The Painting Left Behind

I’ve been in the Stein archives at the Bodleian again (checking final references for a forthcoming paper) and, as usual, ended up tempted down several rabbit holes. This blog post is the result of exploring one of the shorter and more easily navigated—written while awaiting retrieval of further material— and highlights the issues that Museums and Librarys can face when acquiring, sorting, cataloguing and caring for large, diverse collections. I will write further on this in future posts on another Dunhuang painting, mislaid, and on timelines of the acquisitions of the Stein collections.

In a letter dated 11 September 1927 to Laurence Binyon (1869–1943) at the British Museum, Aurel Stein (1863-1943) writes from India of his amazement of having received a letter from F.W. Thomas (1867–1956) at the India Office in London (The Bodleian Library, MS. Stein 65/251–2). The letter enclosed one of the paintings that Stein had acquired at Dunhuang in 1907. His surprise was compounded by the fact that Thomas had not recognized it as an original but described it as ‘an enlarged proof.’ Given that this was a fragile painting on silk it is difficult to see how Thomas could have made such a mistake. Stein is confused, but rejoices in the fact that it has reached him from London by letter post without loss or damage. It was a painting of Virūpākṣa, as shown below, with the Stein id. Ch.0040 (see forthcoming paper for a detailed discussion of these ids.).

Painting of Virūpākṣa from Dunhuang.
Stein Ch.0040, NMI 99-17-001.

Stein’s acquisitions from Dunhuang and elsewhere on his second expedition (1906–1908) were originally sent to London and then unpacked, numbered and sorted in the British Museum. His expedition had been jointly funded by the Museum and India and the collections were to be duly divided and a portion sent to the India Office in London for dispatch to Delhi. This could not start until they had been unpacked and listed and this took several years. The division was discussed before and during the First World War (1914–1918) during much of which Stein was on his Second Central Asian Expedition (1913–1916). He was keen that the material remain in the Museum until his return so that he could have access to it to finish his expedition report (Serindia, published in 1921). In a future post I will give a detailed timeline of this period.

In May 1914, an exhibition opened at the British Museum of much of the material (see my previous blog post). There were two banners of Virūpākṣa listed in the catalogue: cat. 40 is described as ‘Virupaksha, King of the Western Quarter, in full armour and with a sword’; and cat. 69 has ‘Virupashka trampling on a red-headed demon.’ The latter is almost certainly the painting in question. By this time it had had at least preliminary conservation work involving mounting and backing with thin Japanese paper: it can be seen in its original state in an early Stein photograph (Photo 392/27(594)). Much of this was done in 1911–12 in preparation for the photography for Serindia. It is possible that it was also conserved further for the exhibition by conservation with silk over a light wooden frame. Further photography was carried out in London during this time but was not comprehensive owing to lack of funds and time.

The discussion over the division of the paintings continued through the war years. The list, produced largely by Raphael Petrucci (1872–1917) in 1911–14 (before he left to work at a hospital run by the Red Cross in Belgium), was adjusted and finally agreed in 1917 (Petrucci died in the same year of diptheria contracted in hospital after an operation). The material destined for India was then packed up by Florence Lorimer in the British Museum in 1918 and sent to the India Office in London to await dispatch to the proposed new museum in New Delhi. The paintings agreed for the British Museum were acquisitioned into the collections in 1919.

The Indian material was not to be dispatched until several years later. By this time the painting had been listed in Serindia (p.948 and Pl. LXXXV) and illustrated and described in The Thousand Buddhas (Pl.XXVII), both published in 1921. 1927 was Thomas’s final year at the India Office: he took up the post of Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University. It is therefore possible that came across this piece when he was sorting through material prior to his departure.

In his letter to Binyon, Stein writes:

‘As you know, I had nothing whatever to do either with the distribution (done during my absence on the third expedition) or with the packing up of the Indian share by Miss Lorimer in 1918 or its repacking by Andrews in 1923 and the handing over to you in 1924 of the paintings. I am therefore, quite unable to explain how this banner got mixed up with MSS sent to the India Office Library and how its absence from the paintings which were being catalogued in your Department remained unnoticed.’ (Bodleian Library, MS. Stein 65/251–2)

Binyon replies, suggesting that it must have been sent to Thomas before the distribution was agreed and admitting to the ‘mislaying’ of several paintings over this period:

‘It must I think have gone to him by mistake before the division was made, as it is not on either of the typed lists (Neither the IO nor the BM list). I think more than one painting was reported missing at the time. And in fact on each occasion when the collection has been handed over some items have been reported missing thought they usually reappear.’ (MS. Stein 65/253, 4 Oct. 1927)

This banner was among those that was photographed in this early years for Serindia. But many more had not, and Stein therefore had ensured that a full listing and description of the paintings and other objects was included in his expedition report. Although this was not published until 1921, the work was done in 1913 by Florence Lorimer, one of his assistants at the British Museum (see Wang 1998), with the input of various visiting scholars. He praises her work:

‘I took special care to secure a sufficiently detailed description of all pictorial material which would provide needful guidance also as regards the many paintings etc that had to be left without illustrations… This descriptive list reproduced below in Section …. has been prepared mainly by the hand of Miss Lorimer who devoted to it for years an amount of painstaking study and care which I cannot value too highly. In it has been embodied also much useful information on artistic points received from Mr F H Andrews previous to 1913 and what valuable iconographical indications expert Japanese scholars like Professors Taki and Kano and Mr Yabuki were kind enough to furnish on their more of less prolonged visits to the collection.’ (MS. Stein 406/3622-23) and see slightly revised version in Serindia 836–6)

But the painting was in the initial list of the proposed division of the painted material between the British Museum and India submitted by Petrucci in late 1914/1915 (BM, CE32/173/4, p.15). Changes were suggested to this list by Binyon—including adding ‘six pictures accidentally overlooked by M. Petrucci.’ (Letter from Denison-Ross to Binyon, 26 Feb. 1915, CE32/23/62/3). Several others then also had their say. The final list, with revisions, was eventually agreed by both parties in 1917 but it was also agreed that, for safety of the objects, no distribution should take place until after the war. This final list did not contain Ch.0040 so perhaps Binyon was right and it had been sent to the India Office for some reason before this. It seems cross-checking between lists —including Florence Lorimer’s—was not a strong point!

Stein/Lorimer’s list is, indeed, invaluable, most especially as a catalogue of the paintings sent to India was not to appear until 2012 (Chandra and Sharma). Although this painting is in the concordance with the museum reg. no.99-17-101, it is not pictured or described in the catalogue. The reg. no. prefix 99, indicates that it was found in 1999 but its absence in 2012 suggest that it might again be mislaid.


My forthcoming article, jointly authored by Paschalia Terzi, is entitled: ‘Reconstructing a Medieval Library? The Contents of the Manuscript Bundles in the Dunhuang Library Cave’, and will appear soon in the inaugural issue of Silk Roads Archaeology and Heritage, edited by Tim Williams.

Chandra, Lokesh and Nirmala Sharma. Buddhist Paintings of Tun-Huang in the National Museum, New Delhi. New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2012.

Wang, Helen. “Stein’s Recording Angel: Miss F. M. G. Lorimer.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 8, no. 2, 1998, pp. 207–28. JSTOR, Accessed 1 Mar. 2023.

A detailed timeline of this period and the Japanese scholars will be discussed in future blog posts.

