Aurel Stein: A hundred years on


The Silk Road has become a popular name for the network of long-distance land and maritime trade routes that connected Europe, Africa and Asia from the end of the first millennium BC. This exhibition focuses on the eastern part of these routes, in what is now western China: the Tarim Basin.

The archaeologist M. Aurel Stein (1862–1943) coined the term ‘Serindia’ for this region,

‘which for close on a thousand years formed the special meeting ground of Chinese civilization, introduced by trade and political penetration, and of Indian culture, propagated by Buddhism.’

Stein led four expeditions to western China between 1900 and 1930, excavating at scores of sites and discovering hundreds of thousands of artefacts. His extensive photographic record of over 5000 images is now mostly held in the British Library.

In 2008 and 2011 teams from the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) at the British Library and the Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology (XJIA) led joint field trips to revisit and document the sites visited by Stein to record the changes of the past century.

This exhibition shows a selection of historical and modern photographs of farming settlements (first to fourth c.), Buddhist temples (fifth to sixth c.) and Tibetan forts (eighth to ninth c.), as well as something of life today in the towns and villages of the Taklamakan.

Stein, Ram Singh and labourers at tank at Niya, October 1906.
Photo 392/27(97)

IDP and XJIA team at old water tank at Niya, November 2011.
Photo 1235/3(187)

An exhibition by The British Library, the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) and the University of Nottingham

The exhibition marked IDP20, the twentieth anniversary celebrations of the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) at the British Library. IDP is an international collaboration which is currently making over 400,000 images of manuscripts, paintings and artefacts discovered at Eastern Silk Road sites freely available online, along with historical and modern photographs, plans, maps and explorers’ archives.

Lead Curator and Designer: Vic Swift
With the assistance of: John Falconer, Josef Konczak, Susan Whitfield
Photographs by: M. Aurel Stein, Colin Chinnery, John Falconer, Rachel Roberts, Vic Swift
Photographic production: John Falconer, Josef Konczak, Lizzie Vickery, Sarah Wall
Photographic printing: John Falconer
Text: John Falconer, Susan Whitfield, Sam van Schaik
Video footage by: Rachel Roberts, Susan Whitfield
Video production: Matt Casswell, Josef Konczak, Rachel Roberts
Map produced by: Martin Lubikowski, ML Design

All images are from the British Library unless otherwise stated. We also thank the following institutions for the use of images:

The British Museum
The Library and Information Centre of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences
The Victoria & Albert Museum

Many thanks to:

The Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology

With the support of:

The Arts and Humanities Research Council
Hahnemühle FineArt (UK)