Sir Aurel Stein & the Silk Road finds - Dunhuang, Hami, Kharakhoto and The Limes Watchtowers

 
Detailed map showing the areas explored by Sir Aurel Stein

Detailed map showing the areas explored by Sir Aurel Stein

Dunhuang

Dunhuang is at the eastern end of the southern Silk Road, in present-day Gansu Province. It lies between the western reaches of China and the Tarim Basin. When China began to expand into Central Asia during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), Dunhuang served as a base for military operations and trade. In the succeeding centuries, Buddhist shrines were established southeast of Dunhuang in a series of man-made caves called Qianfodong, "Caves of the Thousand Buddhas" (today also known as the Mogao Grottoes). Here spectacular cave temples were cut out of the cliffs, beginning in the fourth century AD. Over a period of several centuries, communities of Buddhist monks filled the caves with splendid sculpture and wall paintings in a fusion of Indian and Chinese style. These included colossal Buddha statues, painted clay sculptures of deities, elaborate murals of Buddhist legends, and thousands of tiny painted Buddha images; all of which gave the site its name, Qianfodong. Buddhist cave temples had first been established in at Bamiyan (Afghanistan) and Gandhara (formerly in India, now Pakistan).

In 1900, a Daoist monk named Wang Yuanlu discovered a secret cave at Qianfodung, which contained thousands of documents and paintings. Stein purchased a significant amount of this material from Wang during his visit to the Dunhuang in 1907 and 1914. Among the many religious works were Buddhist, Jewish, Nestorian, Daoist and Confucian texts; all of which dated from approximately 400 to 1000 AD. Numerous languages were represented as well, including Chinese, Sanskrit, Tibetan and Hebrew. Stein also acquired many textile pieces. Most of these were silk, for Dunhuang lay on the main trade route between silk-growing regions of China and Central Asia. Elaborate embroideries depicted Buddhist legends and processions of donors. Patterned silks included Chinese and Sassanian (Persian) designs. From China came floral and geometric patterns, combined with figures of animals and birds. Sassanian motifs included pairs of confronted ducks, lions, and other beasts, combined with medallions and quatrefoils. Stein also found undecorated silks used as processional banners and valances for decorating bases of statues. The cave was sealed soon after 1000 AD, perhaps to protect the contents from invading armies.

Cave shrines in rock face, Dunhuang, Sir Marc Aurel Stein, 1914. Photo 392/29(106), © The British Library Board

Cave shrines in rock face, Dunhuang, Sir Marc Aurel Stein, 1914. Photo 392/29(106), © The British Library Board

Caves with frescoes, Dunhuang, Sir Marc Aurel Stein, 1907. Photo 392/26(323), © The British Library Board

Caves with frescoes, Dunhuang, Sir Marc Aurel Stein, 1907. Photo 392/26(323), © The British Library Board

Northern caves, Dunhuang, Collin Chinnery, 1999. Photo 1118/1(9), © International Dunhuang Project

Northern caves, Dunhuang, Collin Chinnery, 1999. Photo 1118/1(9), © International Dunhuang Project

Northern caves, Dunhuang, Collin Chinnery, 1999. Photo 1118/1(12), © International Dunhuang Project

Northern caves, Dunhuang, Collin Chinnery, 1999. Photo 1118/1(12), © International Dunhuang Project


 
The V&A holds on loan a large number of textiles from Dunhuang, including plain and pattern woven silks in many colours, painted Buddhist banners and canopies, and wrappers for Buddhist texts.


Hami

Floral silk fragment, Hami, 700-800 AD, weft faced compound weave in silk, length 19.7cm x width 5cm. Museum no. LOAN:STEIN.673 (H.A.i.0031), © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. On loan from Government of India and the Archaeological Survey of India

Floral silk fragment, Hami, 700-800 AD, weft faced compound weave in silk, length 19.7cm x width 5cm. Museum no. LOAN:STEIN.673 (H.A.i.0031), © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. On loan from Government of India and the Archaeological Survey of India

Hami lies on the northern branch of the Silk Road, between Turfan and Dunhuang. The Chinese first occupied Hami in 73 AD, making it a base for their expansion westward into Central Asia and north across the Tianshan Mountains. A military colony was established to cultivate the surrounding lands, for Hami played a crucial role in China's defence against northern invaders, including the Xiongnu, Turks and Mongols. The city became an oasis for traders crossing the Pei Shan Desert.

The V&A has the loan of a woven cream silk with floral pattern from Hami, which dates from the eighth century AD. The pattern of this worn rectangular silk fragment is hardly distinguishable but seems to have comprised large circular panels containing small flowers and buds in dark blue and old gold on a white ground. The naturalistic design executed in fine silk warp and broad untwisted silk weft is similar to silk fragments from the Tang dynasty found at the Mogao grottoes, Dunhuang. Stein discovered the fragment at a ruined fort in the Turfan basin. The oblong fort consisted of vaulted chambers for dwellings but also a small Buddhist shrine where this piece, among other decorative remains, was found.


Karakhoto

Kharakhoto lies east of the Tarim Basin, near Mongolia. The city was founded in the eleventh century AD by the Tanguts, an agricultural people, and Kharakhoto became capital of their Xixia Kingdom in the twelfth century AD. Overrun by the Mongols during the thirteenth century, Kharakhoto was retaken by the Chinese during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD). A Buddhist stupa at the site yielded paintings on silk, Buddhist manuscripts and woodblock prints, and hundreds of terracotta Buddha images.

