Selenium and Horses in China: A Missing Link

China was not a land of horses but needed them for battle: why did it fail for two thousand years to breed them successfuly?
Quanmaogua (拳毛騧), one of the six battle horses of the Tang emperor, Taizong.
Penn Museum C396. Purchased from C. T. Loo; Subscription of Eldridge R. Johnson, 1920.

‘In climbing up and down mountains and crossing ravines and mountain torrents, the horses of China cannot compare with those of the Xiongnu.’1

This observation by Chao Cuo 晁錯 (ca. 200–154 BC), a minister in the Han empire ruling China at the time, exemplifies the history of the relationship between successive regimes in the Yellow River valley of China and the horse. Their repeated failure over two millennia to breed horses of sufficient quality and number in these lands to fulfill the needs of their armies meant that horses were a major and constant item of trade, being brought by sea and land from western and central Asia and the steppe. In a recent article, I review the literature on this, observing that most scholars have assigned one or both of two explanations for this failure. However, as I also observe, there is a third — and more compelling reason—namely the selenium-poor soils of much of the lands in what we now call China. This is a link noticed by Russian scholars but picked up by very few scholars writing in English. Below I give short extracts from my article concerning this.

The article will be published in volume 12 (2019) edition of Quaderni di Studi Indo-Mediterranei (series editor, Professor Carlo Saccone, University of Bologna) in commemoration of Bernard Laufer’s (1874–1934) Sino-Iranica. In addition to the preface by the guest editor, Dr Ephraim Nissan, there are 19 articles, all referencing essays by Laufer.

Edited extracts from ‘Alfalfa, Pasture and the Horse in China: A Review Article.’

China was not a land of horses, unlike Iran which, in a quote attributed to King Darius (c. 550–486 BC) ‘is abundant in horses’ and ‘does not tremble before any enemy.’2 Darius was himself an equestrian and, in the account given by Herodotus, gained the throne with the help of his horse. He duly erected a statue of himself on horseback with the inscription: ‘Darius, son of Hystaspes, by the virtue of his horse and of his groom Oebares, won the throne of Persia.’3 By contrast, Darius’s contemporary in the Yellow River valley, Confucius (c. 551–479), would not have known how to ride a horse: it was not among the six skills considered essential for the gentleman, although he would have used a horse-drawn chariot.4 While rulers of the many kingdoms in China in this period might also have led their armies from a horse-drawn chariot, they had no cavalry in their armies. The use of the horses for riding, initially for such cavalry, only appears to have been adopted among the kingdoms of northern China around the late 4th century BC in response to the rise of horse-riding neighbours on their north and northwestern borders, the Yuezhi to the northwest, Xiongnu to the north and Donghu to the northeast.5 Thereafter, both with the growth of the Xiongnu empire followed by successive Turkic and Mongolian steppe empires, the horse became essential to military life in northern China.

A horse statue from the tomb of the Han general, Huo Qubing (140–117 BC). His renowned defeat of the Xiongnu in 119 BC is commemorated by the motif of a Xiongnu warrior being trampled underfoot. Xingping, China.

But even with alfalfa, pasturelands, good breeding stock and specialist horse breeders from neighbouring steppe lands, successive regimes in the Yellow River valley in China failed to produce sufficient horses for their needs. Most scholars give two reasons for this: first, the lack of pastureland with, they argued, suitable land always being taken for agriculture and, secondly, the lack of equine expertise among the peoples in this region.

Exemplifying the second of these is Herlee Creel, who writes:

‘It is hard to avoid the impression that to Chinese in general the riding horse remained something strange, almost foreign in nature. Horses, and horsemen, were in general associated with the border areas of the north and west. it is a striking fact that the grooms and handlers of horses appearing in Chinese art seem almost always to be depicted as non-Chinese.’6

Jonathan Skaff points out that considerable expertise is required for successful breeding:

’The importance of knowing how to breed and train horses should not be underestimated … it required specialized knowledge. … Preparation for warfare adds further difficulties because the horse is an ‘animal of “flight” rather than “fight,”’ yet for warfare it must be trained to ‘face loud noises, leap fences, charge into crows, and gallop at man’s command, often to its own destruction.’7

I find the argument of the lack of expertise unsatisfactory. First, the population was multi-ethnic with Turkic, Sogdian and other peoples who had the requisite skills. As Skaff notes for Tang-period (618–907) horse breeding, ‘personnel generally had birth and career patterns connections to North China or the China-Inner Asia Borderlands… In the provinces … men had origins in borderland regions, and often were Sogdian and other ethnic minorities.8 Secondly, skills can be learned and the government certainly had reason to provide incentive given their need. And, despite Creel’s argument, we see Chinese involved in horse breeding. For example, in their article on horse breeding on the steppe during the Yuan empire (1280-1367), Jagchid and Bowden quote a report by a Song envoy which states that, of the horse herdsmen, seven in ten are Chinese.9 The argument is also undermined when looking at the period of the Mongol Yuan dynasty which also struggled to breed sufficient horses in China proper.  As Creel notes : ‘Under the Yuan dynasty large numbers of Mongols came to live in China, and one might suppose that the technique of breeding cavalry mounts would have become well-established in China. But there seems to be no evidence that it did.’10

The argument about the lack of pasture is also not convincing given that the government, given the need, could have ensured that land was set aside for this. China had alfalfa, a crop ideal for building strength, a quality Chinese-bred horses seemed constantly to have lacked. However, it is not essential or even necessary for successful horse breeding. As several authors point out, the Mongols rarely feed their horse with fodder. Denis Sinor cites advice given to the Franciscan John of Plano Carpini in Kiev concerning his horses in advance of his journey to Mongolia: ‘they would all die, for the snow was very deep and they would not known how to dig up grass from under the snow like the Tartar horses, nor would he be able to find anything else for them to eat since the Tartars have neither straw nor hay nor fodder.’11

Therefore even with alfalfa, pasturelands, good breeding stock and specialist horse breeders from neighbouring Turkic and Mongolian lands, successive Chinese regimes failed to produce sufficient horses for their needs. But, in a sense, these scholars were correct in that the lack of suitable pasture is perhaps the major reason for the failure of horse breeding in China. But the reason for its unsuitability was only identified in the twentieth century.  And this has not found its way into most literature on the subject nor as yet, as far as I know, has been fully discussed. It provides a much more compelling explanation for the consistent failure of horse breeding in China and one which could not have been known nor easily remedied at the time. This is the fact that there is selenium deficient soil across much of China coupled with the necessity of selenium for horse health. In Richard Stone’s words, ’nowhere in the world are selenium levels as low as in a swath of land that arcs from Tibet in the southwest to Heilongjiang in the northeast.’12

Diagram showing selenium across the territory of present-day China which includes much land previously ruled by Turks, Mongols and others. The pale area in the centre represents the heartland of many of the regimes that ruled China from Chang’an, present-day Xi’an.
Diagram from Sun et al. 2016.

Selenium was identified in 1817 but it was only in the 20th century that its importance to human health was understood following experiments on rats and farm animals. In 1935 Chinese scientists named an illness ‘Keshan disease’ after a county in Heilongjiang Province in the northeast of present-day China where an outbreak occurred. The disease was later found to be prevalent from southwest to northeast China and in 1973 selenium deficiency was recognised as a factor in its aetiology.13 It had a fatality rate of over 80%.

The importance of selenium for animals, including horses and cattle, has since been extensively explored and was identified as a cause of illness in cattle by 1934 although it essentiality was not recognized in western literature until 1957.14 The effects of selenium deficiency are similar in humans and animals. It leads to myopathy which ‘results in weakness, impaired locomotion, difficult in suckling and swallowing, respiratory distress, and impaired cardiac function.’15

As far as I have been able to discover to date, Russian scholars were certainly among the first to make this link between selenium-deficient soil and the failure of horse breeding in China. Jasper Becker noted this link in his 2008 book on Beijing following a conversation with Professor Lev Gumilyev in 1992.16  Johan Elversog, in his 2011 book, Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road, is the only scholar I have found subsequently writing on horses in China to note this citation.17  Most others, including myself, had not picked up on this.

Symptoms of selenium deficiency— credit to Innovetpet.

This would indeed explain why horses bred in the Yellow River valley could not, as noted by Chao Cuo above, ‘compare with those of the Xiongnu’. Or, in the words of the 16th century Jesuit, Matteo Ricci, were ‘so degenerate and lacking in martial spirit that they are put to rout even by the neighing of the Tartars’s steeds and so they are practically useless in battle.’18


1 Hanshu 49-10b, quoted in Creel, Herrlee G. 1965. ‘The Role of the Horse in Chinese History.’ The American Historical Review 70(3), pp. 647–672 [657].

2 Laufer, Berthold. 1919. Alfalfa. In Sino-Iranica: Chinese Contributions to the History of Civilization in Ancient Iran. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, pp. 208-219. [210].

3 Herodotus (III.3.17) from translation by Aubrey de Sélincourt, 2003. Herodotus: The Histories. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

4 Archaeological evidence suggests that the horse-drawn chariot came into China around 1200 BC and that it only started to be adapted for war in the first millennium BC (see Shaughnessy, Edward. 1988. Historical Perspectives on the  Introduction of the Chariot in China. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 48, pp. 189–238.)

5 Erkes, Eduard. 1940. Das Pferd im alten China. T’oung Pao. 2nd ser, 36(1), pp. 26–63 [52-4]. Shiji 110:6. trans. in Watson, Burton. 1958. Ssu-Ma Ch’ien: Grand Historian of China. New York and London: Columbia University Press. p. 159).  For a discussion of this adoption of cavalry see Di Cosmo, Nicola. 2002. Ancient China and Its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.134-8. Di Cosmo also notes that the Zhao king is said to have instructed his military to wear ‘the foreigners’ dress’ (hufu), ie. clothes suitable for riding. Hufu was to become an elite fashion statement in 8th century China.. For a depiction of horses in a tomb from this period see Cooke, Bill. 2000. Imperial China: The Art of the Horse in Chinese History. Lexington: Kentucky Horse Park. (2000) p. 119.

6 Creel, Herrlee G. 1965. The Role of the Horse in Chinese History. The American Historical Review 70(3), pp. 647–672 [670]. It is interesting that similar arguments have been proposed for unsuccessful horse breeding in India. So, for example, from Major-General Crawford T . Chamberlain, 1874,: ‘I ask how it is possible that horses could be bred at a moderate costs in the Central Division, when everything was against success. … 1st, to a damp climate, altogether inimical to horses; 2nd, to the operations being intrusted to a race of people inhabiting a country where horses are not indigenous, and who therefore have no taste for them.’ (Yule, Sir Henry and Henri Cordier (trans.) 1993. The Travels of Marco Polo. North Chelmsford, Ma.: Courier Corporation, 350). Following on from this, I searched for fdetails of soil selenium levels in India. A recent article on this suggests that there is some deficiency: ‘The research work on selenium in soils, plants and animals is of recent origin in India. Since milch cattle suffer due to selenium deficiency or toxicity through fodder, a systematic study of selenium was undertaken.’ (Sudhirendar Sharma (1984) Selenium research in India, International Journal of Environmental Studies, 22:3-4, 231-239, DOI: 10.1080/00207238408710122) – Also see this blog post on the horse in medieval India.

