Hanging scroll of a bodhisattva leading an elegant lady supported on clouds to the Pure Land, indicated by the Chinese buildings at the top left.

Exploring the Silk Roads

Room 33

A range of archaeological finds from Stein's expeditions are on permanent display in Room 33.

'Silk Roads' refer to the network of people, objects and ideas that moved across Afro-Eurasia particularly during the first millennium AD.

Central Asia and China's northwest frontier lay at the heart of this network. During the 19th century, Britain and Russia vied for control of this region and sought to explore its lands, while China faced increasing political turmoil from internal and external pressures.

Sir Aurel Stein (1862–1943)

In search of ancient cultures

From the late 19th century, after hearing of the discovery of artefacts and manuscripts by locals, British, French, German, Japanese, Russian and, later, American archaeological expeditions journeyed to ancient ruined cities in the desert of northwest China. Often travelling under harsh conditions, the explorers, scholars and archaeologists of these expeditions sought to discover the ancient languages and cultures that once flourished in the region, and to acquire collections for the empires that they represented. One of the most important of these figures was Marc Aurel Stein (1862–1943).

Sir Aurel Stein (1862–1943)

Born in Budapest, Stein studied Sanskrit and comparative philology at university, going on to complete a PhD in Old Iranian and Indology. He continued his postdoctoral studies in Britain, and was trained in geography and surveying during his mandatory military service in Hungary.

In 1887, Stein travelled to India and took up the positions of Principal of the Oriental College, Lahore, and Registrar of Punjab University. From his base in Kashmir, he made four expeditions to northwest China (1900–1; 1906–8; 1913–16 and 1930–1) with a small party of hired staff, as well as further expeditions to India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Jordan. He was fascinated by the campaigns of Alexander the Great (336–323 BC) and the travels of the monk Xuanzang (AD 602–664) and Marco Polo (1254–1324), whose footsteps he tried to re-trace.

Stein became a naturalised British citizen in 1904 and published detailed accounts of his journeys, including maps and photographs he had produced. He received many honours as a result of his work during his lifetime, including a knighthood, but he has also been criticised for his collecting activities. In 1943, he passed away in Kabul, Afghanistan. He remains a controversial figure to this day.

The Stein Collection

The Stein Collection

Finds from Stein's expeditions were shipped to London. These were initially documented on the premises of the British Museum and subsequently divided among institutions in the UK and India. The collection that was acquired by the British Museum now falls under the Departments of Asia, the Middle East, and Coins and Medals, while his papers and correspondence are in the central archives. Objects in the Asia department include archaeological finds from Xinjiang, as well as paintings, prints and textiles from the Library Cave (Cave 17), Dunhuang. These have been digitised with funding from the Mellon Foundation and are searchable on Collection online.

The Library Cave, Dunhuang

Stein's most famous and controversial expedition was to the Mogao Caves, Dunhuang. This is a vast Buddhist cave temple complex filled with magnificent wall paintings and clay sculptures primarily dating from the 4th to the 14th centuries. Stein arrived there in 1907 on his second expedition to China, which was funded by the Government of India (60%) and the British Museum (40%). 

In 1900, a Daoist Abbot Wang Yuanlu (1849–1931), then caretaker of the site, uncovered a repository of manuscripts, documents, paintings, textiles and prints in a hidden cave around 2.9 metres squared and 2.7 metres high. Judging by written dates, the cave was sealed sometime in the early 11th century, probably in response to a potential threat to the area. It's been estimated that there were up to 50,000 items in the cave, mostly manuscripts. This cave is often called the 'Library Cave'.

Since its discovery, Wang had started to give away or sell items from the repository to raise awareness and funds to repair the Mogao Caves. With the help of his Chinese assistant Jiang Xiaowan (1858–1922), Stein convinced Wang to sell him items from the repository. In the end, Stein paid four silver ingots for fifty bundles of Chinese and five bundles of Tibetan manuscripts, together with a group of paintings, textiles, prints and a few artefacts. Stein purchased additional manuscripts from Wang after he left Dunhuang through Jiang and again in 1914 during his next expedition.

Artefacts from the Silk Roads

The objects that Stein acquired from the Library Cave are now kept in the British Museum, the British Library, the V&A and the National Museum, New Delhi. The British Museum collection consists of around 500 paintings, paper items and textiles (complete objects and fragments), 30 woodblock prints and two small wooden figurines. One of the most spectacular items is an 8th-century embroidery that is nearly two and a half metres in height. The video featured follows textile conservators Monique Pullen and Hannah Vickers as they embark on the intricate conservation of this monumental embroidery.

