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The Silk Road

Map showing the area explored by Sir Aurel Stein

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.

Detailed map showing the areas explored by Sir Aurel Stein

Detailed map showing the areas explored by Sir Aurel Stein

The Stein collection at the V&A

The material Sir Aurel Stein recovered from the three expeditions along the Silk Road is divided between four institutions: The V&A, The British Museum and The British Library, all in London, and The National Museum in New Delhi, India. These rare objects, dating between 200 BC and 1200 AD, are on loan from the Government of India.

The V&A is the custodian of an important collection of nearly 600 textile fragments, mostly from Stein's second expedition (1906-1908). There are also some objects from his third (1913-1916) expedition, with over 70 ceramic and Buddhist objects resulting from Stein's second expedition only.

The Stein textile collection comprises a wide variety of different techniques and materials, and embraces examples of domestic textiles to sacral silks. The majority of the collection comes from Cave 17 of the Mogao Grottoes, near the oasis town of Dunhuang. The ceramic and Buddhist art objects mostly consist of pottery sherds and fragments of Buddhist sculptures. Although there are few complete pieces in the collection, it offers a representative glimpse at the material culture along the Silk Roads in the first millennium AD.

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