Posted in Aurel Stein, British Museum, Dunhuang, paintings, Silk Road archaeology, Silk Road art and history | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Central Asian Collections in Munich

The Turfan and central Asian collections held mainly in Berlin resulted from four expeditions led by Albert Grünwedel (1856–1935) and Albert von le Coq (1860–1930) between 1902 and 1914. But they were not the only German explorers to this region over this period: there are collections in museums in Munich and Bremen. In May I was able to visit and study these and here I give a brief introduction to the largely unpublished and unexhibited Munich collection.1

Francke/Körber Collection in Munich

The Museum of Five Continents, Munich.

I originally learned about this collection at the Museum of the Five Continents in Munich through Dr. Ulf Jäger who wrote a short introduction to it for IDP News 25 (spring 2010), followed up with a longer piece in The Silk Road Journal (4.1: 60-63). The collection is not fully catalogued or published.2 Dr Gerd Gropp (1935–2022), who brought attention to the collections in the 1980s (Gropp 1984), carried out a preliminary classification but was unsuccessful in raising funds to catalogue it fully. He passed on the endeavour to Dr Jäger but funds are still lacking. The recently retired curator, Dr Bruno Richtsfeld, published a two-part article in German (2010–11). The first part describes the expedition in more detail and gives a description of the collections. I am indebted to his article for much of the information below.

As this article explains, the finds taken to Berlin by Grünwedel and le Coq prompted the director of the then Königlich Ethnographisches Museum München, Prof. Dr. Lucian Scherman (1864–1934), to fund his own expedition in the hope of acquiring similarly spectacular exhibits for the Munich museum. The scholar chosen for the expedition was the Tibetologist, August Hermann Francke (1870–1930): pictured below. Francke was at this time cataloguing Tibetan manuscripts and inscriptions acquired from Endere in the Tarim Basin by Aurel Stein on his first expedition.4 He had lived in Ladakh from 1896–99 and was due to return, funded by the Bible Society, for further mission work in this region (Bray 2015). He therefore arranged his travel to go to Leh via Kashgar, Yarkhand and Khotan and suggested Hans Körber (1886–1979), a teacher with skills in photography as well as in Chinese, Russian and Turkish languages, as a companion.

They started out in May 1914 and travelled through Russia—separating in Moscow—making collections on the way. They met again in Kashgar and travelled via Yarkhand to Khotan visiting sites noted by Aurel Stein who had excavated in this region on his first and second expeditions (1900–1 and 1906–8 respectively). Stein had passed this way in the previous year on his third expedition (1913–16) and was, in summer 1914, travelling from Inner Mongolia and towards Turfan. They did not meet: Francke and Körber’s proposed visit to Turfan, which Grunwedel and Le Coq had previously visited, was abandoned.

Unlike Stein and Grünwedel/Le Coq, Francke and Körber did not excavate but generally acquired their finds through surface acquisitions at sites, purchases from locals and some through the help of Karekin Moldovack, an Armenian silk and carpet merchant then resident in Khotan (on whom more in a future post but also see Waugh and Sim-Williams 2010). Their acquisitions were mainly small: pottery sherds, manuscript fragments, coins, stucco pieces, figurines. They noted the sites at which the finds originated, using a system similar to that of Stein and depending largely on his works for identification of the sites. A list is given below. Of course, in cases where they acquired pieces from locals this provenance might not be accurate and we also know that forgeries had been produced for nearly two decades by then (Waugh and Sims-Williams 2010).

After packing their finds in Khotan, they left them in the care of Moldovack to be sent on to the Swedish Mission to Kashgar for shipping to Europe. They departed for Tibet on 17 August, 1914. On crossing the border into Kashmir, they met Count Filippo de Fillipi (1869–1938), the Italian explorer—and great friend of Stein—who told them of the outbreak of World War I. They made more collections which were left in Leh. As Germans moving into what was then British territory, they were considered enemy aliens and were interred on arrival in Srinigar and then taken to the POW camp in Ahmednagar. By this time, if not before, the two men had fallen out and were never to reconcile. Körber remained in the camp until the end of the war, writing there his manuscript ‘Morphologie des Tibetischen’, which was to gain him his doctorate in 1921 after his release from the University of Marburg. He held various other posts in China and the Phillipines before going to California in 1928 where he took US citizenship. He then held posts at the University of Southern California and the University of San Diego and remained there until his death.

A.H. Francke. Sketch by the Hungarian artist Laday, made in Ahmednagar POW,
Source: Francke 1921, frontispiece.

Francke, however, was released from the camp in 1916 as part of an exhange of prisoners and was repatriated via England to Germany.5 He was then drafted, first as an ambulance driver then as a interpreter in POW camp for Indians in Romania. After Romania joined the war against Germany he was detained in POW camp near Belgrade, only returning to Germany in 1919. Here he published the account of their journey which he had written in the camp in India (Francke 1921). He was then to obtain his doctorate and became Professor of Tibetan at Berlin University (Bray 2015).

The collections remained in Kashgar and Leh until after the war when Francke raised funds for their transport, via Leh, to Berlin where they arrived in 1928. He unpacked them and wrote a description, reprinted in Richsfeld’s article, but died soon after.

The items have all since been given FK (for Francke-Körber) museum numbers and there is a handlist which goes to FK-1176, although many objects are in multiple parts. This list also includes material from Tibet. The manuscripts have been photographed. The material is now mainly stored in trays, organised by types of objects rather than sites—box 33 for example, pictured below, contains fragments of moulded feet and fingers, all that remains of complete statues in Buddhist settings from Domoko (Kad.) and Aksipil (A.).

Below is a list of sites and a brief description of the types of material acquired, summarized from Richtsfeld (2010-11: 91–125). NB. Francke made clear that they did not visit many of these places but acquired material in Khotan from local ‘treasure-seekers’.

A.—Aksipil: Yotkan-style pieces and Buddhist figures acquired from locals.
AK.—Akterek: purchased a small collection of coins.
Bo.—Borazan: on way to Yotkan.
Cad. see Kha.
Ch.—Chal-mak Kazan: south of Yotkan. Did not visit. Buddhist pieces brought by locals.
DB.—Dombak: visited grave site and dig up clay pot with cremated remains.
Do.—Domoko: Buddhas feet and fingers (pictured above) acquired from locals, as well as manuscripts in Chinese, Tibetan and Khotanese.
H.—Hanguya: Buddhist figures in white plaster, ‘See especially the standing Buddha in Abhaya-mudra, H.72 and H.98, perhaps the finest piece in our collection.’
I.—Iman Jafar: clay and bronze items, including coins, spoon and eagle head, acquired from locals.
Kad._Khadalik, Domoko: see description under Do.
Kha.—Khan-ui, north of Kashgar, including old settlement site, fort and Buddhist stupas Topa Tim and Maura-tim: bought copper coins from local treasure seekers and a pottery figurine, said to come from here, purchased from Hogberg, one of the resident Swedish missionaries.
kan.—Kashgar: stucco finds, potsherds and jade from remains of Japanese (Otani expeditions) in old town. Islamic-period glazed bricks and coins acquired from locals.
Kd.—Kara-dobe: found pieces white stucco and were brought other pieces by locals.
K.I.—Khotan (general): this used for ‘all finds that were acquired in Khotan and about whose origin nothing was known.’ [Richstfeld 103]
Ki.—Kanchugan (Kinchuglian), Islamic period fortress near Kashgar: Potsherds and some slag picked up from ground.[FK4]
Kiz.—Kurgan Tim, remains of a stupa near Kashgar: potsherds.
Ks.—Karasai: pieces of stucco/clap brought by locals.
K.T.—Karakir Tim: pottery sherds picked up from ground.
Leh.—Ladakh: purchase of items for which no export ban.
M.Ta.—Mazar-tagh: manuscripts in Tibetan, Sogdian and Tocharian acquired from locals in Khotan.
M.—Mo-ji: potsherds.
Nu.—Nubra: In Ladakh en route to Tibet: clay tablets in Tibetan.
Thurs. see Kha.
Y. and Yo.—Yotkan: potsherds, some with masks; animal figurines (see below); two ivory dice; jade figurines; beads. Purchase of a modern ribbon loom with patterns. Y. indicates that the provenance is less certain.

