Sir Marc Aurel Stein

Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862 – 1943), a Hungarian-born, British archaeologist, is largely credited to have rediscovered The Silk Road – an ancient network of trade routes across Central Asia which connected the East and West – following three expeditions he made to the far western regions of China in 1900, 1906 and 1913. The V&A, along with The British Museum, The British Library, and The National Museum in New Delhi, India, holds an important collection of artefacts recovered by Stein from these expeditions.

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

Sir Marc Aurel Stein was born in Budapest in 1862. He graduated in Sanskrit and Persian and received his Ph.D. from Tübingen, Germany in 1883. The following year he went to England to study oriental languages and archaeology, 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's Silk Road expeditions were funded by various institutions for which he promised to collect archaeological and textual artefacts. Stein's first expedition (1900 – 1) 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 – 8) 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 here 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.

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

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 defined its exact location in each site.

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

The V&A did not contribute financially to any of Stein's expeditions, but recognised the importance of the finds, and applied for a long term deposit. 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 the third.

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-awaited expedition to Afghanistan, but died in Kabul a week after his arrival in the country.

Background image: Fragment of wooden panel, about 500 AD, Khadalik, painted wood. Museum no. LOAN:I A SURVEY.3. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. On loan from the Government of India and the Archaeological Survey of India