7 Skaff, Jonathan K. 2012. Sui-Tang China and Its Turko-Mongol Neighbors: Culture, Power, and Connections, 580–800. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press quoting Downs (1961: 1193-5, n. 1192) and Creel (1970: 161). Also see Thomas Druml’s very interesting article discussing the three major types of horse of this period (2009), including breeding for elite riding of the type represented in Tang art, which he calls the classical riding horse.

8 Skaff (2017, p. 47-8.

9 Jagchid, S. and C. R. Baeden. 1965. Some Notes on the Horse Policy of the Yuan Dynasty. Central Asiatic Journal. 10, pp. 246-268 [249] quoting from folio 16V of the Heida shilue (黑韃事略), a work mainly by Peng Daya 彭大雅 describing his 1233-34 embassy to the Mongols for the Song dynasty. See also Skaff, on Wang Delun, one of the ranch directors, who was ethnic Han (2017, 51).

10 Creel (1965, p. 668).  See also Smith, John Masson, Jr. 2009. From Pasture to Manger: the Evolution of Mongol Cavalry Logistics in Yuan China and Its Consequence. In Ralph Kauz et al (eds). Pferde in Asien: Geschiichte, Handel und Kultur. Leiden: Brill, pp. 63-74 [69] who cites a debate on whether to convert agricultural land in northern China into pasture.

11 Sinor., Denis. 1972. ‘Horse and Pasture in Inner Asian History.’ Oriens Extremus 19, 1/2: 171–183 [171] from Dawson, Christopher (ed.). 1966.  Mission to Asia: Narratives and Letters of the Franciscan Missionaries in Mongolia and China in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. New York: Harper and Row [52)]  See also Sinor (1972, p. 177), where he quotes a source from 1221: ‘they never feed them with fodder … they pasture them on the steppe according to whether the grass is green or withered … They never give them beans of grain at all.’

12 Stone, Richard. 2009. A Medical Mystery in Middle China.” Science, New Series, 324, no. 5933, pp.1378-38: 1379 see also map on p. 1380.

13 Ge, K. Y. & Yang, G. 1993. The Epidemiology of Selenium Deficiency in the Etiology of Endemic Diseases in China. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Supplement. 57. 259S-63S.

14 Sindeeva made the connection between selenium toxicity and animal disease, thought to be the reason for the observation in Marco Polo of horses/animals dying from eating a certain plant in the Tangut empire, in the northwest. Sindeeva’s book was translated into English and published in 1964, the same year as Rosenfield and Boath also put this link in English print. Sindeeva, Nina Dmitrevna. 1959. Минералогия, типы месторождений и основные черты геохимии селена и теллура. Moscow: Publishing House of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR; Eng. translation 1964: Mineralogy and Types of Deposits of Selenium and Tellurium etc. New York: Interscience Publishers.

15 Subcommittee on Horse Nutrition et al. 1989. Nutritional Requirements of Horses. 5th rev. ed. National Academy Press: Washington D.C. [17-18].

16 Becker, Jasper. 2008. City of Heavenly Tranquility: Beijing in the History of China. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press [18]. The information about Gumilyev was given in  personal communication with the author. I have yet been unable to find any earlier reference to this in Russian scholarship and do not know whether Gumilyev was the first to make this connection or whether it was first proposed by other Russian scholars.

17. Elverskog, Johan. 2011. Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road. University of Pennsylvania Press [196]. This applies to most European language and Chinese language literature. I have not done a full search of Russian and other literature. Although I had heard of the selenium link, I had not been able to find any reference to it and thus also failed to reference this in my chapter on horses in my 2018  book.

18. Sinor (1971, p. 172), from Rossabi, Morris. 1970. The Tea and Horse Trade with Inner Asia During the Ming. Journal of Asian History 4: 136-168 [139].

Posted in horses, military, selenium, Silk Road art and history, trade | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Aurel Stein at Dunhuang

The Mogao rock-cut temple complex near Dunhuang in 1907 during Stein’s visit.
The British Library, Photo 392/26(323).

As many readers of my blog post and other publications will know, I worked for many years as curator of a collection of manuscripts now held at the British Library and mainly excavated by Aurel Stein (1842–1943) on three expeditions to eastern Central Asia between 1900 and 1916. Around 15,000 of these — including fragmentary pieces — were acquired from the so-called ‘Library Cave’ at Mogao near Dunhuang in what is now northwest China. This was a cache of manuscripts, paintings and textiles dating from c.400-c.1000 that had been stored inside a small rock-cut room. Its door had been plastered over and painted, probably around 1000, and it was only rediscovered in 1900.1 Stein arrived there in 1907 by which time the cave’s contents had been removed and an unknown numbers of paintings and manuscripts presented to local officials.2 The bulk of the material was returned to the Library Cave, whether in the same order or not is unknown. Sadly, the original order of the cache was not documented but, as several curators and scholars have already observed, the notes made by Aurel Stein, seven years after the discovery, could provide some clues. Despite this, to date here has been little systematic attempt to collate these data, make them publicly available and see what they might tell us.

A forthcoming paper, co-authored with Paschalia Terzi, addresses this and also provide a detailed presentation of the data to facilitate further research. However, it will undoubtedly be a while before this paper appears in print. Given the recent publication of another co-authored article on a Dunhuang painted banner (see below), Stein and Dunhuang are on my mind. So here I give a snippet from the forthcoming paper concerning Stein’s acquisitions from the Library cave. This is work in progress and any comments will be gratefully received.

Article on a Buddhist banner, probably from Dunhuang, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art
(Metropolitan Museum Journal, 55, 8–25).

Stein first visited the Buddhist site at Dunhuang in 1907 on his second expedition (1906–08). He was assisted by a Chinese secretary, Jiang Xiaowan 蔣孝琬 (Jiang Siye, d. 1922), from whom he learned basic conversational Chinese during the months of their travels. Jiang was also responsible for sorting and numbering many of the manuscripts from Cave 17 in Khotan at the end of the second expedition (see below).

Jiang Xiaowan secretary on Stein’s second expedition, sorting through Chinese material at the end of the expedition. Khotan, 31 July 1908.
The British Library, Photo 392/26(831).

The Library cave had been discovered by Wang Yuanlu 王圓籙 (c.1848–1931), originally an itinerant monk who had settled at the Mogao Buddhist site before 1900. Wang set about fundraising to renovate the Buddhist rock-cut temples, concentrating on their statues. This was a private endeavour. The site, although in much disrepair, was still in some use with at least one resident Tibetan monk. It was also the focus of an annual festival. However, many of the rock-cut temples were partially filled with sand, blown in from the dunes on the cliff above. It was, reportedly, during the clearing of the sand from the corridor of one temple, now numbered Cave 16, that the hidden entrance to the Library Cave, Cave 17, was discovered.3

Wang Yuanlu, guardian of the Dunhuang Mogao rock-cut temples,outside the monk’s quarters opposite Cave 16. Dunhuang Mogao, 11 June 1907.
The British Library, Photo 392/26(327).

To understand Stein’s acquisitions and documentation at Dunhuang Mogao, it is first important to be clear about how and when he acquired material from the Library Cave, especially as there were at least four separate episodes of acquisition on his second and third (1913–16) expeditions. Following Paschalia’s suggestion, we refer to these as ‘Acquisition Events’. These are listed below in the form Acn, Ac for Acquisition, followed by number, dated — where possible — and explained. Ac1 is subdivided into 4 parts, important for understanding the documentation. The relevance of this will be discussed in detail in our forthcoming article.

Second Expedition

Ac1: Dunhuang Mogao, 21 May–13 June, 1907.
Stein arrived at the Mogao Buddhist complex on 21 May 1907. On the evening of 22 May, Wang gave Jiang a small bundle of manuscripts from Cave 17 to take to Stein’s tent for examination. On 23 May Wang showed Stein Cave 17 and took Stein and Jiang bundles from it which they examined during the day in the antechamber to Cave 16 (see below). These bundles contained many paintings and banners. They made initial selections. Jiang was allowed by Wang to remove these selections in the middle of the night and take them to Stein’s tent, which was pitched in front of the cliff. This activity continued for 5 days and nights.[Ac1a]

After this time Wang emptied the cave and stacked the bundles in the corridor of Cave 16 (completed by nightfall 28th May). Stein took a picture of this. However, it was double exposed and so the one often reproduced is, in fact, a re-creation made by drawing the bundles onto the negative of an image of the empty corridor and making a print from this altered negative (see sequence below).

Double exposed photograph taken by Aurel Stein at Dunhuang Mogao showing an image of the Khotanese queen and family in Cave 61 (to left, oriented sideways) superimposed on an image of the corridor of Cave 16 piled with manuscripts removed from Cave 17 (entrance to the right).
The British Library, Photo 392/57.
Stein’s photograph of Cave 16 at Dunhuang Mogao, with the entrance to Cave 17 (the Library Cave) on the right. June 1907.
The British Library, Photo 392/57.
Print made by Aurel Stein to reproduce the double exposed image. The bundles of manuscripts, table and bench were drawn onto the negative of the image of an empty cave 16 shown above. The print from this doctored negative was reproduced in The Ruins of Desert Cathay, Fig. 188 and Serindia, Fig 200.

Wang then presented many ‘regular’ bundles to Stein and Jiang containing mainly Chinese scrolls (see image below) and Tibetan pothi (Ac1b) (Ac1c). Wang returned all the material to the cave overnight on 30th May, completed by morning of 31st May. Regular bundles were added by Wang to Stein’s selections at the end of this period during the negotiations for purchase. (Ac1d: probably about 40-50 bundles). In total, Ac1 consisted of 90 bundles containing about 1200 items.

Images showing a group of what Stein called ‘regular’ bundles from the Library Cave, consisting of Chinese scrolls held mainly in hemp wrappers. The British Library, Photo 392/27(589).

I should add here that, although the Library Cave provenance is clear for most of the material in Ac1, some material was certainly added by Wang to the cave’s contents from elsewhere at the site as Stein notes.4

Ac2: Anxi, October 1, 1907
Later in their expedition, Jiang returned to Dunhuang from Anxi where the previously-acquired manuscripts were being stored. He buys more bundles from Wang which he takes to Anxi. (Serindia, 825)—variously 220 or 230 bundles, consisting of about 3000 scrolls. These were originally packed in huge bags and transferred to crates in Khotan in July 1908.

Third Expedition

Ac3: Dunhuang Mogao, April 1914
Stein returns to Dunhuang. He buys another 570 Chinese scrolls from Wang Yuanlu which fill five cases as large as a pony could conveniently carry. This is after the remaining Chinese scrolls in the caves have been officially removed to Beijing (in 1909–1910). Stein is not the only one to be offered scrolls by Wang purportedly from the Library Cave after this and he assumes that Wang had hidden some of the Cave’s contents from the officials in 1909. It is possible that some of the manuscripts acquired in this manner could be forgeries.5

Ac4: Various, 1912-14
Stein mentions purchasing manuscripts which had Dunhuang as their purported provenance during his 3rd expedition at several places and from several sources [eg 192: 830]. He also noted that many officials, including George MacCartney, the UK Consul based in Kashgar, had such manuscripts. It is also possible that some of the manuscripts acquired in this manner could be forgeries.

