The ancient fragments were most likely found in jars, hidden deep in caves in an unknown location in the former kingdom of Gandhara, which until 1000 years ago stretched across what is now northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan.
They are thought to have been discovered in the 1990s, when displaced villagers sought refuge in caves during turmoil in the lead-up to the 2001 invasion by the US-led coalition that included Australia.
The ancient fragments were then traded by their finders, trafficked into Europe and bought by a collector, who had been trying to find a buyer for at least 10 years.
Looking a bit like crumbling cigars with barely visible scrawls, they are extremely fragile, vulnerable to light, heat, moisture and handling.
Despite their fragility scholars say they survived the ravages of time as they were stored in airtight earthenware in the dry desert climate.
Some archaeologists are deeply alarmed that the scrolls have found their way here.
Even Sydney University, after allowing its crowdfunding page to be used to raise the tax- deductible donations, has admonished Allon.
In a statement the University says he “made an error of judgment”.
One Buddhist leader says while he is curious to know what the writing on the scrolls might reveal, they should not have been disturbed.
A girl in Bamiyan, Afghanistan passes the void where a giant 6th-century statue of Buddha stood before its destruction by the Taliban. Countless items of the region’s heritage have been destroyed or smuggled out during decades of conflict.Credit:AP
Oxford University archaeologist Neil Brodie, an expert on black market antiquity trafficking, says the ancient Gandharan Buddhist relics are stolen property.
“The presumption can only be the manuscripts were stolen or looted and trafficked in contravention of international law for the benefit of criminal networks,” he says.
“It is scandalous to see the Australian public being asked to support such research. No account of legitimate trade and ownership is provided.”
University of NSW associate professor of law Lucas Lixinski says the manuscripts should not be in Australia because, at the very least, they were brought in without clearing customs.
“The person who brought them in will have broken the law twice - in not procuring an export certificate from the country they took them out of and also not clearing those manuscripts through customs in Australia,” he says.
It is scandalous to see the Australian public being asked to support such research.Oxford University archaeologist Neil Brodie
Allon, a senior lecturer in South Asian Buddhist Studies at Sydney University, revealed in a May 2019 interview on ABC RN’s Soul Search program that the Gandharan scrolls were among the oldest Indian manuscripts “we have”.
Billed by the program as the “find of the century”, the manuscripts pre-date all other known Buddhist texts by many centuries.
”They throw a lot of light on the history of Buddhism ... taking us very close to the Buddha,” Allon told the program’s host, fellow Sydney University academic Meredith Lake.
Around the time Allon went public about the manuscripts, he launched the crowdfunding appeal.
Allon encouraged donors with the assurance that “the manuscripts were recently donated to a major public institution and they will make an announcement about them in due course”.
Before and after: The shell of the destroyed Buddha statue in Bamiyan. On the left is the statue in 1977.Credit:AP
He did not reveal on the campaign page how he came into possession of the relics or where precisely they came from.
Nevertheless the money poured in from Western academics, donors pledging funds in Chinese and others leaving a Buddhist prayer when stipulating their donation. The total reached $26,000 in just a few months.
In September 2019 this journalist was contacted by a disgruntled international academic who had written a letter of complaint to the university but had not received a response.
The scholar, who asked to remain anonymous, was troubled by the legality and ethics of studying relics without a transparent provenance.
A comparison point might be if medical researchers worked on cadavers sourced from the dark web. Even if their research led to change-making discoveries, their behaviour would nonetheless have fed a market for illicit cadavers and University ethics committees forbid this sort of behaviour for the obvious reason it could lead to opportunistic murder.
The scholar observed Allon had claimed on the crowdfunding page that the manuscripts were discovered after 1990.
In the letter the scholar said: “The study of unprovenanced artefacts is linked to an increase in their market value, perpetuates illicit excavation and the attendant destruction of archaeological context and cultural heritage, as well as supporting international criminal networks.
“If they’re from Pakistan, there is no way they could have been legally exported,” they added.
Pakistani heritage laws forbid the removal of significant objects. However if they are from Afghanistan the law is not as clear and if they were smuggled out during the era of Taliban rule (from 1996 to 2001), then a case might be made that the usual legal frameworks did not apply.
In any event, an import certificate is required to bring items like these into Australia, where buying antiquities on the black market is forbidden.
In 1970 UNESCO enacted its Means of Prohibiting the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property treaty designed to quash the international trade in movable antiquities.
Since then signatory nations - including Australia, Afghanistan and Pakistan - have enacted and reinforced local laws to prevent import and export.
Antiquities trafficking exists alongside black markets for people, wildlife, weapons, drugs and the aforementioned trade in human remains.
One way the Taliban, and later al-Qaeda, funded their activities was by mobilising people to scour heritage sites for potential bounty.
Sydney University has admonished Dr Marl Allon, saying he “made an error of judgment”.Credit:Dominic Lorimer
The market only exists if Western collectors acquire the antiquities.
More egregious than simply collecting the pieces as exotic curios is the act of studying them because such research legitimises items, making the studied item more valuable but also establishing a market for other, similar items.
Those seeking to stamp out the market for conflict antiquities tend not to blame excavators, who are making a living where they can, even though their actions desecrate sites of immense historical significance.
In the case of the Gandharan scrolls, the fragments have survived but forever lost is the precise location site, other objects which might have been found with them and other peculiarities of their home for the past 2000 years.
