Lost in the Desert: Stein at Dura-Europos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Aurel Stein | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Silk Road Summer School

A Royal Asiatic Society Summer School

Monday July 8 – Thursday July 11, 2019

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

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

For further information: ao@royalasiaticsociety.org OR download leaflet.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Early Exhibitions of the Collections of Aurel Stein: Part 2: 1911: The Festival of Empire


Contemporary postcard showing the Indian Pavilion.
(See this blog post for more postcards)


Map of the Festival of Empire site.
The Indian Pavilion is to the right of the bandstand in the centre.

The Festival of Empire opened at the Crystal Palace in north London on 12 May 1911 to celebrate the coronation of George V (r. 1910–1936). The Indian pavilion was one among the many exhibition spaces built to celebrate British imperial interests around the world. 68 paintings, textiles, manuscripts and block prints from the Stein collections were exhibited, including one ‘crumpled up packet in its original state’ of unconserved materials. They were listed in the catalogue (pp. 14–26) under the title, ‘Specimens from a Collection of Ancient Buddhist Pictures and Embroideries Discovered by Dr M. A. Stein at Tun-huang’.[1]


The catalogue produced for the Indian pavilion.
Copy held in the British Library (ORW.1986.a.2170).

Stein was in the list of private lenders to the exhibition but the material was described in the catalogue as ‘Lent by the Secretary of State for India with the concurrence of the Trustees of the British Museum.'(p. 14) In his introduction, Stein, after placing the material in context, discussed its treatment prior to exhibit:

The opening up and cleaning of the crumpled up silk paintings is a task requiring great care and the application of a special chemical treatment. It has been proceeding in the Department of Prints and Drawings under the kind supervision of Sir Sidney Colvin [the Keeper], for over a year past, and about two-thirds of the total numbers, which is likely to rise to three hundred, have so far been dealt with. The smaller paintings are strengthened by the backing of open gauze, while the large compositions are provisionally mounted on Japanese paper until time becomes available for their final treatment. (Catalogue: 16)

However, pasted as a footnote on the same page is a slip of printed paper reading:

With the concurrence of Dr Stein, the exhibits in the wall cases have been remounted by Mr Littlejohn, of the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum, since their arrival at Sydenham.

The monthly reports of the Prints and Drawings Department, the British Museum, give more of the story. They show that the conservation of the material prior to exhibit had been paid for by the India Office who, during 1910, engaged Mr W. J. Goodchild ‘a repairer’. He was supervised by Stanley Littlejohn (1876–1916), the ‘repairer and restorer’ in the Department of Prints and Drawing (P&D) [Annual report of P&D of the British Museum to the Trustees, dated 20/1/11]. Stein notes in July 1910 that 70-80 banners had been flattened.[The Bodleain, MS Stein 7/ff.81-2. Aurel Stein to Percy Allen].

However, as another report makes clear, within a few months several paintings had to be removed from exhibit ‘having been mounted … in a manner inadequate to secure their due protection from dampness in the walls of the gallery.’ [Monthly Report by the Keeper to the trustees 4/7/1911: Sidney Colvin was Keeper at this time but part of the original report has been erased and these comments written in a different hand. Probably the report was written in his absence (possibly summer vacation?) by his deputy, and then corrected on Colvin’s return.] Conservation was taken over by the dept. itself, carried out in the Crystal Palace exhibition building ‘in such manner as to ensure their proper protection & preservation’ [report dated 3/8/1911]. The work was completed and the paintings rehung in the same month, as the next monthly report, dated 2/9/1911 and written by Laurence Binyon, confirms. However, the annual report of the dept. for 1911 (dated 25/1/1912) states that Mr Littlejohn had to ‘devote his entire time for more than two months to the arduous work of mounting and framing in a secure & finished way a selection of Dr. Stein’s silk paintings for a show at the Festival.’

Despite the seeming blame put on Mr Goodchild for the inadequate mounting, a letter of 10 October of the same year concerning a vacant post for a conservator/repairs at the Museum states:

The Keeper recommends that W. J. Goodchild be chosen for this service …. employed for the last two years in flattening and mounting the silk paintings discovered by A Stein — a task calling for exceptional care and skill. During that time the keeper has had him constantly under observation, and is convinced of his fitness to take Clay’s place in the workshop.