In the forthcoming article, Paschalia and I discuss how material from these four acquisitions can be distinguished and identified using Stein’s documentation and other clues. This is important in order to assess the levels of certainty as to the Dunhuang Library Cave provenance of this material. In the course of this, we suggest how this documentation might reveal something about the original ordering of the manuscripts in the Library Cave. Details and a link to the publication will be given on this page.

Thanks to John Falconer, Imre Galambos, Mélodie Doumy, Sam van Schaik and Helen Wang for clarification and data on some details of this article.


  1. Imre Galambos and Sam van Schaik discuss the various theories given for the purpose and closing of the Library Cave in the chapter ‘The Dunhuang Manuscripts’ (2012: 13-34).
  2. This is discussed by Rong Xinjiang (201: 84–102) 82–4).
  3. Rong Xinjiang (201: 82–4).
  4. Stein 1921: 829.
  5. See Whitfield 2000, introduction and various essays for discussion of this.


Galambos, Imre and Sam van Schaik. 2012. Manuscripts and Travelers: The Sino-Tibetan Documents of a Tenth-Century Buddhist Pilgrim. Berlin: deGruyter.

Rong Xinjiang, Imre Galambos (trans.). 2013. ‘The Discovery of the Dunhuang Library Cave’ in Eighteen Lectures on Dunhuang, Leiden: Brill.

Stein, Aurel. 1912. Ruins of Desert Cathay. London: Macmillan and Co.

Stein, Aurel. 1921. Serindia. London: Oxford University Press.

Whitfield, Susan (ed.). 2000. Dunhuang Manuscript Forgeries. London: The British Library.

Posted in Aurel Stein, British Library, Buddhism, cultural heritage, Dunhuang, Silk Road archaeology, Silk Road art and history | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

UNESCO and the Silk Road: The Role of Japan

‘Silk Roads’ is now a concept embraced by UNESCO, with the first transnational serial site as inscribed in 2014. Japan had played a vital role in the early discussion of Eurasian links which led to the adoption of the ‘Silk Roads’ term by UNESCO. I explored Japan’s role and the expanding remit of the ‘Silk Roads’ at the 2015 symposium, ‘Asia and Scandinavia: New Perspectives on Early Medieval Silk Roads.’ Japan was always concerned to ensure that the middle and the ends of this system — Central Asia and Japan — are not neglected. Given the growing voice of China in political, economic and cultural debates on the Silk Roads, it remains to be seen how successful they will be in this.

A map published online in January 2021 by UNESCO for their Silk Road photography contest
presents Japan and Korea as beyond the main ‘Silk Roads’ on ‘trade and connecting routes’.

The conference papers were recently published in The Bulletin of The Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities (81), edited by Eva Myrdal, and I take this opportunity to give brief extracts from my paper below.

Generally — although mistakenly — first attributed to an 1877 publication by Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833–1905), a German geographer with commercial interests in a proposed railway to connect Europe and China, the term ‘Silk Road’ is now commonly encountered both inside and outside academia.1 Yet it was hardly known until a few decades ago. Like many abbreviations, it is not strictly descriptive as James Millward points out, “neither silk nor a road.” (I would be inclined to rephrase this as “not only silk and not only a road.”)2 Nor should it be interpreted as restricting the discussion to the relations between two points, China and Rome, East and West, though it is often popularly presented in this dichotomous way.3 Lands (and seas and rivers) in between are just as much part of the story.(Central Asia; South, Southeast, and West Asia; Africa), all involved in the interregional movement of goods and ideas.4 The Silk Road story cannot be told without their involvement, yet, despite their geographical centrality, they have often been treated as peripheral to the empires on their borders.5 While the term ‘Silk Road’ has now become ubiquitous, some scholars have argued recently for its rejection because of these simplifications and because of its use in a more widespread popular context.6 The adoption of the term, its original scope and challenges to it have been explored elsewhere and will not be repeated here.7

UNESCO was founded in 1946 and was from the start interested in
the historic and cultural links across Afro-Eurasia, although framing this in dichotomous terms—East/West, Orient/Occident.8 In 1951 it convened the Plenary Session of a symposium in New Delhi, entitled “Concept of Men and Philosophy of Education in East and West.” In his closing address, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964), then Prime Minister of India, expressed his dismay at the dichotomous nature in which this agenda was worded: “I have always resisted this idea of dividing the world into the Orient and the Occident.”

Jawaharlal Nehru addressing the Plenary Session of the UNESCO Symposium on the
‘Concept of Men and the Philosophy of Education in the East and West’, New Delhi, Dec. 20, 1951.

His opinion was not the consensus however and a ten-year major project followed in 1956 on the “Mutual Appreciation of Eastern and Western Values.” The joint-declaration argued for an understanding of the exchanges between east and west based on history.9 The project was promoted by the Indian and Japanese members. The Japanese remained very active.10 In 1957 at the “International Symposium on the History of East West Cultural Contacts,” the Japanese National Commission to UNESCO presented a survey of the extensive Japanese scholarship in this field. The term ‘Silk Road’ was noted in this report to name “the international route of ancient times that passed through this area [Central Asia] from east to west.”11 It credited the German geographer Albert Herrmann (1886–1945) with coining the name.

This interest was not new: as the 1957 report makes clear, the desire to search for the roots of Japanese culture in China, India, Central Asia and even further west had driven the expeditions of Count Ōtani earlier in the century. Reports of European explorers contemporary with Ōtani, such as Sven Hedin, were translated into Japanese using various terms for ‘Silk Road’.12 By the 1960s the transliterated term Shiruku rōdo had become the most common.

The Japanese report of 1957 made a division into three intercultural routes between east and west—steppe, oasis and maritime. It stressed the importance of Central Asia, noting that “it should not merely be interpreted as a ‘corridor’ between China and Western Asia.”13 Also, in a point possibly picked up from Herrmann’s work, it argued that the contact with the steppe and the Tibetan plateau were “equally as, or even more remarkable, than contact with China.” One of the stated aims of the report was to broaden the ‘Silk Road’ to challenge “the traditional self-superior attitude of the Chinese.”14

Tourism to foreign countries in Japan, restricted in the post-war period, was fully liberalised from 1964 and grew throughout the 1970s. But political events in China made travel there difficult at this time. However, by the 1980s Japanese had started travelling to sites in north-western China, many inspired by the ten-part documentary, “The Silk Road”. This aired in 1980, jointly produced by the Japanese and Chinese national broadcasters. Among these early travellers was Hirayama Ikuo (1930–2009), a collector and painter of Silk Road themes. He became a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador in 1989.

Mr Koïchiro Matsura, UNESCO Director-General, and Mr Ikuo Hirayama, UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, at the Annual Meeting of Goodwill Ambassadors, February 2002.

Japan, which had been so active at the start of the process, continued to play a role. One of the signatories of the letter calling for the inscription of the ‘Silk Road’ as a World Heritage site was Hirayama. As well as travelling much of the Silk Road and using it to inspire his own paintings, he funded cultural heritage projects at Dunhuang, Bamiyan and elsewhere, as well as offering fellowships to Silk Road scholars. In 1990, he established the “Institute for Silk Road Studies” in Kamakura to encourage scholarship through research projects, conference and an academic journal. The Institute was closed in 2004 but Hirayama then opened his Silk Road Museum to display his collections and own paintings.

In their 1957 report, the Japanese had discussed the tendency for early scholarship in Japan to centre on China. The emphasis in the report on the importance of the steppe and of Central Asia was clearly an attempt to ‘reorient’ scholarship from what was seen as a Sino-centric bias. This concern continued. In 1989 the Japanese government deposited funds in UNESCO: “The Japanese Funds-in-Trust for the Preservation of the World Cultural Heritage.” These have been used for various projects connected with the Silk Road, notably two to help Central Asian countries prepare the UNESCO documentation for their corridor bids.15 In fact the 2003 Mission to China had considered a case study proposing that the initial nomination came from China alone.16 However, after the 2006 Mission, the recommendation had changed to a transnational nomination within a timescale of two to three years. The nomination did not appear, and Japanese funding was given in 2011 to assist the Central Asian countries in this process, leading to the first transnational Silk Road inscription in 2014. This is the ‘Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor‘, a route through China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.”

Japan is not itself currently part of any of the proposed ‘Silk Road corridors’, despite its attempts to get Nara accepted as the eastern end.17 It continues to try to stress Japan’s role in the UNESCO activities seen for example, in a 2014 conference which included a keynote lecture on “Japan’s Contribution to the Inscription of the Silk Roads as a World Heritage Site” and a panel discussion on “The Silk Roads and Japan.”18 It also continues a very active programme of scholarship to support this process.

China, meanwhile, has also embraced the Silk Road concept, realizing its political and economic potential for orienting itself as a modern world power. In 2013, the year before its Silk Road nomination was inscribed, China announced its own initiatives, “The New Silk Road Economic Belt” and “The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.” These are now known as the “Belt Road Initiative” (BRI).

It remains to be seen how much it will affect the continuing Sino-centric bias of much of Silk Road scholarship which Japan, for one, tried to steer UNESCO away from.”

Nara is still presented in Japanese narratives as the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. This from a Nara city site.

This article takes the story to the PRC’s growing involvement in the UNESCO agenda. I am now expanding this research as part of my involvement in the project, Nara to Norwich: Art and Belief at the Extremities of the Silk Roads, 500-1000. I will be looking at how BRI and other Silk Road narratives are influencing cultural heritage policy and understanding, especially in Japan and Korea.


