Aurel Stein

the Last Explorer:

the Silk Road
under Sand

Journey of 1000 Li


Teacher Section

Stein and his crew on their first expedition to western China

Exploring the Taklamakan

Abbot Wang of the Dunhuang cave temples

Some the documents discovered by the Stein expeditions

An Archeologist Follows His Dreams to Asia

In the early 1900's, Sir Marc Aurel Stein, a British archeologist, set out to confirm his theories about rich past of the Silk Road. In three expeditions, Stein traversed 25,000 miles of central Asia and western China, thus gaining the reputation of conducting "the most daring and adventurous raids upon the ancient world".

Since the expeditions of Zheng He, the east-west trade had steadily increased, but the bulk of trade moved by sea. The oasis towns that had thrived with the silk trade faded from bustling and wealthy rest stops for merchants linking the core trade arteries of the Asia to secondary routes far from the traffic of the world.

In 1644, the Qing dynasty replaced an ailing Ming. The Qing made China once again strong along the Silk Road. But by the 1900's, the Qing too was failing and its control over western China was quickly slipping. Islamic groups who lived in this region managed the interior trade routes and farmed nd moved their herds with or without Chinese control. In a series of independence movements and armed revolutions, the people of far western China attempted to break away from Qing rule

Map of Qing dynasty Silk Road. Source: R. Bradeen

• The First Expedition

Sir Aurel Stein's expeditions began with a childhood fascination with the Silk Road. Stein was intrigued by the travels of Xuanzang. He became an archeologist and, at the age of forty, financed his first expedition into central Asia. In May of 1900, Stein set out for western China and the Taklamakan Desert. This trip lasted nearly two years. On this expedition, Stein wanted to follow in the footsteps of Xuanzang, identifying the Buddhist sites described by the traveler.

Entering the Taklamakan Desert, Stein uncovered Buddhist paintings and sculptures and Sanskrit texts. Still not satisfied, Stein traveled east to Niya, where he and his men made their first big discovery. At Niya they found over 100 wooden tablets written in 105 CE. These tablets bore clay seals, official orders and letters written in an early Indian script. No earlier Indian documents of day-to-day life have yet been discovered. Their discovery supports Xuanzang's claim that this region was conquered by Indians around 200 BCE. Stein also found numerous coins dating from the Han dynasty. Other finds included an ancient mouse trap, a walking stick, part of a guitar, a bow in working order, a carved stool, an elaborately-designed rug, as well as many other household objects. Stein's discoveries made him famous and convinced the Indian government to fund his second expedition.

After Stein's first expedition, other countries recognized the wealth of the Silk Road. In 1902, just two months after Stein's first expedition, Germany and Japan sought to unearth their share of Chinese treasures. As result, an "international race for the ancient Buddhist treasures of the Taklamakan and Gobi Deserts" began. This race involved archeologists from seven nations and lasted over a quarter of a century. The artifacts excavated ended up in more than thirty museums across Europe, America, Russia and East Asia.

• The Second Expedition

Stein set out on his second expedition, his most famous, in 1907. This trip targeted the sites of Lou Lan and Dunhuang. Stein wanted to be the first archeologist to explore these sites. Stein reached Lou Lan first, crossing the high mountains and the Lop Desert. There he found military records dated to 330 CE. These records described frontier warfare in the region, when the Chinese emperor was struggling to control the western regions.

Moving on from Lou Lan, Stein stumbled upon his greatest discovery, "The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas" at Dunhuang. Here Stein bribed Abbot Wang, the leader of the monastic group in charge of the caves, and smuggled away thousands of manuscripts written in Chinese, Sanskrit, Sogdian, Tibetan, Runic Turki and Uighur. Among these manuscripts were rich Buddhist paintings and the world's oldest printed document, The Diamond Sutra, from 863 CE.

• The Third Expedition

Now viewed as a "treasure hunter", Stein's journeys became more dangerous. The Chinese government tried to stop further expeditions and robbers watched for an opportunity to steal his discoveries. Also, other countries joined the hunt for treasures of the old Silk Road, adding an element of competition and national pride to the expeditions. In 1915, Stein set out for his final expedition. Stein revisited Dunhuang and took more documents from the cave temples. Also, Stein uncovered a cemetery where the people of the Turfan region were buried. Although most of these tombs had been robbed, the objects that meant the most to Stein, the silks encasing the corpses, remained intact. The unearthing of these ancient and beautiful silks proved a fitting conclusion to Stein's career. Stein contributed hundreds of artifacts, manuscripts and silks to the British Museum. These are now part of an important collection of items which survived the upheaval of China's last century.

• The End of the Silk Road

By the time Sir Aurel Stein began his excavations, the Silk Road had transformed from an ancient path of cultural exchange to the subject of historical investigation. Scholars looked for proof of the trade and wealth of the Silk Road described by travelers such as Xuanzang and Marco Polo. Travelers on the Silk Road in the 1900's were mainly archeologists gathering relics and documents that spoke of the once vibrant cultures along the route.

After Stein's expeditions, the Chinese denied any further excavations of their ancient, treasure-laden sites. Although Sir Aurel Stein's expeditions were praised by the British and Indian governments, Stein will always be a "foreign devil" to the Chinese government; in their eyes, he and other foreign archeologists robbed China of its history.

Still, Stein's discoveries are remarkable. Over a fourteen year span, he uncovered ancient tombs, found lost languages, discovered the first printed book and many more Chinese treasures. And importantly, the objects Stein removed were spared destruction. During the last century, many of the sites Stein visited were destroyed through a series of wars and upheavals that continued through the 1960's.

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