Having been returned to their cases, the paintings remained on display until October and were then taken down and returned to the Museum. [P&D dept. Monthly Report, 6/11/11].

Below is a selection of the material on display with the contemporary catalogue entries. A full list, with Stein’s complete introduction, will follow in a later blog post.


17.—DIVINE PROCESSION. Rectangular silk painting, complete in border, with Chinese inscriptions, dated A.D. 864. Lower portion shows the Bodhisattva Smantabhadra (the God of Happiness) on elephant and Manjusri (the God of Wisdom) on lion, advancing with attendants, who carry parasols. Animals led by black attendants. Along bottom are represented donor, [sic] etc. in religious guise. Above are four forms of Kouanyin (the Chinese Avalokitesvara) carrying the pink lotus and flask.

This is painting 1919,0101,0.5 in the British Museum.

50.—PAINTED PAPER ROLL. Paper roll, representing in sections scenes of punishments in Hell. Sinners wearing “cangue” are being brought before the heavenly edge. Two figures in attendance on him, one (male) carrying roll of sacred texts, one (female), a statuette, emblematic of the mean of salvation—sacred study and worship.

This is the scroll, reg. no. 1919,0101,0.80 now in the British Museum. Another illustrated copy with text is in the British Library, Or.8210/S.3961.


54.—MANUSCRIPT WRAPPER. Roughly made of silk fragments stiffened with paper, lined with silk, and with coarse woollen tapes for tying. Outer edges and triangular flap make of fragments of rich silk brocade of Sassanian design. On pink ground large elliptical cartouches, bordered with double row of overlapping petals, contain two winged bulls with abundant manes, facing each other on salmon-covered field. Elliptical lotuses fill spaces between large cartouches. Two roughly cut strips of extremely fine silk tapestry are attached to centre panel. Style of weaving is identical with that of the Copts of the third century A.D., and of the ancient Peruvians, and closely resembles that of the Gobelin factory.

This is most probably the sutra wrapper, MAS.858., now in the British Museum. However, many of the sutra wrappers found at Dunhuang were taken apart in the 20th century in order to reveal the manuscript pieces used for lining. Only a few survived in their original form. In the same exhibition, Stein displays another sutra wrapper (cat. 60) and an object he describes as “Embroidered Matting” (cat. 64). The latter could also be a sutra wrapper as some were made from bamboo slips, including LOAN:STEIN.100 from the Stein collection held in the V&A.

62.—ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPT BOOK, with Chinese text dated 890 A.D. Pages exposed represent two Lokpalas with accompanying demons—to left, Dhritarashta, King of the East, with bow; to right, Virudhaka, King of the South, with club.

Copy of the Prajnaparamitahydrayasutra now in the National Museum, New Delhi. [NB: the four pages have been listed separately online: search for “Ch.xviii.002” to show them all.]

65, 66, 67.—BLOCK PRINTS. 65 is an impression from a woodcut representing Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. 66 explains the production of coloured illustrated. On right is an uncoloured impression from the block, shown to left with colours added by hand. 67 represents Manjusri with attendants.

Many such printed prayer sheets were found at Dunhuang and it is unclear which of them were displayed, certainly in the cases of 65 and 67. Prints of Avalokitesvara, for example, are now in the National Museum, New Delhi, the British Museum and the British Library (pictured above) (Or.8210/P.20).



1. Festival of Empire Imperial Exhibition: Indian Section: Guide and Catalogue. Derby & London: Bemrose & Sons Ltd. 1911.


The next post in this series will discuss the 1914 exhibition of Stein material held in the newly opened north wing of the British Museum.

Posted in Exhibitions, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Slaves on the Silk Road

Slaves, like silks, were Silk Road goods, to be bought, used and sold for profit, and often transported long distances by land and sea to trade in foreign markets. While no slaves from this time survive to tell their story they have left traces in art, archaeology and texts.[1] From these we can see that slavery was found throughout the Silk Road, not particular to any culture, place, or period. Its importance to the Silk Road economy probably rivalled that of the silk, horses or other goods. Yet slaves rarely have a central if any role in the Silk Road histories that are told today.

?Slave girl resting on a camel
8th century, Hanshenzhai, Xian.
Terracotta, 73 cm x 60 cm.
Shaanxi Archaeological Institute, Xian, G大41.