Front of Muhammadan tomb, Kharakhoto, Sir Marc Aurel Stein, 1914. Photo 392/29(85), © The British Library Board (left). Same view, Rachel Roberts, 2008. Photo 1187/1(2), © International Dunhuang Project (right)

Front of Muhammadan tomb, Kharakhoto, Sir Marc Aurel Stein, 1914. Photo 392/29(85), © The British Library Board (left). Same view, Rachel Roberts, 2008. Photo 1187/1(2), © International Dunhuang Project (right)

Buildings at Kharakhoto, Rachel Roberts, 2008. Photo 1187/1(48), © International Dunhuang Project

Buildings at Kharakhoto, Rachel Roberts, 2008. Photo 1187/1(48), © International Dunhuang Project
 


Buildings at Kharakhoto, Rachel Roberts, 2008. Photo 1187/1(22), © International Dunhuang Project

Buildings at Kharakhoto, Rachel Roberts, 2008. Photo 1187/1(22), © International Dunhuang Project

Buildings at Kharakhoto, Rachel Roberts, 2008. Photo 1187/1(43), © International Dunhuang Project

Buildings at Kharakhoto, Rachel Roberts, 2008. Photo 1187/1(43), © International Dunhuang Project


Three silk fragments, Karakhoto, 1000-1250 AD, plain and gauze weave in silk, resist dye and print, length 20.9cm x width 9.2cm (largest fragment). Museum no. LOAN:STEIN.551 (K.K.II.0244.xxix), © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. On loan from Government of India and the Archaeological Survey of India

Three silk fragments, Karakhoto, 1000-1250 AD, plain and gauze weave in silk, resist dye and print, length 20.9cm x width 9.2cm (largest fragment). Museum no. LOAN:STEIN.551 (K.K.II.0244.xxix), © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. On loan from Government of India and the Archaeological Survey of India

Stein describes only two fragments in his publication ‘Innermost Asia’, so at one point after the discovery, a third fragment was either added to the identifying number or it became detached from one of the existing fragments – presumably the plain woven brown silk. The largest fragment is a polychrome gauze weave made of resist dyed buff coloured silk with small floral shapes and roundels reserved in cream colour. The roundels are printed with floral designs in yellow and black. It is unclear what these textiles would have been used for, although it is possible that they had a sacral purpose. They were recovered from a ruined shrine at the Buddhist site of Kharakoto, which dates from the 11th to the 13th century. The name Kharakhoto means 'The Black Town', which probably refers to the massive walls and bastions that were still visible above ground when excavations on this site began.


The Limes Watchtowers

The Limes are a line of defensive walls and beacon towers north of Dunhuang. They extend the wall completed by Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi (259-210 BC) in 214 BC as a barrier against the Xiongnu. Under the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) the walls were carried over 1,600 kilometres to the west, to the easternmost edge of the Tarim Basin. The Limes protected China's trade and military colonies and served as a base for expansion into Central Asia. They were made of stamped clay and gravel, alternating with layers with wood, to protect against corrosion by wind-blown sand. They were completed in less than a century with water carried over huge distances.

Behind the walls lay a series of watchtowers. These housed small numbers of soldiers who watched the desert and signalled to armies stationed at nearby Dunhuang through a system of couriers and fire signals. Within the towers Stein found an astounding range of artefacts, which provide a glimpse of garrison life and military operations under the Han Empire, including bronze mirrors, coarse pottery, tools, leather armour, weapons, shoes, and clothing. Ancient documents included personal letters on silk and wood, military directives and supply lists, and treatises on a range of subjects, including medicine and astrology.

Ruined palace, The Limes Watchtowers, Sir Marc Aurel Stein, 1907. Photo 392/26(271), © The British Library Board

Ruined palace, The Limes Watchtowers, Sir Marc Aurel Stein, 1907. Photo 392/26(271), © The British Library Board

Watchtower, The Limes Watchtowers, Sir Marc Aurel Stein, 1914. Photo 392/28(479), © The British Library Board

Watchtower, The Limes Watchtowers, Sir Marc Aurel Stein, 1914. Photo 392/28(479), © The British Library Board

Ancient fort at 'Jade Gate', The Limes Watchtowers, Sir Marc Aurel Stein, 1907. Photo 392/26(269), © The British Library Board

Ancient fort at 'Jade Gate', The Limes Watchtowers, Sir Marc Aurel Stein, 1907. Photo 392/26(269), © The British Library Board

Ruined palace, The Limes Watchtowers, Victoria Swift, 2009. Photo 1125/16(716), © International Dunhuang Project

Ruined palace, The Limes Watchtowers, Victoria Swift, 2009. Photo 1125/16(716), © International Dunhuang Project



The V&A holds, on loan, several utilitarian textile fragments, parts of shoes and several pottery shards from the sites, dating from the Han dynasty to the (206 BC-220 AD) to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD).

 

Strawberry Thief Free iPad Game

Strawberry Thief by BAFTA award wining games designer Sophia George is a playful celebration of the work of Victorian designer William Morris. Uncover the famous Arts and Crafts design by drawing on your screen with your finger and watch your iPad transform from blank paper to an animated masterpiece.

Download now

Shop online

Selling Silks: A Merchant's Sample Book (Hardback)

Selling Silks: A Merchant's Sample Book (Hardback)

In 1764, British Customs confiscated a book containing hundreds of silk samples of different qualities from French agents who were attempting to sell …

Buy now

Event - Euripides' Hippolytos

Sat 01 November 2014–Thu 27 November 2014

SPECIAL EVENT: In this site-specific performance, deep in the underbelly of museum, company Antic Face brings the legend to life in a spellbinding premiere production.

More details