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Our history

One of the most important discoveries of the early 20th century was a sealed cave near the oasis-town of Dunhuang in present-day Gansu province, China. This cave is known as Mogao Cave 17 and colloquially referred to as the ‘Library Cave’. It contained tens of thousands of manuscripts, printed documents, paintings and other items, all walled-up at the beginning of the 11th century.

These materials tell fascinating stories about life on the Silk Roads, and have been compared to the Dead Sea Scrolls for their historical significance. However, in the early 1900s they were dispersed to institutions worldwide, due to the activities of explorers from Britain, France, Germany, Japan and Russia, who sought to acquire objects unearthed from ancient sites in China and Central Asia.

In 1993, the British Library hosted a conference gathering conservators and curators from all the major collections with holdings from Dunhuang. All parties agreed to work together to make these more accessible and to ensure their long-term preservation. The International Dunhuang Project was founded the following year in 1994.