In my book, Silk, Slaves and Stupas: Material Culture of the Silk Road, I use these traces to tell something of the stories of slaves across the Silk Road. Like the other chapters it addresses the issues of how and why — although the when and where are hardly relevant since, as the Macmillan Encyclopedia of World Slavery has noted: ‘With the exception of marriage, the family and religion, slavery is perhaps the most ubiquitous social institution in human history.’ (Finkelman and Miller 1998: viii)

Slave markets were found across the whole of the Silk Road, from Dublin on the shores of the Atlantic to Shandong on the Pacific. And while much of the trade was by private merchants, governments also profited by imposing taxes both on the movement and on the sale of slaves. As with many other ‘things’ traded along the Silk Road, there was both local and regional trade, as well as trade over longer distances.

Dublin, for example, probably the largest slave market in western Europe, was convenient for the Irish, Vikings, and others who had seized captives in raids and battles. Shandong, in eastern China, was specifically for selling on slaves captured from the Korean peninsula. But one of the most extensive trading networks, certainly by the ninth and tenth centuries, was that in Slavs, captured by the Rus in northern Europe and sold at the capital of the Bulgars, Bulgar, and the capital of the Khazars, Khamlij (Atil). Ibn Faḍlān visited Khamlij in 922 and wrote:
‘I saw the Rusiya, when they came hither on their trading voyages and had encamped by the river Itil. . . . With them, there are fair maidens who are destined for sale to the merchant, and they may have intercourse with their girl while their comrades look on.. . . . When their boats arrive come to this anchorage, each one of them goes ashore. . . and prostrates himself before [the great image], Then he says: “Oh my lord, I have come from a far country and have with me so many slave girls for such a price, and so many sable skins. . . .
I wish that thou shouldst provide me with a merchants who has many dinars and dirhams and who would buy from me at the price I desire.’ (Ibn Faḍlan 2005: 63–65)

Marek Jankowiak argues that by the ninth and tenth centuries there was another distinct system also dealing in Slav slaves. Jewish merchants bought slaves at the market in Prague for sale to the Spanish, making payment, he argues, in small pieces of cloth that had an exchange rate for silver. He cites the travelogue of Ibrahim ibn Ya’qub, a merchant from Tortosa, who noted the trade when he traveled to Prague in the 960s. He also cites Ibn Ḥawqal, who writes on Saqaliba—the land of the Slavs.

‘The country [of the Saqaliba] is long and wide. . . . Half of their country . . . is raided by the Khurasanis [Khorezm] who take prisoners from it, while its northern half is raided by the Andalusians who buy them in Galicia, in France, in Lombardy and in Calabria so as to make them eunuchs, and thereafter they ferry them over to Egypt and Africa. All the Saqaliba eunuchs in the world come from Andalusia. . . . They are castrated near this country. The operation is performed by Jewish merchants.'(Jankowiak 2012: n.1)

Ibn Khurradādhbih (ca. 820–912) records a wider network, extending from western Europe through to Africa, Arabia, India, and China, run by Jewish merchants whom he refers to as Radhanites.[2] It is worth quoting in full as one of the few detailed and extant itineraries:

‘These merchants speak Arabic, Persian, Greek, Latin, Frankish, Andalusian and Slavic. They journey from west to east, from east to west, traveling by land and by sea. From the west they export eunuchs, young girls and boys, brocade, beaver pelts, marten and other furs and also swords.
They set sail from Firanj [France] on the western sea and then head for Farama [Pelusium] in Egypt. There they transfer their merchandise to the backs of camels and travel to Qulzum [Clysma, Suez] on the Red Sea, a distance of 25 farsakhs. They sail down the Red Sea to al-Jar, the port of Medina, and to Jeddah, the port of Mecca. Then they continue on to Sindh, India and China.
They return from China with musk, aloe wood, camphor, cinnamon and other eastern products, docking again at Qulzum, then proceed to Farama, from where they again set sail on the western sea. . . .
These different journeys can also be made by land. The merchants that start from Spain or France go to Sus al-Aksa [near Tangier] and then to Tangier, whence they walk to Kairouan and the capital of Egypt. Thence they go to ar-Ramiah, visit Damascus, al-Kufa, Baghdad, and al-Basra, cross Ahvez, Fars, Kerman, Sindh, Hind, and arrive in China.
Sometimes, also, they take the route behind Rome and, passing through the country of the Slavs, arrive at Khamlij, the capital of the Khazars. They embark on the Jorjan Sea [Caspian], arrive at Balkh, betake themselves from there across the Oxus, and continue their journey toward Yurt, Toghuzghuz [Turkic lands in Central Asia], and from there to China.’ (Adler 1987: 2–3)