Scholars can learn as much from context as they can from isolated items.
“There should be a paper trail back to their original removal from the country of origin”Macquarie University’s Professor Malcolm Choat
The head of Macquarie University’s History and Archaeology Department, Professor Malcolm Choat, says academics who study early manuscripts must operate strictly within the UNESCO framework for moveable cultural heritage.
“Particularly throughout conflict zones but also in many other places throughout the world, there’s widespread looting of archaeological sites,” he says.
“There should be a paper trail back to their original removal from the country of origin.
“It’s incumbent upon those of us that work with this sort of material to give as much information as possible about the circumstances in which they arrived in Australia.”
So how did Allon bring the manuscripts to Sydney?
Dr Mark Allon allegedly told his colleagues he simply “smuggled” the scrolls into Sydney in his luggage.Credit:Louie Douvis
The scholar who triggered this inquiry with their letter to the University says Allon told a room full of colleagues he simply “smuggled” them into Sydney in his luggage.
Allon declined to verify this story but did confirm the scrolls were in Sydney.
“If I hadn’t acted, they would have been destroyed,” Allon says.
“I should have got certification to bring them into Australia and conserve them [but] that was, under the circumstances, extremely difficult.
“If you want to expose me for having brought them into the country that’s probably a problem. Technically you shouldn’t, they should be documented.
“How could I get a certification from an owner who had bought them off the antiquities [black] market?
“The only other alternative would be not to have got involved at all and to have left them and never seen them again. They just would have disintegrated. We’d never have knowledge of these extremely important manuscripts.”
Allon says he first saw the manuscripts about 10 years ago before in recent years contacting the seller and managing to convince that person, an agent who he will not name, to give them to him.
“I saw them twice and during that time they deteriorated so the outer layers started to fall off and turned to dust, text and manuscript has been destroyed,” he says.
“This particular person could appreciate the value of what I was proposing, I had no idea of where they got them from and how much they paid for them.”
However Allon’s statement on the crowdfunding page that the scrolls have been donated to an institution is not true.
He said in September 2019 that “the agreement hasn’t been signed”.
“We’re at a delicate stage of signing agreements but once that’s signed then it’s owned by the public institution in Pakistan,” he said.
“If I had purchased them that would be a problem because then I am part of that trade. That would be totally unacceptable for me as a scholar.
“I’m transitioning them through back to Pakistan. So when we go back to Pakistan, we will go to the Pakistan Consulate and work through the Australian Government, to get permission to take those back.”
In September 2019, after being questioned by this reporter, the University of Sydney suspended the crowdfunding campaign and sent an apologetic letter to donors explaining it had become aware “of some concerns around the source of the manuscripts and whether appropriate documentation was obtained to bring them into the country”.
In a statement Sydney University says Allon “made an error of judgment” when he decided to bypass customs but the statement defended the action as “well-intended” on account of the manuscripts being very fragile and at risk of disintegrating.
A spokeswoman says Allon’s crowdfunding pitch “overstated the progress of negotiations” with a Pakistani institution.
“We understand signing of the agreement is imminent. Once the Pakistan government has undertaken their own due diligence and acquired the manuscripts, we anticipate the research and conservation activities will commence,” the spokeswoman says.
“We continue our work to repatriate the two manuscripts to Pakistan, their believed country of origin.”
The university spokeswoman says while research on the manuscripts had paused while the agreement was being finalised, infra-red imaging of the two scrolls in Sydney was recently conducted and discussions continue with Allon regarding his “personal involvement” with the manuscripts.
It said the fundraising campaign remains on hold and donations are being held in a University trust account.
“When the agreement is in place, we expect to be able to restart the campaign and apply the donated funds on the terms set out on the crowdfunding website,” the spokeswoman said.
When Sydney University launched its crowdfunding site in 2015 it did not develop a specific policy to cover those seeking tax-deductible donations via the site.
The most recent fundraising policy was written in 2013 and it allowed Allon’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences oversight of his fundraising campaign.
The University of Sydney spokeswoman said: “We are concerned the required approval and control processes do not seem to have been adequately followed for this particular crowdfunding appeal.
“Following the suspension of this crowdfunding campaign, our processes to approve and manage crowdfunding and other community giving campaigns were swiftly updated.”
“An expression of interest process now requires upfront consultation with a relevant Head of School or Dean to decide whether a project should proceed to planning, and includes greater academic oversight to ensure that projects are consistent with the University’s Research Code of Conduct 2019 and other research policies. We’re updating our written policy to incorporate these changes, and expect to be able to make it publicly available soon.″
Allon is one of just a few people in the world able to decipher the Sydney manuscripts and doing so will confer considerable academic kudos on him.
However Australia’s Buddhists may feel very differently.
Buddhism is one of the nation’s smallest religions, but among the fastest-growing. Allon’s manuscripts, even though they have not yet revealed their secrets, are now among the most significant religious relics in Australia.
Chanthanith Chittasy, a spokesman for the NSW Lao Buddhist Society, says the idea of them being in Sydney made him uneasy.
“Buddhism is a way of life, it is community and faith that connects you through history,” he says.
“The scrolls should remain at their original place, I recognise that is a sacred place.”
Start your day informed
Our Morning Edition newsletter is a curated guide to the most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Sign up to The Sydney Morning Herald’s newsletter here, The Age’s here, Brisbane Times’ here, and WAtoday’s here.