Vol. 26, Rome.

Lothian, A.C., ed. ( 1955), A Handbook for Travellers in India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon, London: Murray.

Morgenstierne, G. (1932), Report on a Linguistic Mission to North Western India, Oslo.

Morgenstierne, G. (1951), "Some Kati myths and hymns", Acta Orientalia 22.

Morgenstierne, G. (1973), Irano-Dardica, Wiesbaden: Ludwig Reichert Verl.

Robertson, G. S. (1896), The Kafirs of the Hindu-Kush, London.

Schomberg, R.C.F. (1938): Kafirs and Glaciers, London.