Sogdian Contract for a
639, Tomb 135, Astana, Turfan.
Ink on paper, 46.5 cm x 28.4 cm.
Xinjiang Provincial Museum, Urumqi, XB9219

It was not only the merchants who profited from the slaves: the governments of the lands they passed through or ports of embarkation and the markets they sold at often imposed taxes or monopolies. For example, although there was a slave market at Constantinople—in the Valley of the Lamentations—several contemporary sources note that merchants often avoided it because of the high taxes and that ships docked instead at Antioch (Rotman and Todd 2009: 68–80). In eighth-century Khanfu (present-day Guangzhou in southern China), all goods coming into the port were controlled by the government office of ‘the commissioner for commercial argosies’, which purchased all imports desired by the government (Schafer 1963: 23).

Turkic male slaves for the caliphate’s army were taken from the borders of the steppe in Central Asia to Nishapur, which sent thousand of slaves westward to Baghdad each year (Starr 2013: 197). Male slaves could be transported across the Amu Darya only with a government-issued license, costing from seventy to one hundred dirhams (Barthold 1968: 239).

1. And in the gene pool, as Catherine Cameron points out (2011: 169).

2. Also quoted in La Puente (2017: 127–28), who expresses skepticism about the accuracy of this report.


This is an edited extract from my book, Silk, Slaves and Stupas: Material Culture of the Silk Road (University of California Press, 2018). Chapter 10 tells the story of the unknown slave.

Adler, Elkan. 1987. Jewish Travellers in the Middle Ages. New York: Dover Publications.
Barthold, V. V. 1968. Turkestan Down to the Mongol Invasion. 3rd ed. London: Luzac.
Cameron, Catherine M. 2011. ‘Captives and Cultural Change: Implications for
Archaeology.’ Current Anthropology 52 (2): 169–209.
Finkelman, Paul, and Joseph Calder Miller. 1998. Macmillan Encyclopedia of World
Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA.
Ibn Faḍlān. 2005. Ibn Fadlan’s Journey to Russia: A Tenth-Century Traveller from Baghdad to the Volga River. Edited and translated by Richard Frye. Princeton, NJ: Markus Weiner.
Jankowiak, Marek. 2012. ‘Dirhams for Slaves: Investigating the Slavic Slave Trade in the Tenth Century.’ Paper presented at the Medieval Seminar, All Souls, Oxford, February. https://www.academia.edu/1764468/Dirhams_for_slaves._Investigating _the_Slavic_slave_trade_in_the_tenth_century.
La Puente, Cristina de. 2012. ‘The Ethnic Origins of Female Slaves in al-Andalus.’ In Gordon, Matthew S. and Kathryn A. Hain, eds. 2017. Concubines and Courtesans: Women and Slavery in Islamic History. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 124–42.
Rotman, Youval, and Jane Marie Todd. 2009. Byzantine Slavery and the Mediterranean World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Schafer, Edward H. 1963. The Golden Peaches of Samarkand. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Starr, S. Frederick. 2013. Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Posted in Silk, Slaves and Stupas | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Mozac Hunter Silk

Although several scholars have tried to displace silk from its key role in trade assumed by the term Silk Road and have argued for the equal if not greater influence of other goods, the importance of silk is not so easily dismissed. The reason for this might have less to do with the actual rank of silk in terms of the economics or volume of trade goods—this has yet to be quantified—than with the stories that became attached to this fabric and the hunger to learn its secrets. Although China was the only culture with the knowledge of cultivating silk at the start of the Silk Road period, within a few centuries the technology had dispersed to other cultures along the trade routes.

Lyon, Musée des Tissus MT 27386. Lyon MTMAD. Photograph by Pierre Verrier.

The piece shown above—which has been called the Mozac hunter silk—was made in Byzantium. The empire probably had its own silk production centers from the fourth century using imported thread, cultivation of its own silkworms from possibly as early as the fifth century, and sophisticated looms producing complex patterns as seen here by the eighth century. This piece therefore has many stories to tell, not only of the diffusion of silk production, but of the cultural dialogues and influences seen in the design—here a medallion containing a hunting image, a motif found across the Silk Road. Both the technique and the motif have been subject to different interpretations by scholars, showing how our dialogue with objects from the past is often renewed and we can rarely assume that it has reached a conclusion. There is also the story of the changing functions and value of this silk as it traveled westwards, passing through the hands of emperors, taking on religious significance in a Christian setting and currently a museum artefact.

