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Standing portrait of Sir Aurel Stein and his dog Dash. © The British Library

Standing portrait of Sir Aurel Stein and his dog Dash. © The British Library

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 at his plane table surveying in the Taklamakan Desert. © The British Library

Sir Aurel Stein at his plane table surveying in the Taklamakan Desert. © The British Library

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.

Group at Ulugh-mazar. © The British Library

Group at Ulugh-mazar. Sir Aurel Stein in the centre with his dog Dash. © The British Library

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 V&A Stein collection demonstrate the intensity of trade and cross-cultural exchanges between East and West in north western China during the first millennium AD.

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