Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943) was born in Budapest in 1862. He studied Sanskrit, Old Persian, Indology and philology at the universities of Vienna, Leipzig and Tübingen, and map-making as part of his military service in Budapest, before setting out for a career in India. His formal positions from 1888 onwards were as registrar of Punjab University and principal of the Oriental College, Lahore and principal of the Calcutta
Madrasah. But his real passion was the exploration of Central Asia, China, India and the Middle East.
Stein carried out three expeditions (the fourth was aborted) to the western regions of China between 1900 and 1916, where he not only conducted archaeological excavations, but also geographical and ethnographical surveys and photographing. Today, he is especially famous for ‘discovering’ the
library cave at the Mogao Grottoes, Dunhuang.
Stein adopted British nationality in 1904 and he was knighted for his contribution to Central Asian studies. In 1943, when he was in his 80s, Stein embarked on his long-awaiting expedition to Afghanistan, but died in Kabul a week after his arrival in the country
Stein’s Silk Road expeditions were funded by various institutions for which he promised to collect archaeological and textual artefacts. The intention was that the finds would eventually be allocated proportionately to the funders. Stein’s first expedition (1900-01) was funded by the Government of India and the Government of Punjab and Bengal, and it was agreed that the finds should be studied in London and allocated to specific museums later.
The second expedition (1906-08) was funded 60% by the Government of India and 40% by the British Museum, and the finds were to be allocated accordingly. The third expedition (1913-16) was funded entirely by the Government of India. The intention was that the majority of finds from this expedition should be the foundation of a new museum in New Delhi, and that representative specimen and ‘literary remains’ should be presented to the British Museum.
Being an indefatigable scholar, he published extensively on his explorations, such as own personal narratives and extensive scholarly report. Based on his diaries, he published Sand-buried Ruins of Khotan (1903) and Ruins of the Desert Cathay (1912). Then, after extensive study and cataloguing of the finds, he would publish a more scholarly ‘scientific report’ which also included work by specialists in different disciplines. These are well-known titles: Ancient Khotan (1907), Serindia (1921) and Innermost Asia (1928), all including an exhaustive array of photographs, plates and maps
The Victoria and Albert Museum did not contribute financially to any of Stein’s expeditions, but recognised the importance of the finds, and applied for a long term deposit to the Museum. Close to 600 textile fragments were given on permanent loan by the Government of India in three instalments (1923, 1932 and 1933). Most of these were recovered in the second expedition, but also some from his third expedition. By contrast, the over seventy ceramic and Buddhist objects stem from Stein’s second expedition only.
Many of the textile fragments appear to be scraps, cut-offs from larger pieces, or rejects, but closer examination reveals that most of them once formed part of votive and secular objects and garments.
The Stein Collection at the V&A does not include any of the larger banners and beautiful silk paintings such as may be found in the British Museum and the National Museum of India in New Delhi. Nevertheless, the V&A loan collection offers a fascinating insight into the scope of fabrics being produced in, as well as imported into, China before the early 1200s. It is also a marvellous resource for the study of weaving.
The Silk Road was the collection of routes across Central Asia which connected China and the Far East with the Mediterranean and the Far West. Trade routes through the arid Taklamakan desert in the Tarim Basin had already been utilised by the Shang and Zhou and were fully established under the Han dynasty in the second century BC. Despite its name (coined in the 1800s), silk was only one of the many commodities carried in both directions. Religions, languages, design and technology, innovations and animals, all crossed Eurasia along the routes, through the Tarim Basin, one of the most hostile areas in the world.
Along the paths strange civilizations, fusions of India and Persia, of China and the Hellenistic world, of Turkic, Tibetan and now-extinct Indo-European tribes, developed. Rivers from the surrounding mountain glaciers fed the oases settlements on the borders of the desert and provided a welcome respite for weary travellers. At least 36 kingdoms or city-states existed in the Tarim Basin during the first millennium AD. However, the rivers began to change directions and dry up, and trade shifted from the Silk Road to the maritime routes as navigation improved. Gradually the caravans disappeared, leaving dead cities immaculately preserved by the dry climate.
The re-discovery of the Silk Road is one of the triumphs of modern archaeology and Sir Aurel Stein was prominent among its re-discoverers. His three expeditions of 1900, 1906 and 1913 into the Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, the People’s Republic of China, lasted seven years altogether and covered over 40,000 kilometres on foot or camel-back. Stein was a meticulous early archaeologist. When arriving at a new archaeological site, he surveyed the area and the site itself drawing a clear plan to scale of the major remains. Stein excavated each area in turn, making sure to note the layers at which objects were uncovered and making note of every find. Every object was then marked individually with a string of unique characters which define its exact find location in each site.