The story of this silk takes us from Asia into Europe, then on the fringes of the great trading network known as the Silk Road. Though Europe still had no silk production centers of its own, silk was nevertheless highly valued there, especially among the courts and clergy. It was therefore a perfect diplomatic gift, being light and portable. And it was even more so if the design reflected the power of the giver. We do not known if this piece was intended for such purposes or whether, indeed, the purpose was decided in advance of its commission, but at the very least it was probably woven with the possibility that it would become a diplomatic gift.

Our first record of this piece is a source referring to the translation—rehousing—of the relics of Saint Austremoine from the church at Volvic, in the modern Puy de Domes in France, to the Abbey of Mozac, some four miles to its east. The translation happened under the patronage of King Pepin, who, it is recorded, provided a piece of silk to wrap them, had the bundle marked with his royal seal, and traveled with them to their new home.

The name Pepin in this record was originally believed to refer to the Carolingian king, Pepin the Short (r. 751–68), father of Charlemagne, and the date was interpreted as February 1, 764. However, as Maximilien Durand points out, the Pepin referred to in the document about the rehousing of Saint Austremoine’s relics was more probably Pepin II of Aquitaine (838–64), and the date should be read as February 1, 847, or probably 848. Other textual evidence discussed by Durand supports this later date, as does the recent technical analysis of the silk by Sophie Desrosiers.

For now, therefore, the weight of evidence suggests an early or mid-ninth-century origin for the silk. This leaves uncertain how Pepin II acquired the silk, although Durand suggests it was perhaps a gift from Emperor Theophilos (r. 829–42) to Louis the Pious (r. 814–40) in recognition of his help in the campaign against the Arabs. It would then have passed down to Louis’s heir, Pepin I of Aquitaine (r. 797–838) and thence to his son, Pepin II. The piece has been cut and stitched, suggesting it might have been made into a piece of clothing, but we do not know whether this was before or after Pepin’s acquisition.

The abbey at Mozac was a much grander affair than Austremoine’s original burial place in Issoire and the church at Volvic. It had been founded in the sixth or seventh century by Calmin and his wife Namadie, both who also became sanctified. The abbey was endowed, it is recorded, with relics of Saint Peter (Saint Pierre), to whom the church was dedicated: those of Calmin and his wife later joined them.

Detail of the 12th century lintel in the Abbey showing Saint Austremoine. Photograph John Falconer.

There is no evidence to suggest that the relics were moved over the next few centuries. In 1197 there was a new “recognition” of Saint Austremoine, and the relics were checked in their shrine by Bishop Robert of Clermont. He reported seeing the silk with Pepin’s seal intact and, on cutting the tie (to avoid breaking the seal), also found the relics intact. He re-placed them inside the silk. In the sixteenth century a wooden reliquary was made to house them, decorated by an Italian artist with paintings of the twelve apostles (shown below).

StAustremoine_casketCasket holding relics of St Austremoine. Photograph John Falconer.

In 1790 during the French Revolution the abbey was dissolved and became the parish Church of Saint Peter. It is possible the relics were disturbed. When the reliquary was opened on October 24, 1839, it was found to contain several objects. These included four teeth in a glass vial contained in a porcelain vase, as well as several parcels of bones wrapped in linen with a parchment tie on which was written “Relics of Saint Austremoine.” There was also a letter of Jean-Pierre Massillon (1663–1742), bishop of Clermont from 1717, concerning the disposition of relics. On January 29, 1852, the bones were listed by a vicar-general and a doctor as a right femur; a left femur; part of a right tibia and a left tibia; a large part of a pelvis; three vertebrae; a kneecap; the base of a skull; almost an entire head; two rib fragments; part of a heel bone; and several small pieces impossible to identify, but also including finger and toe joints.