1 Matthias Mertens has recently shown that the term was used in German literature prior to this. See “Did Richthofen Really Coin ‘the Silk Road’?” The Silk Road 17 (2019 [2020]). Chin discusses the adoption of the term by Sven Hedin and the start of its wider usage from the 1930s. See Tamara Chin, “The Invention of the Silk Road, 1877,” Critical Inquiry 40.1 (Autumn 2013): 194–219. Also see Daniel C. Waugh, “Richthofen’s ‘Silk Roads’: Toward the Archaeology of a Concept,” The Silk Road 5.1 (2007): 1–10 and “Sven Hedin and the Invention of the Silk Road,” (paper presented at the Sven Hedin and Eurasia symposium, Stockholm, Sweden, Nov. 10, 2007). The term started coming into general usage in Europe and the United States in the late 1980s, as I showed in a previous discussion, Susan Whitfield, “Was There a Silk Road?” Asian Medicine 2 (2007): 201–213.
2 James A. Millward, The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: University Press, 2013). 3. Bloom has argued for ‘Paper Road’ on the grounds of its influence, Jonathan M. Bloom, “Silk Road or Paper Road?” The Silk Road 3.2 (2005): 21–26. I have no problem with the term “road” or “roads,” taking them in a broad sense to mean marked routes along which people and goods travel. But we have also to take into account routes
across the steppe, which might not follow any single route, and routes across the sea.
3 Dichotomies simplify our view of a complex world and are therefore always seductive, if inevitably misleading and distorting. See Victor Lieberman, “Transcending east-west dichotomies: State and culture formation in six ostensibly disparate areas,” Modern Asian Studies 31:3 (1997): 463–546 and Susan Whitfield, “The Perils of Dichotomous Thinking: Ebb and Flow Rather than East and West,” in Marco Polo and the Encounter of East and West, ed., Suzanne Akbari, and Amilcare A. Iannucci (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 247–261. Chin discusses how Hedin stated this dichotomy in his vision of a new Silk Road: “It should unite two oceans, the Pacific and the Atlantic; two continents; two races, the yellow and the white; two cultures, the Chinese and the Western,” Chin, The Invention of the Silk Road, 217, quoting Sven Hedin, The Silk Road, trans., F. H. Lyon (New York: E. P. Dutton 1938), 223, 233, 234. The background to the UNESCO interest in the Silk Road, discussed below, is firmly based within a dichotomous framework, as discussed by Laura Elizabeth Wong, “Relocating East and West: UNESCO’s Major Project on the Mutual Appreciation of Eastern and Western Cultural Values,” Journal of World History 19.3 (2008): 353–358.
4 Including silk, since it was only in the early centuries of Silk Road history that China maintained the monopoly on cultivated silk production. It had spread into Central Asia by the first few centuries CE. For a summary of the development of silk production along the Silk Road see Susan Whitfield, Silk, Slaves and Stupas:Material Culture of the Silk Road (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018), Chapter 8.
5 There is also the issue of being labeled a ‘peripheral’ trading partner in the framework of World Systems
Theory. This is not something I explore here but see the papers in Kristian Kristiansen, Thomas Lindkvist,
and Janken Myrdal, eds., Trade and Civilization in the Pre-Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2018), for discussion and alternative models. The issue with using ‘periphery’ is that it assumes a core
and is, even if meant descriptively—as in geographical terms—a loaded term
6 In Warwick Ball’s words, it has “become both a band wagon and a gravy train,” in The Monuments of Afghanistan: History, Archaeology and Architecture (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007), 80. Hugh Pope calls it “a romantic deception,” in “The Silk Road: A Romantic Deception?” The Globalist (24 November 2005). See also Khodadad Rezakhani, “The Road That Never Was: The Silk Road and Trans-Eurasian Exchange,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and The Middle East 30.3 (2010): 420–433 and M. G. Raschke, “New Studies in Roman Commerce with the East,” in Aufstieg und Niedergang der Romanischen Welt 2.9 (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1978): 604–1378. Nagasawa Kazutoshi notes that it was used for “many vulgar books which offended academic people,” in “Silk Road Studies in Japan: its history and present situation” (International Seminar for UNESCO Integral Study of the Silk Roads: Roads of Dialogue, Osaka, Japan, 1988).
7 See Susan Whitfield, Life Along the Silk Road (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), Introduction,
for a recent discussion.
8 As Wong points out, this dichotomy was found in the 1946 publication of UNESCO’s first Director General,
“Relocating,” 353.
9 UNESCO General Conference Resolution 4.81, Ninth General Conference, 1956. For the political background leading to this and a fuller discussion see Wong, “Relocating”. I am indebted to her work for this summary.
10 Not so much the Indians who, as Wong notes, became distracted by border wars, “Relocating,” 353.
11 Japanese National Commission for UNESCO, Research in Japan in History of Eastern and Western Cultural Contacts: its development and present situation (Tokyo: UNESCO, 1957), 6.
12 Hedin’s work was translated as early as 1939 by Takayama Yōkichi with the title: 赤色ルート踏破記. (Walking Along the Red Route), Tokyo: Ikuseisha, Shōwa 14. Incidentally, the term ‘red route’ was one used earlier in the century to refer to a proposed railway through British territory in Canada to link to routes to Asia, the ‘red’ referring to Britain in this case, see R. Douglas Francis, Richard Jones and Donald B. Smith, Journeys: A History of Canada (Boston: Cengage, 2009), 284. More pertinent perhaps is its use in the title of a Japanese book, published in 1938 by the political organisation Shinminkai (新民会) that had been founded in
occupied North China with Japanese support (民衆把握戰ニ於ケル「支那赤色ルートノ槪況」. (Beiping: Xin min hui zhong yang zhi dao bu diao cha ke, Minguo 27 [1938]).
13 The term corridor continues to be used in UNESCO and is now commonly found in the discussions of
China’s ‘Belt Road Initiative’ (BRI). See below.
14 Japanese National Commission, Research, 8.
15 UNESCO, “Silk Roads World Heritage Serial and Transnational Nomination in Central Asia: A UNESCO/
Japanese Funds-in-Trust Project,” and a follow up, “Support for Silk
Roads World Heritage Sites in Central Asia (Phase II),”
16 See Jing and Oers, UNESCO Mission. Interestingly this considered the Xi´an to Kashgar route and proposed a conservation management plan for Kashgar. When China joined in a transnational nomination, the route nominated bypassed Kashgar, avoiding recent debate about its conservation. See Yan Haiming, “World Heritage and National Hegemony: The Discursive Formation of Chinese Political Authority,” in A Companion to Heritage Studies, ed., William Logan, Miread Nic Craith, and Ullrich Kocel (London: John Wiley and Sons, 2015), 229–242 (235–8).
17 The decision to make Xi’an in China the eastern end was made at the 2007 “International Symposium for the Serial Nomination for the Silk Roads to the World Heritage”, held in Xi’an. A Japanese report notes “unfortunately, Nara was excluded from this Silk Roads in the nomination. From the side of Japan, it is considered quite essential to keep discussing, in the nomination process, the geographical and historical definitions of the Silk Roads.” See Yamauchi Kazuya, “International Symposium for the Serial Nomination for the Silk Roads to the World Heritage,” Tobunken Monthly Report 11 (2007). The 2014 ICOMOS report recommends further work on drawing in other areas, and includes “the eastern extent of the routes, into Korea and Japan” in this. See Williams, The Silk Roads, 63.
18 Inouchi Chisa, “The Silk Roads as a World Heritage Site: Tracing the Origins of Japan’s International Cooperation in Cultural Heritage,” Tobunken Monthly Report 27 (September 2014).

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A Trio of Mismatched Camels

A post concerning camels and trade, straying somewhat off my usual track, but there is a mention of silk!


Frieze at Peek House. Photograph by Bob Speel.

A stone relief carving by a leading sculptor in 19th century Britain shows three camels—and the bones of a fourth—laden with goods being led by a man dressed in Bedouin robes. It sits above the doorway to Peek House, built in 1884 as the offices for the thriving company of Peek Brothers, importers of tea and other goods. The frieze has been noted in several books and recent blog posts but few have mentioned a striking feature.1 Although it is probably intended to reference the crest of the Grocers’ Company which shows a dromedary representing goods brought from afar (see below), the central camel in the frieze is clearly a Bactrian, a two-humped camel from central Asia. How do we explain this anatopistic beast?

Grocer's Company

Display of Arms of the Grocers’ Company with a crest of a bridled camel laden with bags of pepper.

Sir William Henry Peek (1825–1898) commissioned this work to adorn his company headquarters, built in 1884 at 20 Eastcheap, London after the previous building had been demolished to allow for the construction of the Metropolitan tube line. He employed Alexander Marshall Peebles (1840-1891) as the architect.2 Peebles had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (FRIBA) in 1879 and was responsible for several buildings in the City of London. He became Architect to the Corporation of City of London in 1887.

The commission for the frieze was given to the sculptor, William Theed (1804–91).3 Theed was famous, not only for his royal portraits, but for the allegorical statue of Africa at the Albert Memorial (1865–69). That statue, of course, has at its heart a queen of Egypt on a camel—a dromedary.4


Natalia Semenova / CC BY 3.0

I have not been able to locate archives from the period of the commission, but it is perhaps not too farfetched to hypothesize that the proven portrayal of a camel was one of the reasons Theed was selected for the Peek commission. His high status probably also played a part: Peek Bros was a leading city company.

The company had been founded in 1810 by William Peek, joined a few years later by his brothers Richard and James, becoming Peek Brothers & Co., and established at 20 Eastcheap around 1842.5 In 1865 the company paid duty on over 5 million pounds of tea. Two other companies were meanwhile formed by members of the Peek and Winch families and these merged by the end of the century and became incorporated as a limited company in 1895 as Peek Bros and Winch: ‘the largest wholesale dealer of tea and coffee in the world.’ Sir Henry Peek was the eldest son of James.

Meanwhile, James Peek had established another company for two other sons with George Hender Frean, the husband of his niece, to produce biscuits and cakes. This was Peek Frean & Co. Ltd, later producers of the custard cream and bourbon.6 (Incidentally, in 1866 James Peek sold his interest in the company to his son-in-law, Thomas Stone, a silk manufacturer.)

J. Holden MacMullen, writing in 1912, reports that Sir Henry Peek claimed that he was responsible for the idea behind the design and also noted how many people had praised the accuracy of the camels’ depiction.7 This is perhaps not so surprising: there were plenty of models by this time. For example, in 1865 Elijah Walton (1832–1880) had published a book on the anatomy of the camel providing detailed images.8

Screenshot 2020-08-26 at 15.45.55

Drawing by Elijah Walton showing the proportions of a dromedary.

Walton’s images are primarily of the dromedary and taken from first-hand experience: he spent time in Egypt, Turkey and Syria. But there were also camels at London Zoo, both dromedaries and a female Bactrian. Walton includes the proportions of the latter in his book, giving her height as 7 foot 5 inches to the top of her humps, whereas his dromedaries are measured between 6 and 7 feet. In fact, the Bactrian is usually the shorter of the two but this might explain why, in the frieze, the Bactrian is shown as slightly taller. Theed would have access both to the book and, if he cared to visit, to the camels themselves at the zoo. He could also draw on the experience and work of other contemporaries, such as the painter Frederick Goodall (1822–1904), who also had visited Egypt and often featured camels in his paintings.9

McMullen states that the design was used as the company bill-head before this (repeated by ‘The Wandering Wombat’ author, see note 1), but has this has not been possible yet to verify nor, if so, is it clear who made the original drawing. The billhead below showing the camel design dates from 1921. I have been unable to find an example earlier than 1919 but hope to visit the Metropolitan Archives before too long to check this. Peek Bros. were importers of tea, coffee and spices, and MacMullen and others have suggested that the three camels are each carrying one of these. This seems plausible although no primary source is given nor have I been able to find one.

Peek Bros & Winch (V2c)

Bill from 1921 showing the three camels bill-head.

The presence of the Bactrian remains unsolved. Did Sir Henry ask for it to be included to show that his business empire extended beyond the dromedaries range from the Arabian to Rajasthan deserts. And, if so, what is the Bactrian carrying? Did Peek Bros. have business interests in central Asia? Or is this reading too much into what might have just been a whim of Sir Henry or the artist? I would welcome any further information on this, especially on any known archives, and will post updates.