Box 8 with monkey figurines from Yotkan. (More on monkeys from Khotan in a forthcoming post).

Y.—Yarkand: coins recently from near Yamen; Islamic-period glazed bricks from a local shrine
YA.I.—Yengi Arik I at Guma: potsherds.
YA.II.—Yengu-Arik II: Chinese coins, bronxe rings, buckle etc from locals.


1. The Bremen collection was catalogued and published by Dr Gropp in 1974.
2. Ronald Emmerick published some of the manuscript fragments in a 1984 article.
3. The second part discusses the subsequent history of the collection through the correspondence of Lucian Scherman and Albert von Le Coq. As Richtsfeld notes, the Munich collection includes ‘fourteen copies of Buddhist wall paintings that Albert Grünwedel found on the 3rd Berlin Turfan Expedition (1906/07) and donated to the museum in June 1911.’ (Richsfeld 2010-11: 65-66)
4. Published as ‘Tibetan manuscripts and sgaffiti discovered by Dr M. A. Stein at Endere.’ Ancient Khotan: 548-569, Appendix B.
5. For a discussion of Francke during this period see Bray 2015. I have not been able to confirm the details of Francke’s release but in 1916, as this document shows, there was discussion about releasing civilian POWS over 45. Franke was 46 at this time: Körber only 30. See


Bray, J. 2015. ‘A.H. Francke’s Last Visit to Ladakh: History, Archaeology and the First World War.’ Zentralasiatische Studien 44:147-178.
Emmerick, R. E. 1984. ‘Newly-discovered Buddhist Texts from Khotan.’ In Y. Tatsuro (ed.). Proceedings of the Thirty-First International Congress of Human Sciences in Asia and North Africa. Tokyo: 219–20.
Francke, H. 1921. Durch Zentralasien in die indische Gefangenschaft. Verlag der Missionsbuchhandlung.
Gropp, Gerd. 1974. Archäologische Funde aus Khotan, Chinesisch-Ostturkestan. Die Trinkler-Sammlung im Übersee-Museum, Bremen. Bremen: Friedrich Rover.
Gropp, Gerd. 1984. ‘Eine neuentdeckte Sammlung Khotanischer Handschriftfragmente
in Deutschland.’ In Middle Iranian Studies, pp. 147-150. Edited by Wojciech Skalmowski and Alois van Tongerloo. Leuven: Uitgeverij Peeters.
Jäger, Ulf. 2005. Archaeological finds from Khotan in the State Museum of Ethnography in Munich. IDP News 25: 3.
Jäger, Ulf. 2006a. The August Hermann Francke and Hans Körber Collection: Archaeological Finds from Khotan in the Munich State Museum of Ethnology. The Silk Road, 4.1: 60-63
Jäger, Ulf. 2006b. ‘On one of the largest collections of pre-Islamic antiquities from Central Asia in Germany: the August Hermann Francke and Hans Körber collection from Khotan / Xinjiang / PR China from 1914 in the State Museum of Ethnology in Munich.’ Archäologisches Nachrichtenblatt 11(3): 268–71.
Körber, Hans. 1921. Morphologie des Tibetischen. Marberg University. Diss.
Richtsfeld, Bruno J. 2010-11. ‘August Hermann Franckes (1870–1930). Bearbeitung der Serindien- und Ladakh-Sammlung Francke/Körber im Völkerkundemuseum München aus dem Jahre 1928. Die Serindien-Sammlung des Staatlichen Museums für Völkerkunde München I.’ Münchner Beiträge zur Völkerkunde 14, pp. 65–128.
Richtsfeld, Bruno J. 2010-11a. ‘Der Briefwechsel Lucian Scherman – Albert von Le Coq und die Gründe für das Scheitern einer Serindien-Abteilung am Völkerkundemuseum München. Die Serindien-Sammlung des Staatlichen Museums für Völkerkunde München II.’ Münchner Beiträge zur Völkerkunde 14, pp. 129–193.
Waugh, Dan. & Ursula Sims-Williams. 2010. ‘The Old Curiosity Shop in Khotan.’ The Silk Road 8: 69-96.

Many thanks to Jens-Uwe Hartmann, Ulf Jäger, Anahita Mittertrainer, Renate Node, Simone Raschman, Uta Werlich, and conservation staff at Munich for all their help with providing information, contacts and enabling this visit. Thanks also to the Leverhulme Trust: the visit was carried out as part of my Leverhulme Emeritus Fellowship to research the history of Khotan for a forthcoming book.

Posted in Aurel Stein, Buddhism, Silk Road archaeology, Silk Road art and history | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Early Exhibitions of the Collections of Aurel Stein, Part 5: 1922: Indian and Persian Paintings, British Museum.

After 1919, parts of the newly acquisitioned Stein collection in the British Museum started to be exhibited in permanent and temporary exhibitions. This series concentrates on the latter, but we have a few hints of the former in this period from the correspondence between Binyon and Stein. Laurence Robert Binyon (1869–1943) was curator from 1921 in the newly formed Department of Ceramics and Ethnology: the Keeper was Robert Lockhart Hobson (1872–1941). In a letter from Binyon dated 16 July 1921, for example, he writes: ‘I have now got the beautiful mandala (Pl.3) framed and hung in our small permanent exhibition, where it is greatly admired.’1 He is almost certainly referring to the painting 1919,0101,0.32 (Ch.xxxvii.004) reproduced in Plate 3 of The Thousand Buddhas. Ancient Buddhist paintings from the cave-temples on the western frontier of China published in 1921 with an introductory essay by Binyon. If so, this would have taken up considerable space—it measures 180 x 201 cm framed.

Laurence Binyon at the British Museum. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Binyon was also very active in ensuring that the newly acquired Stein collection was displayed in temporary exhibitions, notably the 1922 ‘Exhibition of Indian and Persian Paintings and Illuminated Manuscripts, with Specimens of the Art of Eastern Turkestan, Tibet, Burma and Siam’ and the 1925 ‘Objects Brought by Sir Aurel Stein from his Third Expedition to Central Asia.’ I look at the first of these here and will discuss the latter in the next post in this series.

During Binyon’s tenure, he mounted several other exhibitions of Indian and Chinese material. None of these had a published Guide, and I have not yet had the opportuity to check the Museum archives to see if there is any information about their contents. It is possible that any of them might have contained Stein material, but especially the 1927 ‘Chinese frescos’. I list these other exhibitions at the end of this post and will add information here as I find it.