We now reach the latest chapter in the story of this hunter silk, its removal from a sacred back to a secular setting and a return to the concentration on the silk itself. With the French secularization of the church initiated by the French Revolution, church property, such as St. Calmin’s reliquary—mentioned above—started to be sold. The piece was described by Hippolyte Gomot in his 1872 history of the church as having four hunters and four lions. It seems that, possibly because of Gomot’s publication, interest in the textile grew and the church was able to sell fragments, providing much-needed funds to help with its restoration. Two other pieces are known in the Borgelli Collection in Florence and in the Abegg-Stiftung in Riggisberg.

Lyon was a center of silk and other textile production, and a museum to celebrate this industry was first proposed in 1797. A textile collection started to be amassed by the chamber of commerce over the next decades. This was supplemented with material collected by the first French trade mission to China (1843–46). Many of the Lyon manufacturers attended the London Exhibition in 1850, and calls were renewed for a museum on their return. The chamber voted in favor in 1856. The resulting Museum of Art and Industry was opened on March 6, 1864. It was replaced with the Historical Museum of Textiles on August 6, 1891.

The museum had an active acquisition policy. Émile Guimet (1836–1918), founder in 1879 of the museum of his name in his birthplace of Lyon (it was handed over to the state and transferred to Paris in 1885), persuaded the Lyon Chamber of Commerce to sponsor excavations in Antinoopolis in Egypt. The resulting finds went to the museum. But the museum curators also sought acquisitions from local churches. In 1904 under the directorship of Raymond Jean-Marie Cox (1856–1921), the museum acquired the remains of the hunter silk from Mozac. But, by this time, the remaining piece showed only two hunters: the rest of the silk had presumably been dispersed to others. How the price for this piece was arrived at is not recorded, although a story has been handed down that it was agreed that the museum should pay the price of coins—the French louis—that could fit onto the silk. The acquisition register of the museum clearly records the purchase of this piece for eight thousand francs. This was an enormous amount; the other entries on the page are for tens or, at most, a couple of hundred francs. The franc was linked to the gold standard, and this equated to 2,320 grams of gold, about US$100,000 today.

The hunter silk was classed as a historical artefact on January 20, 1909. It traveled to Paris for exhibitions in 1958 and 1992. It seemed that its future was assured. But as history shows, there is no place of safekeeping. Like many museums worldwide, the Lyon Museum has been under threat from lack of funds. It continued to be supported by the Chamber of Commerce of Lyons, but in 2015 they announced that they could no longer support it and that the museum would close in 2016. By the time of this blog post, closure appeared to have been averted—although not without casualities. Sadly, Maximilien Durand, the Director, resigned his post in June 2017. The news serves as a reminder that a later generation might have another chapter to write in the story of this wonderful textile.


This is an edited extract from my forthcoming book, Silk, Slaves and Stupas: Material Culture of the Silk Road (University of California Press, March 2018). Chapter 8 tells the story of the Mozac Hunter Silk.

I am greatly indebted to the scholarship of Anna Muthesius for the original inspiration for this chapter. Many of the details about this textile come from her many books. I am also indebted to Maximilien Durand, former director of the Textile Museum, Lyon, holder of the textile, and must thank him for offering his own insights; alerting me to recent scholarship, notably that of Sophie Desrosiers on the weave; showing me the textile and the original ledger book; and providing more information about the textile’s acquisition.

References and Further Reading
Desrosiers, Sophie. 1994. “La soierie méditerannéenne.” Revue du Musée des Arts et Métiers 7:51–58.
———. 2004. Soieries et autres textiles de l’antiquité au XVIe siècle. Paris: Reunion des Musées Nationaux.
Durand, Maximilien. 2014. “Suaire de saint Austremoine, dit aussi ‘Suaire de
Mozac.’” Description for online catalog, Musée des Tissus / Musée des Arts
Decoratifs de Lyon (MTMAD). http://www.mtmad.fr.
Gomot, M. Hippolyte. 1872. Histoire de l’Abbaye Royale de Mozat. Paris: Libraire de la Société des Bibliophiles Français.
Muthesius, Anna. 1997. Byzantine Silk Weaving, AD 400 to AD 1200. Vienna: Fassbaender.
———. 2002. “Essential Processes, Looms, and Technical Aspects of the Produc-
tion of Silk Textiles.” In The Economic History of Byzantium: From the Seventh through the Fifteenth Century, edited by Angeliki E. Laiou, 147–68. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
———. 2008. Studies in Byzantine, Islamic and Near East Silk Weaving. London: Pindar.