1. J. Holden MacMichael,’The London Signs and Their Associations.” The Antiquary 48 (1912); 102–105.
Philip Ward-Jackson, Public Sculpture of the City of London. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press 2003), 99.
Chris Partridge, ‘Peek House, Eastcheap‘7 May 2008
The Victorian Web, ‘Camels‘ August 2011;
Bob Speel, ‘Camels Sculpture‘, 2014 ;
Jamie Manners, The Seven Noses of Soho: And 191 Other Curious Details from the Streets of London (London: Michael O’Mara Books 2015).
The City Gent, ‘A Dead Camel in Eastcheap‘, 20 March 2017;
The Rambling Wombat, ‘See a Camel Caravan in Eastcheap‘, April 13, 2019;
Ian Mansfield, ‘Camels in the City of London‘, 1 April 2020.

2. Dictionary of Scottish Architects, 2020.

3. William Greenwood, ‘Theed, William the Younger’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004.

4. Although the original design had a lion. It was replaced because of its associations with Britain. See G. A. Bremner, ‘Between Civilisation and Barbarity: Conflicting Perceptions of the Non‐European World in William Theed’s Africa, 1864–69’, Sculpture Journal 13 (2007), 94–102.

5. ‘The History and Traditions of the Peek Family‘, 2020.

6. Peek Frean & Company, 1857–1957, a Hundred Years of Biscuit Making by Peek Frean and Company Limited. (London 1957).

7. J. Holden MacMichael,’The London Signs and Their Associations.” The Antiquary 48 (1912); 102–105.

8.Elijah Walton, The Camel: Its Anatomy, Proportions and Paces (London: Day & Son 1865)

9. See, for example, ‘Female Riding Camel‘ at the V&A

10. Two bill-heads from Mark Matlach, ‘Peek Brothers & Co./Peek Brothers & Winch
COSGB: A blog for the Commercial Overprint Society of Great Britain (COSGB), 3 April 2011.

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Routes from the Swat: Buddhism in Khotan


Map showing the Khotan oasis surveyed by Aurel Stein and R S Ram Singh of the Survey of India. The old city of Yotkan is indicated by the lighter green circle between the rivers. Archaeological sites and Stein’s routes are shown in red.

In AD 480 the Chinese pilgrim Faxian reached the central Asian oasis kingdom of Khotan, source of jade and a thriving centre of Buddhism. Even though Buddhism was well established in his homeland, China, he was struck by the evidence of the faith in Khotan. Notable on his travels in the kingdom were the number of stupas, both large gilded ones serving the community, but also small family shrines placed, he notes, in front of most houses in the country. Nothing today remains of the medieval capital nor of most of the settlements of Khotan and it is difficult to imagine the impact or extent of this sacred landscape. Only a few monumental stupas and shrines have survived or been discovered, many others might still remain hidden by the desert sands or have long disappeared. But the Swat valley in northern Pakistan, although a very different terrain, perhaps offers an insight into how Buddhism once dominated the landscape and defined the sacred space in Khotan.

The Buddhist remains from Swat, the region of Uḍyāna, have been quite extensively studied, perhaps most famously by Aurel Stein (1862–1943) in the late 19th/early 20th century and then, from 1956, by Guiseppe Tucci (1894–1984) with the Italian Archaeological Mission (IsIAO).1 Now led by Dr Luca M. Olivieri and working with the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (Pakistan), the work of the Mission continues and had sought to take a unified approach to the sacred landscape.

‘To approach the topic of the sacred areas and monastic settlements of [Swat] from the typological point of view and at the same time viewing them as unitary complexes formed by several interconnected artifacts and the surrounding conditions, contributes to the relaunching of a method in the field of architectural history in which the buildings are considered as a whole for the purpose of relating volumes and spaces to a way of life and no longer considers them as mere material remains of a past culture.’2

On studying and then visiting the Swat valley in October 2019, particularly the area discussed by the Italian Mission, it became clear that the instigators of the Buddhist structures had a topographical awareness akin to that of military planners, in that all the routes and valleys radiating out from the Swat valley and the city of Bazira (Birkot) were dominated by these structures. We can still see the remains of stupas along the Swat valley itself, a main route from Peshawar and Taxila north through to the high mountain passes leading to the heart of central Asia, but we also find them on the routes radiating out from Birkot through the smaller valleys some of which then lead over local passes to other major routes, such as to that following the Indus valley to the east. The latter routes were probably used for more local and inter-regional travel, trade and pilgrimage. In addition, as Aurel Stein noted and, more recently, Gregory Schopen has explored further, the placing of the structures also took into account the surrounding features: their gardens and landscape views were an important element.3 This is clearly apparent in two sites, Tokar-dara and Abbasaheb-china where the beauty of the approach and surroundings of the Buddhist complexes remains breathtaking—Uḍyāna comes from the Sanskrit word for garden. Stein was reminded of Devon lanes when he first came here and, while the butterflies are considerably more spectacular than those found in southwest England, much of the vegetation is indeed similar.

Abbasaheb-China I site, Swat

Stupa and monastic complex at Abbasaheb-china I, October 2019. Photograph by John Falconer.

How then to apply this framework to the Khotan oasis, at first sight a very different landscape?


Rawak stupa in Khotan. October 2008. Photograph by John Falconer.

The kingdom of Khotan, as shown in Stein’s map above, is an oasis settlement radiating out along river courses from its capital (marked as Yotkan) in the foothills of the Kunlun mountains. The kingdom is at a higher elevation that most of Swat: Birkot, lies at 880 m while Yotkan is at 1382 m, but Khotan is also in the foothills of a great mountain range and controls the routes to mountain passes. The main route lies along the southern fringes of the Kunlun, west to Yarkhand and east to Keriya, and was that used by most long distance travellers, including pilgrim monks from China and India. Routes south from Khotan through the mountains were used for local and inter-regional trade, travel and pilgrimage: for example, to and from western Tibet or, more locally, for bringing gold, jade and other gemstones from the mines in the mountains. To the north routes led through the desert along irrigated river courses to the kingdoms of the northern Taklamakan, such as Kuche, and to join the east-west route there. Of course, the obvious difference today is that the Birkot is in a fertile valley, lush with vegetation and rice fields, while Khotan is an oasis, verdant at its heart but caught between the barren northern slopes of the Kunlun and the Taklamakan sand desert. Stein describes the view from the mountains to the south, a far cry from the ‘Devon lanes’ of the Swat:

‘I shall never forget the view that opened westward and in the direction of the distant plains. There were lines upon lines of absolutely bare rocky spurs, closely packed together and running most from south to north; between them, shut in by unscalable rock slopes, was a mass of arid gorges, of which the bottom could not be seen. It was like a choppy sea, with its waves petrified in wild confusion. Far away on the horizon this rocky waste was disappearing in a yellow haze, the familiar indication of another region which knows no life—the distant sea of sand.’4


The Taklamakan, Stein’s ‘sea of sand’. In the foreground are the skeletal remains of farmsteads from the 1st-4th century kingdom of Caḍ́ota (Niya). They would have originally been surrounded by orchards and linked by poplar-lined canals and lanes. November 2011. Photograph by John Falconer.

There are a number of problems in attempting to take a unified approach to Khotan. First, unlike Swat with its stone faced stupas, such structures in Khotan were built of unfired clay bricks with decorations and sculptures of plaster. Thus, while the early archaeologists and travellers in Swat found—and removed—extant stone decorative friezes and statues, at Khotan only those elements buried and protected by the desert sand survived. Many of the monumental structures at Swat have largely survived wars, earthquakes, robber and locals seeking building materials, and it is possible to reconstruct to some extent the surrounding building complexes, including monastic structures and smaller shrines. However, in Khotan, the natural elements, especially winds and flash floods, and locals seeking building materials or treasure, have reduced many structures to no more than mounds of earth while others are hidden by encroaching desert sands: we can be certain that not all have been located or identified. This problems is compounded by the fact that the old route through the desert is further north than the existing route, often covered by sand and difficult to trace.

Secondly, there has been no long-term systematic archaeological work at Khotan. After Stein and his contemporaries, it was not until quite recently that archaeology resumed. The 2002 Sino-Japanese excavations of Dandan-uliq in the north of the kingdom explored this site extensively with a detailed publication, and a Sino-French team have done excellent work at neighbouring Karadong, but much other work has been piecemeal.5 For many years the archaeologists have had to spend much of their time and resources on rescue archaeology—for example, the Buddhist temple at Toplukdun near Domoko was excavated after farmers happened upon it—rather than large-scale surveys leading to focused excavations. And there are often only summary rather than full reports on the archaeology.6 Thirdly, the concentration of the archaeology has been on desert sites and less work has been done along the routes up the mountain valleys. And fourthly, and just as importantly, the different topography might have resulted in a different solution to the definition—the controlling—of the sacred space.7

Screenshot 2020-07-23 at 10.05.25

The Buddhist landscape around Birkot in the Swat Valley. Courtesy Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan—ISMEO, elaborated by Emanuele Morigi, further annotations by Luca M. Olivieri and Susan Whitfield.

Despite this, I still think it is a useful exercise to approach Khotan as a whole and to see if the example of Swat can shed any light on this once thriving Buddhist kingdom. If we take this analogy, we would expect to see Yotkan at the centre of a web of routes radiating out and marked by Buddhist establishments. The east-west route along the fringe of the desert would be the equivalent to the Swat river route between Mingora and Malakand, as seen on the map of Swat above. And indeed we find evidence of several monumental stupas with associated Buddhist structures along this route in Khotan on the approaches to the city. Xuanzang, for example, mentions a stupa ‘one hundred feet high’ just west of the city. Stein identified the remains of this on the fringes of a Mazar and cemetery: ‘A little low mound, rising scarcely five feet above the surrounding ground’.8 It was still considered a hallowed spot by the local—Muslim—villagers, an indication of the persistence of sacred structures and space. Slightly further west, Stein noted the remain of Kara-kir stupa, ‘much decayed but still holding its own  among the high dunes of the surrounding drift, The base of the structure when intact must have been about 65 feet square.’9 Going east we see another stupa, Arka-kuduk, which in Stein’s day was ‘so thoroughly destroyed by erosion, and probably also by diggings for ‘treasure’, that no approximate idea could be formed of its original shape or dimensions.’10 These are stupas seemingly in similar styles to those in Swat, namely tall domes on platforms, the style sometimes referred to as a ‘terrace stupa.’ There are other stupas further east around Domoko.

Screenshot 2020-07-25 at 21.06.58

Google Earth Map with overlay of Buddhist sites noted by Stein, from the Digital Silk Road Project Stein Placename Database.

The routes north from Khotan through the desert are more problematic as they have not been clearly traced and certainly changed considerably over time as water courses shifted. One of the most impressive structures in Khotan is Rawak stupa, northeast of the city (pictured above). Probably too far north to lie on the main route east-west, its size and complexity—with perimeter walls containing corridors lined with over life-size statues—indicate that it was near an important route. With three terraces and staircases on four corners, it is stylistically similar to stupas further west.

Further north, between the Karakash and Keriya rivers lies another extensive Buddhist site, that of Dandan-Uliq. This contains numerous small shrines and monastic structures. A large stupa has not been found in the vicinity. However, with much of the site still buried by sand, it is possible that one exists. Was this on a route north from Yotkan, probably on an old course of the Chira, or was it on a east-west route nearer the northern edge of the oasis, leading to the two main north-south routes to the east and west (or both)? The existence of a river with irrigation here and thus more vegetation would have enabled travellers to use this as a stopping point before going east or west to join one of the cross desert routes. Settlements with stupas and shrines are seen at the edges of cultivation on the rivers to the east (now all dry river beds): Karadong on the Keriya (although further north, outside the map above), Niya and then Endere.