Binyon became Keeper of Prints and Drawings in 1932, and retired in 1933. The Department of Ceramics and Ethnology also ended in 1933 replaced with the Dept. of Oriental Antiquities and Ethnography: Hobson continued as Keeper.

1922: Exhibition of Indian and Persian Paintings and Illuminated Manuscripts, with Specimens of the Art of Eastern Turkestan, Tibet, Burma and Siam

The exhibition, curated by Binyon, opened in May 1922. As Binyon says in the opening paragraph of the short sixpenny Guide to the Exhibition, its aim ‘was to illustrate from the Museum collections the schools of Indian and Persian paintings, supplemented by a few specimens of the pictorial arts of others countries which have been strongly influenced by Indian Art and religion, viz. Eastern Turkestan, Tibet, Burma and Siam.’ The exhibition consisted of 178 paintings in the main section, with sixteen from these other countries and twenty manuscripts. It was held in the department’s galleries. The dates are not given. It received a review by The Times art critic, Charles Marriott (1869–1957) in Rupam: An Illustrated Quarterly Journal of Oriental Art, Chefly Indian (12, pp.122). The same issue carried a review (pp.134–139) of Stein’s The Thousand Buddhas. Binyon’s discussion in this undoubtedly influenced his choice of eight Stein paintings which comprise the East Turkestan contribution of the 1922 exhibition. They are listed below with the entry from the guide and the museum registration number, as far as I have been able to identify.

The classification of the first three items as Nepalese style helps to identify them. In Serindia, Stein identifies ten paintings with this characteristic, seven of which were sent to the National Museum of India, New Delhi.2 The three in the British Museum are therefore almost certainly the ones displayed in this exhibition. Stein refers to ‘the masterley treatise’ of his friend, the French scholar M. Foucher, namely Etude sur l’Iconographie Bouddhique de l’Inde (Paris, 1900), to conclude ‘that they must have been painted under the direct influence of that late Buddhist pictorial art of India which prevailed in the Gangetic plains, and the style of Nepal appears to have preserved in a particularly conservative manner.’3 He further hypothesizes that this iconographic style came to Dunhuang through Tibet, and that the Tibetan and Brahmi inscriptions on two of the banners confirms this but suggests that ‘the banners in no way differ from those of undoubtedly Chinese origin as regards material, size or arrangement of accessories.’4

Vajrapāṇi, 1919,0101,0.103. © The Trustees of the British Museum

However, as Roderick Whitfield notes in his 1982 catalogue, the material and size of the Vajrapāṇi painting (shown above) and two others now in New Delhi are in fact different:

‘They are on a grey silk with a balanced close weave, while the majority of the paintings are on a more open silk, with warp threads running in pairs. They are also much narrower than the usual width of the other banners, and both edges are hemmed with a strip of silk binding, instead of being merely painted with a dark brown pigment as is commonly seen. Finally, all three of these banners show a selvedge on the lower end. These facts seem to imply a different origin for the silk itself, and a different tradition of making the banners, the figures being at a right angle to the warp instead of in line with it. It does therefore seem possible, from technical as well as stylistic evidence, that these paintings were executed elsewhere and brought to Dunhuang.’5

Whitfield further argues that the origins of the other two paintings here formerly identified at Nepalese are similar to those from other Taklamkan kingdoms, Khotan (cat. 180) and Kizil (cat. 182), based on research by Gerd Gropp and Maria Bussagli.6

Cat. 184 is probably one of those discussed by Binyon in his essay as ‘kind of painting in a mixed style which flourished in Eastern Turkestan’, most likely 1919,0101,0.6 (Ch.liii.001) as the other one is now in Delhi. Although the central figure is now usually identified as Śākyamuni, it was initially identified as Amitābha in Stein’s expedition report, Serindia.

Cat. 189 is identifiable as there is only one painting of Tārā. It is on hemp, rather than linen. Stein gives the date at 10th century, with a question mark, as this is the generally accepted terminus ad quem of the library cave’s closing. But since then, scholars have accepted that some later material from other places might have been placed in the cave by Wang Yuanlu. Based on its style and iconography this is now generally accepted to be 14th century or later.7

Cat. 194 is also easily identifiable: this image of Mañjuśrī on a lion as later described by Arthur Waley in his 1931 catalogue as ‘completely Indian in style’.9(153).

It is more problematic to identify the two paintings in the exhibition labelled as Avalokiteśvara (cats. 183 & 185), simply because there are numerous examples of this subject in the British Museum Stein collection. In his essay Binyon looks at paintings with Chinese, Indian/Nepalese and Tibetan characteristics and then writes: ‘there are, lastly, a number which contain Indian, Chinese, and possibly Tibetan elements in varying proportions, but are in an intermediate style and may safely be held to be the product of local schools of Chinese Turkestan, and of the region which, on the east, joins it to China proper.’ Given his labelling of the two Avalokiteśvara as ‘East Turkestan’, we would expect them to belong to this category. So, for example, Binyon describes a painting of the thousand-armed Avalokiteśvara as ‘an imposing example of the kind of painting in a mixed style which flourished in Eastern Turkestan.’ But this painting is in New Delhi ((99-17-95, Ch.xxviii.006). Among the possibilities are 1919,0101,0.13 (Ch.liii.005), 1919,0101,0.130 ( (although this is rather fragmentary); and 1919,0101,0.102 (Ch.lvi.003); Avaolokitesvara guiding a soul (1919,0101,0.47, Ch.lvii.002) is described by Binyon as a very fine paintings although it might have been expected that he would give a fuller title if this were one of those displayed.

Entries from The Guide

180. A Bodhisattva, perhaps Avalokiteśvara Nepalese; 9th or 10th century.
Probably 1919,0101,0.101, Ch.lvi.008.

181. Vajrapani. Nepalese; 9th or 10th century.
Almost certainly 1919,0101,0.103, Ch.lvi.002, a banner with a Tibetan inscription.

182. Avalokitesvara, the spirit of compassion. Nepalese; 9th or 10th century.
Probably 1919,0101,0.102 , Ch.lvi.003.

183. Avalokitesvara. Eastern Turkestan; 9th or 10th century.

184. Amitabha Buddha, with attendant saints. Eastern Turkestan; 8th century (?). Remarkable for the system of modelling by half-tones and high lights.
Almost certainly 1919,0101,0.6, Ch.liii.001.

185: Avalokitesvara. Eastern Turkestan; 9th or 10th century.

189: Tara, with attendant saints and divinities. Tibetan; 10th century(?). Painted on linen; with original mount. Found in the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas by Sir Aurel Stein, and possibly the oldest Tibetan painting now extant.
Almost certainly, 1919,0101,0.140, Ch.lii.001

194. The Bodhisattva Manjursi on the lion. Eastern Turkestan. 9th or 10th century. From the Stein collection.
Almost certainly 1919,0101,0.141, Ch.0036

Other British Museum Exhibitions in the 1920s

As mentioned above, several other temporary exhibitions were mounted in the Dept. of Ceramics and Ethnography in the 1920s, as below, and it is probable that Stein material was included in some of them, but especially the Chinese paintings of 1926 and the Chinese frescos of 1927. I will publish details here if I find them.

1924: Chinese Paintings and Japanese Screens

1926: Chinese paintings

1927: Chinese frescoes

1927: Indian paintings

1928: Chinese woodcuts

1929: Indian paintings

The next post will cover the 1925 exhibition which was dedicated to Stein material, namely, ‘Objects brought by Sir Aurel Stein from his Third Expedition to Central Asia’.