Posted in Silk, Slaves and Stupas, Textiles, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Amluk Dara Stupa

Amluk Data Stupa

ACT/Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan.

Once rising almost as high as the Pantheon in Rome, the large stupa of Amluk Dara in the Swat valley, Pakistan, is still an imposing building. Yet it is was only one among many such Buddhist structures built in Udyāna, a garden kingdom of the Silk Road.

Owing to its position connecting North India through mountainous Central Asia with the kingdoms and empires beyond, this was a strategic area. It often formed the borders of larger empires, with rulers based in India failing to expand north from here over the mountains and rulers from north of the mountains failing to expand further south from here into the Indian plains. However, one of the early invaders came from much further afield. Alexander the Great (r. 336–323 BC) fought famous battles here during his central Asian campaigns. His army marched east from Alexander on the Caucasus (Bagram)—the city he had founded in the kingdom of Kapisa—and fought many battles to gain control of the region. Some of these were in the Swat valley and culminated with Alexander’s successful siege of Aornos, a seemingly impregnable steep-sided mountain with a flat top watered by a spring where locals had taken refuge. Identifying the site of this ancient battle has occupied scholars for well over a century, but two places stand out as the most probable candidates. Pir Sar, a mountain rising west of the Indus valley, was selected by the archaeologist Aurel Stein (1862–1943) after his survey of the region in 1926. However, although this is not rejected by all, the consensus now veers toward Mount Ilam, the summit of which is a day’s walk from the Amluk Dara Stupa (Stein 1929; Rienjang 2012; Olivieri 2015).

Amluk Data Stupa in 1926.

Photographed in 1926 by Aurel Stein. The British Library Photo 392/30(129).

Legend tells of a serpent king, the Apalala, who lived in a lake high in the peaks of the Hindu Kush. Every year he demanded an annual offering of grain from the people living in the valley of the Swat river, which flowed from the lake. The valley was fertile, hence its name — Udyāna, the garden. But one year the people refused to give the offering and Apalala flooded their lands in revenge. The people duly asked help of Buddha. He came to the valley, converted Apalala and left his footprint on a rock as a sign of his visit.

The footprint survives (now in the local museum), the Swat River still floods, and for many centuries the valley kingdom remained a centre of Buddhism. The location of Amluk Dara and its central stupa was dependent on the landscape. The fecundity of the Swat valley is well captured by the description of the Aurel Stein: “The deep-cut lane along which we travelled was lined with fine hedges showing primrose-like flowers in full bloom, and the trees hanging low with their branches, though still bare of leaves, helped someone to recall Devon lanes. Bluebell-like flowers and other messengers of spring, spread brightness over the little terraced fields.” (Stein 1919: 32-5) And the Italian archaeologists working there since 1956 have noted that “the entire complex blended in with the surrounding nature. From this it drew its charm, importance and beauty—all elements that are believed to have been taken into consideration both in the original plans and subsequent extension.” (Faccenna and Spagnesi 2014: 550)

Gregory Schopen has argued that monasteries were very closely linked to the Indian ideal of a garden containing an arbor or pleasure grove, evidenced by the shared lexicon in the first century AD. He writes that “Buddhist monks . . . attempted to assimilate their establishments to the garden, or actually saw them as belonging to that cultural category.” (Schopen 2006: 489). The framing of views from within the garden or monastery was an important element in its siting, a point noted by many later travelers. So Stein writes of another site in the Lower Swat that it “proved a pleasing example of the care in which these old Buddhist monks knew how to select sacred spots and place their monastic establishments by them. A glorious view down the fertile valley to Thāna, picturesque rocky spurs around, clumps of firs and cedars higher up, and the rare boon of a spring close by—all combined to give charm to the spot. Even those who do not seek future bliss in Nirvāṇa could fully enjoy it.” (Stein 1929: 17-18). Rock-cut or other seats were often placed at points giving a particular view.

During its heyday, monks and merchants carried news of Udyāna’s Buddhist sights and temples along the Silk Road to China and the mountain valley became part of the itinerary for pilgrim monks en route to India. The first to leave a record was Faxian, who arrived in about 403. He stayed for several months visiting the Buddha footprint along with the rock on which he dried his clothes, and the place where he converted ‘the wicked serpent.’ He noted that there were 400 Buddhist monasteries.