There are several old routes branching south off this main east-west route into the mountains following the river valleys, such as the Yurung-kash and Chira, and then joining main routes leading to the Karakorum Pass and thence to Ladakh and the other between the two mountain ranges leading to the western Tibetan plateau. On his survey of Khotan, the Yale University geography professor, Ellsworth Huntingdon (1876–1947), explored some of this region.11 He noted that it was only in the lower valleys that conditions were favourable for some terraced agriculture supporting villages. Higher up pastoralists lived in caves and goat-skin tents, moving their herds between summer and winter pastures.

Over the course of his first three expeditions to the region, Stein and his surveyors travelled and mapped the mountains area south of Khotan. Given the terrain and climate, we might only expect to find substantial Buddhist structures in the lower valleys where the climate and water were able to support nearby communities. Evidence is scanty but is to be found. For example, southwest of Khotan Stein records a much decayed stupa below the village of Puski on the mountain track to Zanguya. The lowest base measured 34 feet square and Stein speculates that it might have been similar in size and style to that of Topa-Tim near Kashgar.12 He found no trace of local habitation, suggesting that the stupa marked the route. Moving east along other river valleys, he notes the sacred cave which had been identified by M. Grenard, a previous explorer, with Xuanzang’s Mount Gosringa, a pilgrimage site for the Khotanese. Then on the next river valley, that or the Yurung-kash, long dug for jade, he finds the remain of a stupa near Chalmakazan. Further east still, also on a route south, remains of a pair of stupas, one large and a smaller mound were visited by Stein north of the village of Nura. They had been previously noted by Huntingdon.13

Without trying to push the analogy too far, I believe that it is important at Khotan, just as the Italian Mission has argued for Swat, to consider the Buddhist remains in relation to a larger sacred area which marked and protected Khotan in the first millennium. The work carried out by Stein and, more recently, archaeologists from China and Japan, has enabled a preliminary and very rough plotting of this space, as shown above. But more work is needed to understand it fully and, importantly, to see how it was defined and restricted by the local terrain. I hope to continue this work—sadly, only remotely—as research for my forthcoming history of this important but neglected Silk Road Buddhist kingdom.


1. For a summary of Stein in the Swat with further references see Luca M. Olivieri, 2015. “Frontier Archaeology’: Sir Aurel Stein, Swat, and the Indian Aornos.” South Asian Studies, 31:1: 58-70. For a history of the Italian Archaeological Mission in Swat see Luca M. Olivieri., 2006. “Outline History of the IsIAO Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan (1956-2006).” East and West 56, 1/3: 23-41. Accessed July 14, 2020. also

2. Quotation from Piero Spagnesi, 2006. “Aspects of the Architecture of the Buddhist Sacred Areas in Swat.” East and West 56, 1/3: 151-175, p. 172. Accessed July 14, 2020. For a full exposition of this approach see Luca M. Olivieri, Massimo Vidale et al., 2006. “Archaeology and Settlement History in a Test Area of the Swat Valley: Preliminary Report on the AMSV Project (1st Phase).” East and West 56, 1/3: 75-150, pp. 129–31. Accessed July 14, 2020.

3. Gregory Schopen, 2006. “The Buddhist Monastery’ and the Indian Garden: Aesthetics, Assimilations and the Siting of Buddhist Monastic Establishments.” In Pierfrancesco Callieri, ed. Architetti, capomastri, artigiani: L’organizzazione desi canteri e della produzione artistica nell’Asia ellenistica: Studi offerti a Domenico Faccenna nel suo ottantesimo compleanno. 225-45. Rome: Istituto italiano per L’Africa e l’Oriente. I discuss this further in my Silk, Slaves and Stupas. Oakland: University of California Press 2018: 92-3. I am using stupas as a framework for the sacred space. Of course, there were many other structures that may have been used to define/populate it, from smaller shrines to rock carvings as noted in Olivieri, Vidale et al. 2006, cited above.

4. M. Aurel Stein, 1903. Sand Buried Ruins of Ancient Khotan. London: T. Fisher Unwin: 233. Describing the valley of the Yurung-kash river south from Khotan, Stein wrote: ‘Gravel and coarse sand, with scarcely a trace of vegetation, covers the ground; and the landscape, save for the distant view of the Khotan oasis below, was one of complete desolation.'(207).

5. Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology; The Academic Research Organization for the Niya Ruins of Bukkyo University, eds. . 丹丹乌里克遗址-中日共同考察研究报告 [Dandan-Uiliq Site—Report of the Sino-Japanese Joint Expedition]. Beijing: Cultural Relics Press. For an interim report of the Sino-French excavation see Corinne Debaine-Francfort, and Abduressul Idriss, 2001. Keriya, mémoire d’un fleuve: Archéologie et civilisation des oasis du Taklamakan. Suilly-la-Tour: Findakly, Paris: Electricité de France. A full excavation report is in progress.

6. With the current political situation and cultural genocide taking place in this region, the possibility of work on the ground is neither desirable nor possible. The situation of the local archaeologists is not clear. The destruction of much Uyghur heritage, including most local shrines and many historic mosques and cemeteries will have undoubtedly also have destroyed or damaged other historical remains.

7. I plan to explore this further, especially the use in Khotan and the region generally of smaller shrines/monastic complexes without any obvious monumental stupa, such as at Toplukdun, Dandan-Uliq or in neighbouring Miran.

8. Stein 1903: 265.

9. Stein 1903: 192.

10. M. Aurel Stein, 1907. Ancient Khotan, Oxford: Clarendon Press: 471. Other Buddhist shrines might be expected at the higher altitudes or less populated routes, such as rock carvings and cave paintings—such as seen at Swat (see Olivieri, Vidale et al., 2006, cited in n. 2 above, for further discussion). Indeed, Stein is told by locals of caves now worshipped as Mazars in the mountains southwest of Khotan. He equates these with a legend recounted both by the Indian monk Jinagupta (b. 523) who came here c. 556, and then by Xuanzang. This told of arhats from India who, having reached this state, use their supernatural abilities to fly here and take residence in the caves. Xuanzang notes that a great number of stupas were erected in this place. Having entered nirvāṇa their bodies shrivel but their hair continues to grow and so monks come to give them hair cuts and trim their beards (M. Aurel Stein, 1921. Serindia, Oxford: Clarendon Press: 89).

11. Ellsworth Huntington, 1907. The Pulse of Asia. Boston, Houghton, Mifflin and Company.

12. Stein 1921: 91.

13. Stein 1921: 1322.

Thanks to Dr Luca M. Olivieri, Mr Shafiq, Dr Elisa Lori, Mr Sirat and their colleagues at the Italian Archaeological Mission in Swat for hosting the visit of myself and John Falconer and for sharing their expertise and time so generously. Thanks also to Alice Casellini for her company and insights.

I would also like to thank colleagues in Xinjiang who hosted my previous visits to Khotan and also shared their great expertise and time most generously. It is they who should be able to work freely and lead research on this. I very much hope there might be a time in the future where it is possible to work together again, but this is far from certain. I take this opportunity to deplore the cultural genocide taking place there and the cruel and inhumane treatment of the local population. Their history is part of the Silk Road and it is both tragic and ironic that the government of China which uses the ‘Silk Road’ brand so liberally for its own purposes, is directing a programme which seeks to destroy an essential part of this—the diversity of the region’s history, peoples and cultures.

A joint grant to myself and John Falconer from the British Academy Stein-Arnold Fund enabled this visit, with additional support from the Leverhulme Foundation.

For other posts on a recent visit to Swat, see those of Llewelyn Morgan on the Jahanabad buddha and on Stein and Aornus.

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Early Exhibitions of the Collections of Aurel Stein, Part 3: 1914, King Edward VII Galleries


View of the 1914 exhibition, west wall, showing the embroidery of Buddha (MAS,0.1129) flanked by paintings of Mañjuśrī (to our right, 1919,0101,0.34) and Samantabhardra (1919,0101,0.33), 121-3 in the catalogue.
Stein Photo 28/7(3), Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences

On 7 May 1914, the British Museum opened the new north wing of the Museum, the King Edward VII Galleries.1 The opening exhibition in the ground floor galleries showed paintings, manuscripts and other artefacts acquired by Aurel Stein (1862–1943) on his Second Central Asian Expedition (1906–1908).2 As noted in a previous blog post, Thomas Humphrey Ward (1845–1926), Leader Writer for The Times, considered that these were  ‘the most exciting part of the display’.3 Here I look at the background to the exhibition.

In January 1909, 90 crates of artefacts from Stein’s second Central Asian expedition (1906–1908), including many paintings and manuscripts from Dunhuang, arrived in London from Bombay. Fred Andrews (1866–1957), friend and part-time assistant to Stein, was employed by the India Office Library to unpack, sort and list these. He was assisted by Mr Evelyn-White and Miss Macdonald, succeeded later by Mr Droop and Miss Florence Lorimer (1883–1967). The Museum’s share of the artefacts from Stein’s First Central Asian Expedition (1900–1901), 252 items, had been acquisitioned into the Museum’s collections in November 1911, given the prefix 1907,11. to indicate the date and some were on show.4 Andrews was thus free to work on this new material. The India Office also paid for a ‘repairer’, Mr W. J. Goodchild, to work on the paintings, supervised by Stanley Littlejohn (1876–1916), the ‘repairer and restorer’ in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum.5

In early August 1909, after fierce lobbying by Stein, the team moved from the Natural History Museum to a basement in the British Museum while Stein was on leave. As the finds were unpacked, several scholarly visitors came on private visits, including Stein’s close friend, the French scholar M Sylvain Lévi (1863–1935) in April 1910. In June that year, Andrews and Lorimer mounted a small private exhibit for other scholars. Stein noted:

‘The “private view” of the B.M. exhibition brought me into touch with some interesting & interested people, & my ancient paintings seemed to make a strong impression. A party from the Louvre invaded “nos caves” & grew quite ecstatic over certain items like the embroider picture for which M. Mignon, the “conservateur” thought we might well ask any price within the total cost of my exhibition…. Of course, I try to limit such visits as much as I can, to save our time.’6

In June 1910, 25 of the paintings from Dunhuang were included in a exhibit in the Prints and Drawing Gallery, as I have discussed previously.  By July 1910 Stein notes that 70-80 banners had been flattened and by this time he had a team of 18 specialists working on various parts of the collection. This work continued throughout the following year and some of the flattened banners were displayed in the Festival of Empire in from May 1911. Stein retreated to Oxford to continue writing his account of his second expedition, Ruins of Desert Cathay. With this finished, he returned to India in November 1912 and started preparing for his Third Expedition (1913–16). Before he left he appointed the French scholar, Raphael Petrucci (1872–1917) to prepare a catalogue of the paintings.7

Stein’s second expedition (like his first) had been funded jointly by the India Office and the British Museum, with the agreement that the finds would be divided: three-fifths to go to India and two-fifths to the British Museum. Some of the divisions were fairly straightforward: for example, in 1910 it was suggested and agreed that the majority of the Tibetan manuscripts should go to the India Office Library, which already had collections and expertise in this area, whereas the majority of the Chinese manuscripts should remain in the British Museum. But others proved more problematic, especially the division of the paintings from Dunhuang.