Thanks to Joanna Bowring for her compilation, Temporary exhibitions at the British Museum 1838–2012 (British Museum Occasional Papers, 2012), an invaluable resource.


  1. Letter from Binyon to Stein dated 16 July 1921, The Bodleian Library, MSS. Stein 65/229.

2. Serindia: 862.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. R. Whitfield, The Art of Central Asia, The Stein Collection in the British Museum: Vol.1, Tokyo 1982.

6. Gerd Gropp, Archäologische Funde Aus Khotan – Chinesisch – Ostturkestan – Die Trinker-Sammlung Im Übersee-Museum, Bremen (1974): 94 and Mario Bussagli, Paintings of Central Asia (1963): 32.

7. See Susan Whitfield and Ursula Sims-Williams, The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith (London: The British Library 2004): cat 243, p.288: n.5, for a summary.

Posted in Exhibitions, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Nara to Norwich: Online Exhibition

No blog posts over the past few months as I have been working with colleagues and an international team of scholars to curate and post an online exhibition, Nara to Norwich: Arts and Beliefs at the Ends of the Silk Road. The first stage of this (see below) went live on 5 June 2022 with 88 exhibits and 5 major themes or stories: Origins; Arrivals; Encounters; Living in Belief and Relics. More stories and exhibits will follow.

As you can read in my inaugural blog post on the exhibition site, the exhibition arose out of a research project that started to take form in 2016, well before COVID first showed its presence. The idea emerged of examining the effects on the material culture of the arrival of Buddhism in Korea and Japan and Christianity in Britain and Scandanavia from about AD 500. It was developed as a four year project, to be launched in 2020 with a major international exhibition planned  at the end of that year. The exhibition was to be held in the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England.

The research and field visit in June 2019 to Korea and Japan by a team of archaeologists and historians from Britain and Scandanavia was intended as an opportunity to meet colleagues, research possible exhibits and visit sites which showed the influences of early Buddhism. The exhibition list was compiled, a budget estimated, and funders and institutions approached. With the lockdowns in 2020 the exhibition was posptoned, and then postponed again until, in late 2021, we decided instead to make our research accessible instead online. A screenshot of the exhibits page is shown below.

The exhibition will be supplemented with blog posts from our collaborating scholars and others and with links to education resources. The next one will be by Naomi Hughes-White, website designer, on the team’s recent visit to meet colleagues and visit Vendel and Viking sites in Sweden.

We also plan in-person events over the coming years which will be announced on the website, including smaller exhibitions at various sites, including in Norwich in 2024. I will also post here on subjects relevant to the exhibition, but my next blog post here will be on research visit to museums in Germany and Sweden to examine artefacts from Khotan.

Posted in Buddhism, Christianity, cultural heritage, Exhibitions, Japan, Korea, Scandanavia, Silk Road archaeology, Silk Road art and history | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Early Exhibitions of the Collections of Aurel Stein, Part 4: 1918, Royal Geographical Society, London

Planning and preparation

On June 5, 1916, Stein gave a lecture at the Royal Geographical Society, located since 1913 at Lowther Lodge in Kensington, its present home.1 The lecture was entitled ‘A Third Journey of Exploration in Central Asia, 1913–16’ and was illustrated with lantern slides.2 Following this, Stein notes in a letter to Fred Andrews that ‘It is probable we shall have a photographic exhibition of selected photos at the R.G.S.; specifically enlarged prints are to be prepared for this purpose from selected negatives.’ [MSS Stein 43/116-7, 22 June 1916]3

His lecture was published in two parts, with maps and 31 photographs (several of them mountain panoramas), in the August and September issues of the Geographical Journal [48.2: 97-130 and 48.3: 93-229], followed by a transcript of the discussion with comments by Austen Chamberlain, Hercules Read, Francis Younghusband, Henry Trotter, C. E. Yate and Dr. Lionel Barnett [48.3: 225-9]. Stein’s next letter to Andrews in August notes that the article is going to press and that ‘Arrangements for the exhibition at the R.G.S. of enlargements are proceeding with Leman.’ [MSS Stein 43/144–5] In another letter in August he continues ‘We are now arranging for an exhibition of enlarged photographs for display in the Geog. Soc.’s Photographic Room. Leman has done some excellent specimens up to 22″ in length, and if only more negatives were available here we could easily fill many times the number of cases which are actually available.’ [MSS Stein 43/163-5].

Stein travelling on a skin raft in the gorge of Bartang River, Roshan, above Padrun.
The British Library Photo 392/28(950).

Herbert Thomas Leman was an established London photographer based in Regent Street but, despite this positive assessment of the enlargements by Stein, Arthur Hinks, RGS Secretary, was not so impressed. Stein, who was writing up his report in his Devon retreat of Middlecott, had arranged for the first batch of Leman’s enlargements to be sent to Hinks in March 1917 and noted that he planned to be in London later that month and could visit the RGS if necessary. Hinks responds on 6th March:

If you are able to come in one day this week I shall be glad to talk to you about the enlargements which your photographer has made. I notice that they are completely untouched and that all the defects of the negatives are still there. Doubtless you refuse to allow any touching of your negatives, but I still think we shall have to do something to remove these blemishes before the photographs are suitable for exhibition. I shall be glad to have a word with you on the subject. [CB8/2 6/3/1917]

The result of their conversation is unclear but Leman continued to produce the enlargements, the second set at a smaller size. Meanwhile, Mr Simpson was working on producing panoramic prints from Stein’s sets of photographs. In early May, Stein writes to Hinks to inform him that a further 37 enlargements from Leman have been sent and that ‘I hope, the great majority will be found acceptable.’ [CB/8 4/5/17] Stein makes another visit to London later in the month where he is shown the results of Simpson’s work on the panoramas. This clearly changes his opinion of Leman’s work as, in Stein’s letter to Hinks on his return to Devon, he writes: ‘I hope, Mr Simpson has been able to arrange for more satisfactory enlargements of my photographs for the proposed exhibition. The contrast between those he made himself of the panoramic views and those supplied by Leman is, alas, only too striking.’ [CB/8 1/6/1917] Hinks replies:

‘I am going into the question of the photographs, and hope to write to you in a day or so. I think there is no doubt that you will have to authorise the transfer of your negatives to somebody else, but I doubt if Simpson could get them done very quickly, and it might be better to get them from Ross or the Stereoscopic Co., both of whom do good work. The only question will be what to do about the payment of your own photographer who has failed so lamentably, and I will discuss that with you when I see you next.’ [CB/8 4/6/1917]

We know from subsequent correspondence that the negatives were transferred to Ross Co. The RGS originally assigned £10 for the enlargements. We do not know how much of this Leman was paid but Hinks suggests that they will ‘have to pay your failure some pounds for his failure, but I should certainly object to paying him in full.’ [CB/8 29/6/1917]

Headmen of uppermost Roshan Valley at Saunab (Tashkurghan).
The British Library, Photo 392/29(388).

Stein sees some of the enlargements from Ross in London on his way to his return to India. Florence Lorimer, Stein’s assistant at the British Museum, continues the correspondence with Hinks, asking when the exhibition is due to open, for three dozen invitations to send to Stein’s friends in London, and for return of the negatives. [CB/8 3/11/1917] Hinks returns all the negatives by the year end and, in reply to Lorimer’s acknowledgement, explains that the exhibition was delayed owing to ‘the impossibility of getting hold of any suitable paper for the mounts. We have done our best, however, and the thing is just about to start.’ [CB/8 14/1/1918] The shortage of suitable paper was most probably a result of the war and accounts for the green card which was used rather than a more usual cream.

