Spring 2007 Issue 55
Stein Mellon Textile Project at the V&A
The major phase of the Stein Mellon Textile Project took place between October 2003 and August 2004 when the V&A participated in a co-operative project to create an international resource for material recovered from sites along the ancient trade routes in Central Asia. The project attempts to redress the lack of access and knowledge that international scholars have previously experienced in relation to these collections.
The Far Eastern Section acts as custodian for nearly 600 textile fragments; all retrieved from the chain of abandoned oasis settlements along the Silk Road. The entire area now falls within the boundaries of the People's Republic of China in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The fragments were brought back from three long expeditions by the Hungarian-born archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943) between 1900 and 1916. These significant textiles, dating from around 300 BC to AD 1200, came to the Museum in the 1920s and 1930s and are on loan from the Government of India. At the time, the HM Indian Government funded Stein's explorations, with the British Museum for his second expedition, which has textiles from his Central Asian journeys as does the Museum of Central Asian Antiquities in New Delhi.
With funding from The Andrew W Mellon Foundation, the fragments have been photographed and catalogued and will be made accessible on the Foundation's planned Silk Road database as well as on the British Library's International Dunhuang Project website and the V&A's own Collections Online database. This major phase of the project was completed ahead of schedule and well within budget. In May 2005, The Andrew W Mellon Foundation approved a proposal to extend the project and use the remainder of the grant to improve storage of the Stein textile collection, pursue scientific analysis on some of the fragments and rebind Stein's publication 'Serindia' (5 vols., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1921). It has been a cross-departmental project, in particular involving the Asian Department, Photographic Studio, Records Section and Conservation (Textiles, Books, Preservation and Science), but also collaboration with colleagues from external institutions.
The Stein textile collection comprises a wide variety of different techniques and materials, and embraces examples of domestic textiles to sacral silks. It also bears witness to the cultural diversity in the Silk Road area, the exchange of ideas and the vibrant trade in all directions. The collection could also be significant in the discussions of origin and spread of tapestry and carpet weaving. Most research interest and attention have been given to the finds from Cave 17 of the Buddhist cave complex of the Mogao Grottoes, near the oasis town of Dunhuang, in the Gansu corridor. The cave complex is also known as Qianfodong, 'the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas'. Famous as the site of the world's largest and earliest paper archive, and as the only surviving Buddhist library of its time. It was discovered in 1900 in a small side-cave whose door had been plastered over and concealed by paintings, probably in the late eleventh century.
Among around 40,000 documents, in Chinese, Tibetan and other languages, and paintings, there were also a great number of long, narrow silk strips and small squares. These silk fragments show an incredible breadth of colours, from canary yellow through the clearest red to deepest indigo (Figure 1). The Dunhuang finds demonstrate a range of beautiful yet subtle damasks, vibrant polychrome pattern woven silks, and embroidered gauzes, clamp-resist dyed and painted silks. A number of complete and fragmented banners, canopies and altar valances give evidence of the importance of this shrine site as one of China's great Buddhist pilgrimage complexes.
The wide-spread use and dominance of Chinese silks in these Central Asian trading oases is further illustrated by several examples of 'jin' silks from the ancient burials in Astana, dated between the third to the end of the eighth century AD. The fragments show the richness of face-covers and other burial clothing used by the ruling classes of a kingdom centred on the cities of Karakhoja (Gaochang) and Yarkhoto. However, textile finds from Astana also indicate a new weaving technique and highlight the trade of silk in the other direction and transferring of motifs, with Sassanian and Sogdian silk material. A much more assorted collection of materials comes from Niya. Among the silks there are fragments of leather and fur, grass ropes and matting, and lots of wool. The wool comes from sheep, Bactrian camels, yaks and goats.
The oldest textile fragments in the collection were discovered at Loulan, a complex comprising many sites: the ruins of dwellings, adjacent refuse heaps and nearby grave pits. The silks show typical small-scale classic Han (206 BC-AD 220) patterning of cloud scrolls and mythical beasts interspersed with dedicatory inscriptions. But the wools from this site are very interesting, in particular the knotted pieces or carpet fragments (Figure 2). The designs show Hellenistic influences rather than Chinese, but with a Central Asian colour palette. These fragments have been radiocarbon dated to 800 BC-200 BC which conflict with the accepted date range for this site, and therefore will need further tests and research for confirmation. The Stein collection has also some fine examples of shoes and sandals used in the region, predominantly from Mazartagh, and what Stein named as 'The Limes Watchtowers', based on their resemblance to the Roman limes in Europe. These were a line of fortified encampments stretching both north and west of Dunhuang and designed to ensure the safe transit of goods across the area, dating from 200 BC to AD 400. The finds from these encampments are more utilitarian, suitable for the hard life of a soldier far away from home.
The collection has been subjected to some scientific analyses. Beside the already mentioned C14 tests, around 30 samples have been sent for fibre and dye identification. We hope that the results can indicate likely production areas. Textiles have also been analysed by Dr Lucia Burgio, Senior Object Analysis Scientist, with Raman microscopy and X-ray fluorescence, to identify pigments used and metallic components of paint. Scientific analysis revealed that two of the fragments were coloured with orpiment - a poisonous, pale yellow pigment containing arsenic, proving the importance of in-house analysis of the V&A collection.
The entire Dunhuang textile collection has been examined in detail by Professor Zhao Feng from The China National Silk Museum and will feature in a collaborative publication between The British Museum, The British Library, The Victoria and Albert Museum and The China National Silk Museum. This is due for publication in April 2007.
Thanks to the continued support of The Andrew W Mellon Foundation, the Stein textile collection has been catalogued, photographed and is now housed in improved storage conditions. The project has already excited a degree of external research interest and has attracted several visitors. The expected increase of interest in the collection due to the publicity generated by the Mellon project and the International Dunhuang Project has also necessitated conservation work on Stein's publication 'Serindia'. This will enable access and enjoyment to Stein's own descriptions, his archaeological surveys of the areas and catalogues. Furthermore, it has been possible to pursue important scientific analysis which is usually costly and rarely executed within the core Museum budget. The results from the scientific analyses will hopefully provide vital clues to the origin and context of the collection, contributing to current discussions and pushing back the boundaries of our understanding of textiles from Silk Road sites.