In June 1913, the Director the British Museum, Frederic Kenyon (1863–1952) wrote to Stein raising the issue of the division and suggesting an exhibition of his work in the new galleries. Stein responded to this in July from his summer camp in Kashmir with letters to Kenyon and to the India Office. In the latter, he requested that no action be taken until his detailed report was published.8 The reply to Kenyon also discusses the division and his concerns about the lack of facilities in India to preserve the fragile material. He suggests various solutions: temporary deposit in another institution until the situation improved (and the British Museum, he adds, would be the ideal place to keep the collection together); the India Office gifting the material to this same institution; or ceding the share for monetary compensation.9 He also mentions that he is  ‘happy to learn that the proposed exhibition of our collection can now be definitely hoped for by next spring’ and provides some general guidelines for the exhibition. For example, he proposes it is organised by archaeological site, with Dunhuang using the largest space. and that Petrucci is consulted about the arrangement of the paintings. Stein further suggests that the murals are positioned as close as possible to their original position on the temple wall. Andrews is left to decide the colour of the walls etc.

Fred Andrews moved back to British India in September 1913 to become Principal of the Technical Institute in Srinigar, a month after Stein had started out on his Third Expedition. Florence Lorimer was left in charge of the unpacking and listing as well as organising material for the exhibition. Stein requested a rise in her salary and for her employment to be continued until the end of 1915.10

The correspondence about the division of the collection continued, with the Government of India raising strong objections to Stein’s proposals and to his assertion that there were no museums with adequate facilities in India. They pointed out that new gallery was being built at the Museum in Lahore for temporary holding of their share, and then the finds would move into a new purpose-built museum in Delhi.11  The exhibition was proposed by the Standing Committee as a means of facilitating the division.12 It was to be held in the ground floor galleries of the new wing.

Edward VII Galleries under construction
  Edward VII Galleries under construction, 1910. Watercolour by Frank Lishman (1869–1938).  The British Museum CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Extensions to the British Museum had been envisaged as early as 1895 when the trustees had purchased 69 houses surrounding the Museum intending to demolish them and build to the north, west and east. Work to the north finally started in 1906, the building designed by John James Burnet (1857–1938), to be knighted in 1914 for this work (Fred Andrews was, however, not impressed, describing the gallery as of ‘absurd construction’).13  King Edward VII laid the Foundation Stone (designed by Eric Gill) on 27 June 1907.  However, he died in 1910 and the Edward VII Galleries were opened by King George V and Queen Mary on 7th May 1914. The other two wings were not built.



Opening of the Edward VII Galleries.

As discussed in a previous blog post, Lorimer wrote to Stein describing the opening:

‘The ceremony was very short, and the Mighty stayed in the building only for a short half-hour after, in the course of which they walked through the Gallery & Mr Binyon’s top floor Exhibition, and personally inspected Mr Dodgson, Mr Binyon, and the architect, so that you will see how much time they had to look at the exhibitions themselves. The Private View in the afternoon was most unfortunately affected by the weather; for there was a succession of heavy thunder-showers and it became extremely dark. After a time they put on the lights in the gallery but the lights at the top of the cases themselves were not yet finished, so that one could not see anything at all well; some of the India Office were at the ceremony in the morning, and also Dr van Lecoq who has just been out here for two days, and Prof. Rapson.’14

Lorimer enclosed two copies of the catalogue with her letter.

Stein returned to England in May 1916 where he had chance to see the galleries. But he immediately retreated to Oxford and then, after four months there, to Devon to finish work on Serindia. He heard there of Petrucci’s early death of diptheria in February 1917 and despaired the loss of a friend but also the slow nature of research on the Second Expedition finds. He did not find England during wartime a comfortable place and decided to return to India, leaving London (via Paris) in September 1917. Before he left, he confirmed a post at Rs 500 per month for Lorimer to work with Andrews in Lahore on the Third Expedition material (although she was not to go to India until 1919).

In 1917 the division of the finds was finally agreed in London and most of the artefacts were acquisitioned into the Museum’s collections in the same year, with the prefix MAS (for Marc Aurel Stein). In 1918 Stein completed the text of Serindia at Stein’s summer retreat in Kashmir. The finds for India were packed into 67 crates and sent to the India Office in London for safekeeping during the war. The ones for the British Museum were also packed for safe keeping and in January 1919 the Dunhuang paintings were finally acquisitioned into the British Museum collections with the prefix 1919,01. The others were shipped to India. By this time, finds from Stein’s Third Expedition had arrived for sorting and the work — and discussions —began again.


1 Their visit was captured by Pathe News and also reported in The Times. See Helen Wang 2002. Sir Aurel Stein the Times. London: Saffron Books: 41.

2 The exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue, Guide to an Exhibition of Paintings, Manuscripts and other Archaeological Objects collected by Sir Aurel Stein, K.C.I.E., in Chinese Turkestan. (London: The Trustees of the British Museum 1914). The introduction was reproduced in a former blog post.

3 The Times, 7th May 1914, 5c; in Wang 2002: 65. He was not alone in his praise. The art historian Sir Claude Phillips (1846–1924) writing for The Daily Telegraph (7 May 1914) states that ‘they are of great novelty and importance…. ‘.

4 The finds from the First Expedition were divided between The British Museum, the India Office Library (IOL) and institutions in India. Discussion about division of the manuscripts continued up to 1917 and the India portion was only sent along with the Second Expedition finds in 1918. It was agreed that those manuscript remaining at the IOL in London were to be sent to India after their publication. After independence in 1947, the India Office  was disbanded but the Library remained in London. In collections became part of the British Library in 1983. They are identified by the prefix to their Library MS. no., namely IOL or IO. 

The introduction to the 1914 catalogue states: ‘‘A previous journey made by Sir Aurel Stein in 1900-1901, of which the most important proceeds are exhibited elsewhere in the museum… ’ ‘Introduction’, Guide to an Exhibition of Paintings, Manuscripts and other Archaeological Objects collected by Sir Aurel Stein, K.C.I.E., in Chinese Turkestan. (London: The Trustees of the British Museum 1914).

5 For further details of their work, and the issues arising, see my previous post,

6 Stein to Percy Allen, 19/6/10, Bodleian Library,  MSS. Stein 7/64. The ’embroider picture’ is almost certainly that of ‘Sakyamuni preaching on Vulture Peak’ (MAS,0.1129) shown on display in the opening picture of this article, cat. 122 in the 1914 exhibition catalogue. Its museum reg. no, MAS,0.1129, suggests that it was acquisitioned into the collections in 1917 along with other artefacts, but before the paintings, which were acquisitioned in 1919. However, the Museum acquisition register only lists items up to MAS,0.1128.

7 Petrucci had finished two sections of this before his early death, these were published as Appendix E to Stein’s expedition report, Serindia. Laurence Binyon (1869–1943), Assistant-Keeper in charge of the Sub-Department of Oriental Prints and Manuscripts at the British Museum, and his assistant, Arthur Waley (1889–1966), took over this work. A list of all the identified paintings was prepared for the end of the chapter on Dunhuang.

8 Letter to D. D. Drake, Sec. Revenue Dept. IO, 12 July, 1913. Bodleian Library MSS. Stein 10/129–31. Serindia, the report, was not to be published until 1921. 

9 Stein to Kenyon, 1 July 1913, British Museum CE32/23/49.

10 To £20 per month. Letter to D. D. Drake, Sec. Revenue Dept. IO, 12 July, 1913. Bodleian Library MSS. Stein 10/129–31.

11 This correspondence is mainly found in the British Museum CE/23/32/50 to CE/23/32/108.

12 ‘In order to facilitate the eventual division of the collection between the Trustees and the India Office, the Director proposed that an exhibition be held in the Ground Floor Gallery of the New Wing in 1914.’
[Standing Committee 11 Oct. 1913/3137]

13 Andrews to Stein, 15 August 1914, Bodleian Library MSS. Stein 11/139-41. Andrews had presumably seen the galleries before his departure for Lahore. He was not alone in his opinion: Sir Claude Phillips in an article the The Daily Telegraph on the opening wrote at some length on the gallery describing it ‘a chilling environment’, most depressing’ and ‘the greatest fiasco of modern times’. See here for for a more recent assessment.

14 Miss Lorimer to Stein, this section dated 8 May 1914. Bodleian Library, MSS. Stein 94/157.


If I can find out any information, the next post in this series will be on the 1919 Stein photographic exhibition held at the Royal Geographical Society in London.


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New Book: Silk Roads: Peoples, Cultures, Landscapes


Screenshot 2019-09-26 at 20.28.26
Screenshot 2019-09-26 at 20.28.47

There was no ‘Silk Road’. It is a modern label in widespread use only since the late 20th century and used since then to refer to trade and interaction across Afro-Eurasia from roughly 200 BE to AD 1400. In reality, there were many trading networks over this period. Some of these dealt in silk, yarn and woven fabrics. Others did not. Some started in China or Rome, but some in central Asia, northern Europe, India or Africa — and many other places. Journeys were by sea, by rivers and by land–and some by all three. Despite these ambiguities, the term has acquired a familiarity and brought regions and peoples often less well covered by modern historical writings to greater prominence and accessibility. It could also be argued that the growing popularity of the term has encouraged a more global historical viewpoint. For this reason I have referred to the ‘Silk Road’ – or perhaps slightly less misleadingly, the ‘Silk Roads’– unashamedly in my writings and exhibitions. If I were to provide a general definition of what I mean by the term – and how it is used in this book – it would be something like:
“A system of substantial and persistent overlapping and evolving interregional
trade networks across Afro-Eurasia by land and sea from the end of the 1st
millennium BC through to the middle of the 2nd millennium AD, trading in silk
and many other raw materials and manufactured items – including, but not limited
to, slaves, horses, semi-precious stones, metals, pots, musk, medicines, glass, furs and fruits – resulting in movements and exchanges of peoples, ideas, technologies, faiths, languages, scripts, iconographies, stories, music, dance and so on.”

Each section of this book starts with brief introductions to the landscapes of
Afro-Eurasia, to some of the many peoples and cultures inhabiting these landscapes over the Silk Road period, and to the uncovering of their archaeological legacy.
The book is structured by the types of landscape through which the Silk Road
networks passed – steppe, mountains and highlands, rivers and plains, deserts and oases, and seas. The skies are common to all, but included with seas because of their role in maritime navigation. These are no more than broad and permeable divisions: rivers rise in mountains, emerge into plains and disperse into seas or desert sands. Nor are they intended to be comprehensive: this is not a book on the complex ecosystems of Afro-Eurasia. But the landscape is an essential character in any Silk Road story, and too often given only a minor role.
The landscape, however, can also bias or limit our viewpoint. It preserves and
destroys without discrimination. For example, the desert sites of eastern central Asia and north Africa have yielded numerous silks, local and imported. But the monsoons have long destroyed south Asia’s textile legacy and we can only reconstruct it from clues in historical texts, from paintings and other artifacts and, very importantly, from textiles exported to distant lands, such as the desert settlements of Cadota and Antinopolis. In recent times, the legacy of the sea has started to be uncovered with the growth of maritime archaeology. The hulls of long-sunk ships have preserved their cargoes of ceramics and glass, but direct evidence of the human cargoes of slaves – very much part of Silk Road trade – has long disappeared. Wherever it is possible, or known, such absence is noted.