Lorimer keeps Stein informed: she writes to him on Wednesday 30 January 1918 that ‘The Exhibition is to be open at the end of this week. I have written to Dr Hinks for the notices, but they have not come yet. The negatives have all been returned; and I shall send you a list when I have made out that all orig. sent to the Geog. Soc. are there.’ [MSS Stein 44/90] Her letter dated 13 February confirms that ‘The R.G.S. invitations came and I sent them out to about two dozen of your friends. I have not time to go to the Exhib. yet myself, but I am taking a friend next week.’ [MSS Stein 44/92].

I have not yet been able to find out when the exhibition ended.

The Exhibition

The Exhibition was held in the Photographic Room of the RGS at Lowther Lodge. In 1913 this was the rectangular room adjoining the Council Room—see plan below—today used as the kitchen adjoining the tea room.

Plan of the RGS at Lowther Lodge in 1913 showing Photogaph Room on top right (SE corner).

Hinks explains to Stein that:

‘The unit of space in our exhibition cases is a panel 28” wide by 21.5” high. This takes 9 prints 7.5” wide by 5” high (commercial size;) it gives good proportions for landscapes); or it takes 4 prints about 10” wide by 8” high, or one print about 22” wide by 15” high. Now, probably in your collection you have a few pictures which it would be worth enlarging to the largest size, a number more that would be worthily represented on the 10” x 8” size, and a still larger number for which the 7.5” x 5” would be sufficient.’ [CB/8 1/8/1916].

I have not been able to discover how many exhibition cases there were in the room, nor find a list of exhibits, but the RGS archives include the following number of enlargements of Stein photographs, all of which are distinguished not just by their size but also by the fact they are mounted on a pale green card and have captions written in pencil below in the same hand (not Stein’s). It is a reasonable assumption that these were the exhibits. These would have required about 22 panels in the exhibition cases, according to Hinks’s measurements above. A list is given below, by the RGS number, with the corresponding British Library Photo. no. and link, and the fig. no. if it was published in either Stein’s article in the Geographical Journal (GJ) or in Innermost Asia (IA).

41 prints in total

10 prints @ c.22″ x 17″ mounted on card c. 23″ x 18″

5 prints @ c.16″ x 12″ mounted on card c. 23″ x 18″

17 prints @ c.8″ x 10″ mounted on card c. 10″ x 12″

9 prints @ c.6″ x 7.5″ mounted on card c. 10″ x 12″

Sand-buried ruin of house (N.III) of 3rd century A.D., Niya site, before excavation.
The British Library Photo 392/29(58).

List of Exhibits

RGS no.size/insBL no.GS/IA
fig. no.
Caption on exh. print
12 x16.5Photo 392/29
/372New Sarez Lake from west slope, Yerkh inlet.
16.5 x 12Photo 392/29
26/393Oxus valley with Hindukush peaks above Darra-i-Panja, seen from ruined fort above Zang (view to south-east).
12 x 16Photo 392/29
/370Down Bartang River gorge, Roshan, from Saunab.
12 x 16Photo 392/28
/447Glacier east of Gardan-i-Kaftar Pass, Darwaz, from about 12,300 feet.
12 x 16Photo 392/29
23/372Bartang River gorge above Barchidiw, blocked by Sarez earthquake: new lakelet in foreground.
23 x 17Photo 392/29
21/362Glacier range between Mukso and Sel-darra (Fedshenko Glacier) from Tarsagar pass (circ. 11,500 feet).
23 x 17Photo 392/29
24/373Earthquake barrage blocking Sareg Valley with west end of new lake fed by Bartang River from 3000 feet above 1915 level of lake.
23 x 17Photo 392/28
[5]/50Darkot Glaciers and Koyozum Peak from Karambar saddle (circ. 14,000 feet).
23 x
not yet identified[5]/49End of Karambar Glacer from near Karambar saddle.
17 x 23Photo 392/28
3/52Chillinji glacier, looking west across Karambar (Ashkuman) river.
22 x 17Photo 392/29
25/392Junction of Ab-i-Panja branch of Oxus with Great Pamir River from above Langar-Kisht: Hindukush watershed in background.
25 x 17Photo 392/29
/43North Glacier of Darkot from below Darkot Pass: Mastujis in foreground.
23 x 16.5Photo 392/29
Glacier and moraines below Shitam Pass. Shughnan, at circ. 17,500 feet, looking south.
23 x 16.5Photo 392/29
20/364Head of Bostan-Arche valley, looking N.W. towards glacier peaks of Ulugh-art range: surveyor Afrazgul and “Dash III” in foreground.
23 x 17not yet identified/456Ruins of Buddhist site on slope of Koh-i-khwaja, with view eastwards across terminal Helman marshes, Seistan.
7.75 x 5.75Photo 392/28(950)/442Skin raft in gorge of Bartang River, Roshan, above Padrun.
10 x 8Photo 392/29(461)Victoria Lake, Great Pamir, looking south towards Nicholas Range.
7.5 x 6Photo 392/28(842)Tachta-Korum Pass, between Sel-darra and Great Kara-kol drainage, Pamirs.
10 x 8Photo 392/28(828)/367Chukur Jilga glacier, near headwaters of Sel-darra.
10 x 8Photo 392/28(957)/394Adude Glacier with pass (circ. 15,500 feet), between Roshan and Yazghulam valleys, Upper Oxus.
10 x 8not yet identified/360Across west of Great Pamir towards Nicholas Range.
10 x 8Photo 392/29(399)Yeshil-Kol lake, Pamirs, looking west from mouth of Kichik Marjanai V.
7.5 x 6Photo 392/28(878)Outflow of Great Pamir river below Lake Victoria, looking south towards Shor Jilga of Nicholas Range.
10 x 8Photo 392/29(388)22/366Headmen of uppermost Roshan balley at Saunab (Tashkurghan): type of Homo Alpinus.
10 x 8Photo 392/29(415)28/411West ramparts and towers of ancient fortress, Kala-i-kala, near Namadgut, Wakhan.
10 x 8Photo 392/29(59)10/132Remains of orchard with vine trellis (3rd century A.D.), Niya site, Takla-Makan desert.
c.7.5 x 6Photo 392/29(58)/97Sand buried ruin of house (N.III) of 3rd century A.D., Niya site, before excavation.
7.5 x 5.5Photo 392/28(177)/77Kirghiz with felt tents (Ak-ois) below Merki Pass, Mustagh-Ata Range.
c.7.5 x 6Photo 392/29(98)15/181Salt bog within easternmost bay of Lop sea.
c.7.5 x 6Photo 392/28(433)/179Crossing hard salt encrusted bed of Lop sea.
c.7.5 x 6Photo 392/28(419)14/164Wind-eroded clay terrace with ancient remains, Lop desert, N.W. of Lou-lan site.
c.7.5 x 6Photo 392/28(231)Approach to high range of dunes near Chok-Tagh, south of Maralbashi
10 x 8Photo 392/29(210)19/315Ruins of Buddhist cave temples (7th-9th century A.D.) below Murtuk, Turfan.
10 x 8Photo 392/28(385)11/142Wind eroded clay terraces (yardangs) with debris of ancient trees, south-west of Lou-lan site, Lop desert.
10 x 8Photo 392/28(430)/174March between salt-encrusted clay ridges (White Dragon mounds) north of Lop sea.
7.5 x 5.5Photo 392/28(452)16/200Ancient Chinese border wall (circa. 100 B.C.) of layers of clay and reed fascines, near watch-tower T.XIII., Tun-huang.
7.5 x 5.5Photo 392/28(170)4/55Camels descending gorge of Kara-tash River, Muztagh-ata Range.
10 x 8Photo 392/29(101)/183Camels halting below clay cliffs of old shore line, easternmost bay, Lop Sea.
7.5 x 5.5Photo 392/28(307)/102Foot-bridge (3rd century A.D.) across dried river bed, Niya site, Takla-Makan desert.
7.5 x 5.5Photo 392/29(259)/327Ruins in Yar-Khoto, ancient capital of Turfan: substructures excavated from loess; superstructures in stamped clay.
7.5 x 5.5Photo 392/29(184)/311Buddhist cave shrines in Toyuk Gorge, Turfan.
10 x 8Photo 392/28(205)/69North-east from summit of Merki Pass Muztagh-ata range.
7.5 x 5.5Photo 392/28(249/a)7/89High drift sand ridges, Takla-Makan desert, towards Mazar-tagh.
10 x 8Photo 392/29(152)/246Walls of Kara-Khoto (Marco Polo’s “Etzina”) near Etsingol Southern Mongolia, breached by wind erosion.
7.5 x 6Photo 392/28(148)Moraine of Chillinji Glacier, Guhyal, above Biattar, with ‘Wakhi carriers.’
7.5 x 5.5Photo 392/28(132)/60Snout of glacier blocking headwaters Karambar R. below Rukhni.
10 x 8Photo 392/28(145)8/61Glacier snout blocking Karambar valley above Sukhta-rabat, Ashkuman [Ishuman] (Gilgit A).
7.5 x 5.5Photo 392/28(13)Barai velley from below Mori, Khel, Kashmir.
7.5 x 5.5Photo 392/29(27)/42Khushwakt headmen with villagers at Hondur, Yasin.
10 x 8Photo 392/28(60a/b)From Nyachut towards head of Darel Valley: Afrazgul and Shah Alim in foreground.
10 x 8Photo 392/29(9)From Dalgin Apl, Darel, towards Ishkobar Pass.

