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Some sources for silk in the Stein collection

By Ursula Sims-Williams 10 April 2014

To celebrate 20 years of the International Dunhuang Project, IDP has arranged an extensive programme of events including a half-day of lectures on 11 April ‘Silk on the Silk Road’. In this post I thought I would highlight two sources on silk in the Stein collection, one well-known and the second, a bit more obscure, but equally important for its reference to the silk trade in the fourth century AD.

This wooden panel dating from ca. seventh century from Dandan Uilik was discovered by Aurel Stein on his first expedition to Khotan in 1900-1901. The scene is thought to depict a story related by the seventh century Chinese traveller Xuanzang of how silkworms were smuggled out of China westwards into Khotan – present day Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. A Chinese princess (second from the left), about to be married to the king of Khotan, has smuggled silkworm eggs and mulberry seeds in her headdress. She carries a basket of cocoons. On the far right, a figure holding a comb stands in front of a loom with a reel of thread behind. The four-armed deity (second right) has been identified as the patron of weaving.

Among the oldest manuscripts in the Stein collection are eight letters forming the contents of a postbag lost in transit from China to Central Asia and discovered by Stein in the watch tower T.XII.a on the Dunhuang Limes. Known as the ‘Ancient Letters’, they date from the beginning of the fourth century AD and are among the earliest documents written in Sogdian, an Eastern Middle Iranian language formerly spoken in the region around Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan (see previous posts ‘A Few of our Favourite Things #7: Hans van Roon and #14: Nicholas Sims-Williams’). The letters are mostly commercial and mention many commodities, including musk, gold, pepper, camphor, wheat and perhaps white lead, as well as cloth made of linen or of hair.

Until recently the word for silk was not thought to have been mentioned in the Ancient Letters although there is no doubt that silk played an important role in the east-west trade at this period. However it has now been identified as occurring twice in letter 6, T.XII.a.ii.8g (BL Or.8212/97).

[You] said to me: [If] you go out (from China) to Loulan you should buy silk (pyrcyk) for me (in exchange) for it, and if [you do not find(?) any] silk you should buy camphor (in exchange) for [it] and bring it to me.

The word for silk (pyrcyk) is formed from an otherwise unattested Sogdian word for silkworm (it occurs in Khotanese as pira‑, which means ‘worm’, especially ‘silkworm’) with the addition of the adjectival suffix ‑čīk, thus giving it the meaning ‘derived from the silkworm’, or ‘silk thread or cloth’. A different derivative of the same word, pyryk, is attested in Choresmian, another related middle Iranian language, with the meaning ‘cocoon’.

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