As well as the objects considered in the thematic essays, each section showcases
around twenty artefacts (see list below), from complex architectural or archaeological structures, such as cities or shipwrecks, down to small objects, such as glass beads. As well as illustrating the various topics discussed, the showcased items also exemplify interaction, having been influenced from elsewhere in their materials, form or motifs, and/or having themselves travelled along some of the Silk Road networks. Some of the artefacts are oft-reproduced, but I have also tried to include some lesser-known and newly excavated objects. These are not always the most spectacular or best preserved, but have an important part in the story. The story of the Silk Roads is not only one
of luxury goods.
In part because of its long timescale but, more crucially, because it covers areas of the world that are not part of the cultural and historical landscape of most readers – whether from Africa, Asia, Europe or America – the study of the Silk Roads can be daunting. A plethora of unfamiliar names and places can confuse and befuddle. I beg the reader’s patience to try not to be distracted by these. This work is intended, like one of the complex weaves discussed in the looms and textile essays to reveal a design through an interweaving of layers of numerous coloured threads. Reading one essay or caption may show little, but looking at more will, I hope, start to reveal something of the complex pattern of the Silk Roads.
I am delighted that so many of the leading scholars from institutions worldwide
have contributed to this book, some with thematic essays and others describing
objects they have excavated or studied. Understanding anything about the Silk Roads demands collaboration across cultures and languages. The diversity of styles and the different opinions expressed by the contributors is also key to this volume: it, too, is part of the weave.

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The book is published on 3 October 2019 in the UK by Thames&Hudson and is also available in French (Flammarion), German (WBG), Spanish (BLUME), Finnish (Tammi), Italian (Einaudi) and Korean (Cum Libro) language editions as well as in a US edition by University of California Press.

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The Rectification of Names: Caves, Grottos or Rock-Cut Temples?

“If the names are not correct, language is without an object.”

Confucius, Translated by Simon Leys. The Analects of Confucius: London and New York: W. W. Norton 1997: 13, 3.

In her 2013 essay, Phyllis Granoff argued that the term ‘cave temple’ conflates two separate types of structures, temples and caves, leading to confusion over our understanding of the function of these:
‘temples are carefully constructed structures… with all the varied architectural elements that beautified secular palaces… dwelling places for the gods or the Buddha or the Jina. Caves, on the other hand, are uncanny natural structures, that may be fantastic by their very nature, leading to other worlds, or frightening in their lack of refinement and their distance from any civilising influence.'(27)

Ajanta, Rock-cut temple 26. Dey Sandip.

Yet the term ‘cave’ continues to be used to describe temples across the scholarly, cultural and tourism fields, with, for example, UNESCO using the labels ‘Mogao Caves’ and ‘Ajanta Caves’ for two of the largest and most important temple sites. Granoff suggests ‘rock-cut’ to describe the form – this is the term generally used for some other sites, for example the churches at Lalibela which appear on the UNESCO listing as ‘Rock-hewn’. However, ‘Buddhist temple’ would generally suffice unless we need to bring attention to the form of these religious structures. We use ‘church’ to describe a building used for Christian worship whether this is rock-cut or built of stone, wood or other materials.

I would take this argument further, and suggest that the widespread use of the term ‘grotto’ — certainly in English — is even more misleading as to the use and function of temples. Grotto, according to the OED, is “A small picturesque cave, especially an artificial one in a park or garden. This was a loan,” so the OED continues, “in the 17th century from the Italian grotta, via Latin from Greek kruptē (see crypt). Such grottos are relatively common features of large gardens of this period, usually placed in or near water and fashioned to look ‘natural’.”

There are therefore at least three structures to be considered:

1. Minimally changed natural cave used for shelter, retreat etc.
2. Artifically enhanced (both in terms of size/shape and in forms of decoration) cave — which might or might not exist before — made to look ‘natural’.
3. Artifically enhanced (both in terms of size/shape and in forms of decoration) cave — which might or might not exist before — made to appear as a free-standing piece of architecture.

Buddhist rock-cut temples, as Granoff points out, clearly belong to 3), that is they were created to resemble free-standing architecture, ie man-made structures, and their naturalness was disguised. This is seen in their carved or painted architectural features, such as arches at the entrance to Ajanta temples or the carved and painted roof beams and lanterndecke ceilings in many of the Dunhuang Mogao temples. In some early caves, wooden architectural elements are added inside the temple, such as Cave 4 at Bamiyan with its wooden lanterndecke.

We can trace this confusion back to the early archaeologists of this sites. Stein, for example, used both grotto and cave. Grotte and grotten as well as caverne and Höhlentempel were used by French and German explorers. While the characters/kanji 窟 and 洞 are found in Chinese and Japanese accounts. However, perhaps it is now time to address the inevitable ambiguities in the use of these terms and agree a more precise vocabulary for use in scholarship to avoid confusion.

Thanks to Imre Galambos, Miki Morita and Simone Raschmann for discussions on the non-English use of these terms.

Phyllis Granoff. 2013. “What’s in a Name? Rethinking ‘Caves’.” In Pia Brancaccio (ed). Living Rock: Buddhist, Hindu and Jain Cave Temples in the Western Deccan. 19–29. Marg 64.4. Mumbai.

This post is the first of a projected series on the importance of agreeing our terminology in scholarship – the ‘rectification of names’. The next post will consider pagodas/stupas.

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Lost in the Desert: Stein at Dura-Europos

Aurel Stein at Dura-Europos, 1929. The British Library, Photo 392/42*

Over the winter of 1928-9, the city of Dura-Europos on the Euphrates was being excavated by a team led by Maurice Pillet (1881-1964), which included a Yale academic, Clark Hopkins (1895-1976) and his wife, Susan M. Hopkins (1900-?), the last responsible for registering the finds. They camped at the local village, Salihyeh, while a house was built to house the archaeological mission.

Susan Hopkins sent regular letters to her family in the US giving valuable insight into life in the camp.[1] Writing to her family on 26 January 1929 she reported that: ‘We have in camp a very distinguished guest, an Englishman Sir Orel [sic] Stein who has traveled and dug all over the East in Turkestan, Afghanistan, Persia and forty years in India. He is a funny little fellow and terribly slow but nice, and he does know heaps. He’s got his own tent, but he eats with us. He leaves tomorrow by camel for Palmyra.’

Stein was by this time, at the age of 67, on his retirement tour of the west Asian parts of the Silk Roads.[2] He had set out in November the previous year, heading to Karachi, Basra and to Baghdad. This he made his base for visiting Samarra and Ctesiphon, before travelling by car along the Euphrates to track the limes — Roman-period defensive walls. He moved from one archaeological site to another — Ur, Lagash, Wraka, Samarra — before taking to an RAF plane at Mosul to see other, more distant, sites. He arrived at Dura-Europos in January. His intention was to join camel troops to go to Palmyra on further surveys of the limes. However, as Susan Hopkin’s subsequent letter to her sister on 31 January shows, he remained longer than expected at Dura-Europos.

‘We still have our distinguished visitor, Sir Aurel Stein, with us and shall have for some time. He is a little, ordinary-looking Englishman, who has been archeologizing in this part of the world most of this life — for more than 40 years. Apparently he is a person of great consequence because the Syrian government was warned in advance of his coming, and everyone was prepared to be hospitable.

‘We, however, weren’t quite prepared for his pitching his tent in our backyard and staying. He is waiting now for a platoon of Méhariste, the camel troops, who are to go with him to Palmrya at which place he hopes to find an important ancient route. He is an old friend of Clark’s father [3] and the author of several books, one of which — Clark says its a beautiful book — is called Innermost Asia. I think you might like to look at it.’

As the editors of Susan Hopkin’s letters go on to explain, during his time there Clark Hopkins and Maurice Pillet took Stein in their car to make a desert reconnaissance in search of ancient routes. Clark later writes to his father about the journey back:

‘Stein got lost. He kept giving the chauffeur the wrong directions as he led us back to Dura in the afternoon. He sat in the back seat with his compass and would shout to the driver “a little right” and “a little left” and this way and that every few yards.’ Looking through his field glasses he then identified Salihyeh but, when they got closer it turned out to be a flock of sheep. Next he drove them to a cliff face, also wrongly identified as the village. Finally they made their way back by asking directions of some shepherds. Clark is amused to note that Susan had remarked before the trip that it ‘would be most useful to observe his methods.'[4] But perhaps the speed of travelling by car rather than on horseback upset Stein’s normally reliable natural gyroscope. Pillet inscribed the photograph of Stein in front of his tent [above] as a remembrance of his stay.

Stein left in early February. He was to return to the Euphrates in 1938 where, on his way to Palmyra, he discovered a ‘well-preserved castellum with a massive barrage, a fine specimen of Roman engineering'[5] a discovery reported in an article in The Times on 1 June 1939.[6] He then took again to the air, thanks to the RAF and the Iraq Petroleum Company, finding more signs of the Roman routes.

* This is one of two loose prints with covering letter from Maurice Pillet, dated Paris 27 June 1929. In this letter Pillet asks Stein to accept the photographs as a souvenir of his time at Dura-Europos and thanks him for sharing his knowledge of the history and archaeology of Asia during his short visit: ‘It goes without saying that I would be very happy to welcome you again to Salhiyah for as long as you wished. Our house is completed and is comfortable, but our tents remain, if you prefer.’
Thanks to John Falconer for this information.

[1] Susan M. Hopkins, Bernard Goldman, Norma Goldman. My Dura-Europos: The Letters of Susan M. Hopkins, 1927-1935. Wayne State University Press 2011. Her husand writes about Stein’s visit in his account of the excavations, Clark Hopkins (ed. Bernard Goldman), The Discovery of Dura-Europos. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979: pp. 59-60.
[2] Jeanette Mirsky. Sir Aurel Stein: Archaeological Explorer. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press 1977: 459.
[3] Edward Washburn Hopkins (1857–1932).
[4] Susan M. Hopkins, Bernard Goldman, Norma Goldman. My Dura-Europos: The Letters of Susan M. Hopkins, 1927-1935. Wayne State University Press 2011: 149.
[5] Jeanette Mirsky. Sir Aurel Stein: Archaeological Explorer. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press 1977: 515.
[6] Helen Wang. Sir Aurel Stein in The Times. London: Saffron Books, 2002: 127.

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Silk Road Summer School

A Royal Asiatic Society Summer School

Monday July 8 – Thursday July 11, 2019

A four-day course in central London offering an introduction to the Silk Road, its arts, history and exploration. Participants will have the chance to see original manuscripts and books at the British Library and the Royal Asiatic Society, introduced by their curators.

This is a course intended for a general audience. No prior knowledge is required, although a short bibliography will be supplied for those wishing to do some reading in advance. The group will be limited to 12-15 people and therefore there will be ample opportunity for questions and group discussion.

For further information: OR download leaflet.

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