Biographical notes

From Kelly’s Directory for London and Michael Pritchard, A Directory of London Photographers 1841-1908 (Watford: PhotoResearch, 1994).

John Scott Keltie (1840–1927) was Secretary of the R.G.S. from 1896 to 1915, when he was succeeded by Hinks. He was also President from 1914-1915 and co-editor of the Journal with Hinks until 1917.

Arthur Robert Hinks (1873–1945) was Secretary of the R.G.S. and editor of the Journal, posts he held from 1915 until his death.

Herbert Thomas Leman, 304 Regent St, London. The photographer was registered at this address in the 1921 Kelly’s Directory. Before this it was at 135 Oxford Street W, active from 1899–1902.

London Stereoscopic Co.; 3 Hanover Sq, London.

Ross Ltd, 3 Albermarle St., St John’s Sq., London.

Simpson: I have not been able to identify Mr Simpson who worked on Stein’s panoramas. I hope someone out there can help.


  1. The lecture had been suggested by John Keltie, RGS Secretary in a letter to Stein on 20 September 1915 (RGS CB8/2) and the date was arranged between Stein and the succeeding RGS Secretary, Arthur Hinks, following this. Stein confirms the date in a letter to Hinks of 10 January 1916, written while he was excavating at Seistan, Iran. Dinner guests and discussants were agreed in subsequent letters. For more on the Society’s move into Lowther Lodge see their pdf.
  2. Lantern slides were prepared by Stein in London from negatives he had carried to London. A collection of 1190 such slides of Stein’s photographs was given to the British Library by the R.G.S. in 1974 (British Library, Photo 392/56).
  3. Archives referred to are the Aurel Stein papers in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (prefixed MSS Stein) and the Aurel Stein correspondence in the RGS (prefixed CB).


Many thanks to Eugene Rae, Principal Librarian at the RGS, for his help.

Posted in Aurel Stein, cultural heritage, Exhibitions, photographs, Silk Road archaeology, Silk Road art and history | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Countless Moments of Mourning: a personal statement

I no longer visit the People’s Republic of China (PRC). As an established scholar with long-standing connections to institutions there, I feel that visiting the PRC could be seen as an endorsement of the current regime and their actions. Not visiting is a tiny and insignificant act of dissent, but one that is in my power to make.1

Having been involved with China since my first visit in 1980, this fills me with great sadness. But this is overwhelmed by the anger, frustration and sadness I feel for colleagues in the PRC, most especially for Uyghurs, but also for all those under PRC rule — including those in Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Hong Kong — who suffer in numerous ways from the government’s increasing suppression of their liberty and rights.  My decision is based on the specific actions of the current regime, especially in Xinjiang. It is not about China, its cultures or its peoples.2

‘The Silk Roads’, my field of studies, is characterized by its cultural diversity and interactions. The active destruction of diversity within their borders by the PRC and their denial of many of the interactions which have made the regions ruled by the PRC what they are today impoverishes their history and culture. This is ironic at a time when the PRC is exploiting the term ‘Silk Road’ under the BRI to expand its political and economic influence.3

It was only towards the end of my postgraduate studies in Chinese historiography that I began to realize that approaching China as a single homogeneous civilization, as I had been taught, was pointless if I wanted to try to understand the history of this vast region. History and art books coming out of the PRC at that time talked about the ‘2000 years of history’ (since then, this has been extended to ‘5,000 years’), but this is a region with a far more complex story to tell than this tag line suggests. It has been home to numerous diverse cultures with scores of languages and many different customs and religions. In this respect it was like Europe. And like Latin, the language of one of Europe’s conquerors and that of the written corpus, one of the languages was also adopted as the language of rule: what is often called ‘classical Chinese’. But unlike Latin in Europe, use of this by the rulers as well as the elite persisted up to the 20th century.4  And, unlike Europe, much of the region is today under the rule of a single state, the PRC. The PRC’s authority now also extends to other regions which were until recently distinct in terms of culture, language, religion and, in some cases, politics — such as Tibet, the Tarim Basin (Xinjiang — 新疆 ‘New borderlands’) and parts of the steppe. The narrative of homogeneity that is currently presented by the state in its official histories is a distortion of history and one that makes China today impossible to understand.5

The subject of my PhD,  the Tang-period government official and writer, Liu Zongyuan 柳宗元 (773–819) had been sent in exile to Liuzhou, which is now in Guangxi province. He wrote of arriving in a foreign land, barely touched in language or customs by the effect of distant and alien rulers from the north.