Artefacts from the Silk Roads

In total, Stein made four expeditions to northwest China. He mainly spent his time along the southern edges of the Tarim Basin where he explored the sites of the Khotan oases, Niya, Miran and Loulan. He also conducted excavations at the military fortifications near the town of Dunhuang, in addition to his stay at the Mogao Caves. Along the north of the Tarim Basin, he collected objects from sites including Shorchuk and Astana, Turfan.

Display of the Stein collection

Attitudes towards Stein's activities in China changed over time. His fourth expedition was cut short when he heard of plans to cancel his passport and the Chinese authorities confiscated his few finds.

Stein was interested in finding evidence of the meeting of cultures in early texts and images. He also paid attention to artefacts and ancient refuse that documented everyday life. In the Department of Asia, there are around 1500 archaeological finds from Stein's expeditions. These include small stucco reliefs, pieces of ceramics and glass, fragments of wall paintings and textiles, painted wooden panels, as well as everyday utensils. 

Among the most remarkable of the artefacts are objects made of organic material that have been preserved as a result of the arid desert conditions. This elegantly embroidered shoe was excavated from Karakhoja (Gaochang), near Turfan. Dated to the 6th to 7th century, it's made of layers of woollen and hemp textiles stitched together with silk, and has a leather sole. The shoe is on display in Room 33.

Legacy of the Stein collection

Display of the Stein collection

A range of archaeological finds from Stein's expeditions are on permanent display in Room 33, while a small number of objects from the Library Cave, Dunhuang, are on display there on a six-month rotation basis due to conservation reasons. Special exhibitions devoted to this material were held at the British Museum in 1990 (Caves of the Thousand Buddhas: Chinese Art from the Silk Route) and at the British Library in 2004 (The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith). Works have also been on loan to special exhibitions, such as Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China's Silk Road (Getty Center, USA) in 2016, Threads of Devotion (Nara National Museum, Japan) in 2018, and Goryeo: The Glory of Korea (National Museum of Korea) in 2018.

Legacy of the Stein collection

The expeditions of Stein, together with those of other explorers and archaeologists, led to the dispersal of large quantities of artefacts from the eastern parts of the Silk Roads in the early 20th century. One consequence of this has been the development of an international field of scholarship and recognition of the significance and richness of cultures in the region.

The British Museum has a Memorandum of Understanding with the Dunhuang Academy to encourage greater exchange between the two institutions. The Museum is also a partner institution of the International Dunhuang Project, a collaboration involving many countries including China, aimed at making data and information about artefacts from Dunhuang and other related sites available online.

The Museum study rooms are currently closed. When they reopen, appointments can be made to view items in the Stein collection through the department study rooms. Access to the Stein collection in the Asia department requires curatorial approval due to the fragile nature of many examples.  

Further reading

  • Helen Wang (ed.), Sir Aurel Stein in The Times, Saffron Books, London, 2002
  • Helen Wang (ed.), Sir Aurel Stein, Colleagues and Collections, British Museum Research Publication no. 184, London, 2012
  • Helen Wang (ed.), Sir Aurel Stein: Proceedings of the British Museum Study Day, 23 March 2002, British Museum Occasional Paper 142, London, 2004
  • Helen Wang and John Perkins (eds), Handbook to the Collections of Sir Aurel Stein in the UK, British Museum Research Publication 129, revised, first edition, London, 1999
  • Helen Wang and Valerie Hansen (eds), Textiles as Money on the Silk Road, special issue of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 23, no. 2, April 2013
  • Helen Wang, Money on the Silk Road: The Evidence from Eastern Central Asia to c. AD 800 – with a Catalogue of the Coins Collected by Sir Aurel Stein, British Museum Press, London, 2004
  • Roderick Whitfield and Anne Farrer, Caves of the Thousand Buddhas: Chinese Art from the Silk Route, London, 1990
  • Roderick Whitfield, The Art of Central Asia: The Stein Collection in the British Museum, 3 volumes. Kodansha International Ltd, Tokyo, 1983
  • Susan Whitfield, Aurel Stein on the Silk Road, Serindia Publications, 2004
  • Susan Whitfield and Ursula Sims-Williams (eds), The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith, London, 2004
  • Zhao Feng, Helen Wang, Helen Persson, Frances Wood, Wang Le and Xu Zheng (eds), Textiles from Dunhuang in UK Collections, Donghua University Press, Shanghai, 2007 (also published in Chinese)