In Liu Zongyuan’s lifetime,  a Turkic confederation later known as the ‘Toquz Oyuz’ or the ‘Nine Oyuz’ ruled an empire on the steppe to the north—roughly equivalent what is now Mongolia. In the official Chinese of the time they were referred to as the ‘Jiu xing’ 九姓—nine surnames —and their ruling family as the ‘Huiwu’ 回鶻 – the ‘Orkhon Uyghur’. At this time, enormous war reparations were still being paid by the Tang to this empire for their help in driving rebels from the Tang capital some decades before.  A large part was paid in silk —a currency at the time—and was nominally payment for horses, which could not be bred successfully in the central Chinese plains. Horses were taken by the Uyghur Turks in their tens of thousands in markets established along the common borders.  Tang princesses were sent to marry Uyghur kaghans to cement the diplomatic alliance further and Uyghurs were a common sight in the markets of the Tang capital.6 

Liu Zongyuan died in exile in 819. A few decades later the Toquz Oyuz empire suffered a severe famine and their capital, Karabalghasun, was invaded by Kyrgyz from the north. Many of their people fled south, some to settle in the north China plains under the Tang where they became assimilated into the populations that now call themselves ‘Han’. Others moved into the Tarim Basin and the Hexi corridor and there established independent oasis kingdoms. 

The Tang came to an end amid rebellion and bloodshed in 907, its place taken by several smaller kingdoms. The Uyghurs remained in the Tarim, alongside its already diverse populations which included settlers from India, Gandhara, Tibet, China and west and north Asia. Over time, Uyghur Turkic became the dominant language, especially after other kingdoms, such as the Khotanese, were conquered by another Turkic power, the Karakhanids. The Karakhanids were Islamic, but it was several centuries before Islam was to replace the earlier faiths of the Uyghurs, who were predominately Buddhist at this time. Mosques were built alongside the stupas with many Islamic mazar  located at the sites of existing shrines.7

After my PhD, I started to work on the ‘Silk Roads’, specifically looking at the Tarim Basin of Central Asia and the routes through it into the north China plains and the Yellow river valley in order to try to understand the interactions between the numerous cultures in this region, including those in what we now call China. These routes — and interactions — naturally extended north from the Yellow River valley and plains into the steppe and south and southwest into the sub-tropical mountain regions beyond the Yangzi river, the land of Liu Zongyuan’s exile.

Others have written of the colonization of this region by the Qing empire in the 19th century and, more recently, about the settler colonialism of the PRC.8 This did not lead to an immediate extinction of the culture. Indeed, in the style of the Soviet Union, ‘minority cultures’ were celebrated in the early PRC. A the same time, however, it was clear that they were being packaged as state-managed artefacts, fitting the trope of peoples whose main activities are singing and dancing.9

This has now changed. Since at least the meeting of the Central Forum on Ethnic Work in September 2014, the PRC’s official aim for these ‘minority cultures’ has shifted to jiaorong 交融  ‘mingling’— a term implying assimilation.10 The practical application of this policy in Xinjiang in particular has led to programmes designed deliberately to eradicate significant parts of a culture: including its languages, religious practices and beliefs.11 The Chinese government openly acknowledges the application of these policies, albeit in terms such as “vocational education” or “thought transformation”. They are implementing these policies at a dismaying speed and scale. 

We are in the midst of losing a part of the history and diversity that, as Hannah Arendt said, make us human.12 In terms of human lives, this means that as I write this there are individuals in their thousands or tens of thousands who are mourning relatives, imprisoned and sometimes dying in the camp and prison systems; mourning the language they and their children can now barely speak or read; the children they can no longer bear; the religion they can no longer follow; and the history and identity of their peoples that is being eradicated. Everyday there are countless moments of mourning directly owing to the deliberate policy of the PRC.


1. My last visit was in 2018 and was a deeply uncomfortable experience because of the dissonance between what was evident—for example, the disappearance of a whole neighbourhood of Uyghurs and their businesses—and what was acknowledged and spoken about.  I have never visited Tibet, primarily because of PRC colonialism and its repressive policies there. For a discussion of the effect on Tibetan identity by PRC colonialism see Gerald Roche, Tibet, China, and Settler Colonialism”, Cornell East Asia Program, April 13, 2021 and Gerald Roche, James Leibold and Ben Hillman ‘Urbanizing Tibet: differential inclusion and colonial governance in the People’s Republic of China, Territory, Politics, Governance.‘ 2020.

2. The ‘Xinjiang Victims Database’ ( is testament alone to the policies of the PRC in this region. For the need for careful appraisal and presentation of evidence see Rune Steenberg, ‘Suppression of the Uyghurs: Let’s stick to the facts.’

3. I am currently working on an article on the influence of BRI on cultural heritage policy and practice in the PRC.

4. Language use in China is far more complex than usually presented. For example, it is assumed by many that the written language is always the usually called ‘classical Chinese’ and that vernaculars did not generally appear in texts until quite late. But, as some scholars have shown, vernaculars are present in texts from much earlier. See, for example, Victor Mair on the poetry of Hanshan (fl. 9th c.) ( and Imre Galambos on manuscripts written in Dunhuang, on the borders of the Tang. The diversity of vernacular languages in the Chinese language group are thus under-explored, let alone the numerous other languages prevalent in this region. For Turkic languages in the PRC, see Arienne Dwyer, ‘Endangered Turkic Languages of China.’ Chinese languages are also currently under threat, notably Cantonese which has thrived partially thanks to it use—spoken and in print—in Hong Kong. See Victor Mair, ‘Cantonese Under Renewed Threat.’

5. Some of these regions had been previously occupied by the Manchu Qing rulers (1644–1911).  See James A. Millward, Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang, New York: Columbia University Press, 2021.

6. See my chapters on the princess and the soldier in Life Along the Silk Road.

7. For mapping of many of the mosques and mazars see Because their history stretches back to before the Islamic conversion and, in some cases, marks spots that were sacred long before the Uyghur’s move to this region, their destruction extends beyond Uyghur culture. Rahilä Dawut, a professor at Xinjiang University, has researched and written on these, see, for example, she her ‘Shrine Pilgrimages among the Uyghurs.’ Rahilä Dawut was detained in December 2017 and her whereabouts remain unclear.

8. For example, Millward (note 5).

9. For a discussion of the early adoption of the Soviet Unions ‘diversity’ policy by the PRC see Thomas S. Mullaney, ‘How China went from celebrating ethnic diversity to suppressing It.‘ On the trope of ‘singing and dancing minorities’ in China see Rachel Harris, ‘The New Battleground: Song-and-dance in China’s Muslim Borderlands.’ and Anon. ‘You Shall Sing and Dnce: contested ‘safeguarding’ of Uyghur Intangible Cultural Heritage.’  Asian Ethnicity 22.1: 121–139.

10. Central Ethnic/Nationality Work Conference as well as the 6th Ethnic/Nationality Unity Commendation Conference of the State Council. See James Leibold, ‘Xinjiang Work Forum Marks New Policy of “Ethnic Mingling“.’ China Brief 14:12 and for the implementation of policies for other ‘minorities’ see James Leibold ‘Beyond Xinjiang:_Xi Jinpings Ethnic Crackdown.’

11. Nick Holdstock gives a reading list on the recent history of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang under the PRC.

12. ‘an attack upon human diversity as such, that is, upon a characteristic of the ‘human status’ without which the very words ‘mankind’ or ‘humanity’ would be devoid of meaning.’ Hannah Arendt. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. London: Penguin 2006:  235.

Photo caption: A modern mazar on the slopes of the remains of a Tibetan military fort on the Khotan river in the Tarim Basin. The fort dates from the period of the Tibetan rule of Khotan (792-851). Photograph by John Falconer, 2008.

Posted in cultural heritage, Uyghurs | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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 , , , | 2 Comments

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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