Other pilgrims followed, including Xuanzang in 630 and the Korean monk, Hyecho, around 727. By their time Buddhism was in decline in the plains below Swat, but the valley provided an enclave. Indeed, recent archaeological work by Dr Luca Olivieri and his colleagues of the Italian Archaeological Mission has shown that rebuilding of Buddhist shrines and temples continued into the tenth centuries, long after Buddhism had disappeared in its Indian homeland.

Amluk Dara stupa under recent excavation.

Recent excavations. ACT/Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan.

This is an edited extract from my forthcoming book, Silk, Slaves and Stupas: Material Culture of the Silk Road (University of California Press, March 2018). Chapter 4 tells the story of Amluk Dara stupa.
Thanks to Luca Olivieri for his generous responses to my many queries and ready supply of excellent photographs for the book.

References and Further Reading
Faccenna, Domenico, and Piero Spagnesi. 2014. Buddhist Architecture in the Swat Valley, Pakistan: Stupas, Viharas, a Dwelling Unit. Lahore: Sang-e-Meel Publications.
Olivieri, Luca M. 1996. “Notes on the Problematic Sequence of Alexander’s Itinerary in Swat. A Geo-Historical Approach.” East and West 46.1-2:45–78.
———. 2014. The Last Phases of the Urban Site of bir-Kot-Ghwandai (Barikot): The Buddhist Sites of Gumbat and Amluk-Dara (Barikot). Lahore: Sang-e-Meel Publications.
———. 2015. “‘Frontier Archaeology’: Sir Aurel Stein, Swat and the Indian Aornus.” South Asian Studies 31 (1): 58–70.
Olivieri, L. M. and Vidale, M. 2006. “Archaeology and Settlement History in a Test Area of the Swat Valley. Preliminary Report on the AMSV Project (1st Phase). East and West 54.1–3”73–150.
Rienjang, Wannaporn. 2012. “Aurel Stein’s Work in the North-West Frontier Province, Pakistan.” In H. Wang ed. Sir Aurel Stein: Colleagues and Collections. British Museum Research Publication 194. London: British Museum: 1–10. .
Schopen, Gregory. 2006. “The Buddhist ‘Monastery’ and the Indian Garden: Aesthetics, Assimilations, and the Siting of Monastic Establishments.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 126 (4): 487–505.
Stein, M. Aurel. 1929. On Alexander’s Track to the Indus: Personal Narrative of Explorations on the North-West Frontier of India. London: Macmillan. http://archive.org/stream/onalexanderstrac035425mbp/onalexanderstrac035425mbp_djvu.txt.

Posted in Silk, Slaves and Stupas | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Feeble Silkworms and Flightless Moths

Female moths of the Bombyx mori (left) and Bombyx mandarina (right).
Credit: Markus Knaden, Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology.

The Bombyx mori moth is well-known as producer of the silk cultivated in China for thousands of years whose technology — including the breeding of the caterpillars (silkworms) and the source of their preferred food, white mulberry trees — spread across Eurasia during the period of the Silk Road. Both moth and mulberry were native to China and the former was domesticated, so enabling silk to be efficiently produced in a cottage industry. But it was only when I came to be interviewed for a BBC Radio 4 programme on the moth that I understood fully what domestication means for the moth itself.

The wild cousin of the Bombyx mori, the Bombyx mandarina lives for several weeks. After breeding, the female lays hundreds of tiny eggs on the white mulberry (Morus alba). The moths die but their eggs soon hatch. The caterpillars/larva — silkworms — move around the tree to find new leaves to satisfy their voracious appetites. Inevitably many are eaten, die of disease or fail to find sufficient food. Those that survive shed their skins several times and develop new ones to accommodate their rapidly expanding bodies, each new stage called an instar.

The caterpillars of the Bombyx mandarina (left) and Bombyx mori (right) showing the lack of skin pigment in the domesticated breed.

Once fully grown, the silkworm finds a suitable place where it can spin a cocoon around itself and enter its pupa stage. Often it will remain there over the winter, transforming into a moth as the spring set in and the new buds formed on the mulberries. When ready, it breaks out of the cocoon, pumping fluid into its wrinkly wings to make then expand and, when able, fly off to eat and find a mate.

After so many years of being cultivated, the domesticated Bombyx mori — moth, silkworm and pupae — might be larger than its wild cousin, but it is rather feeble in comparison. It has lost its skin pigments — a state called leucistic — as it has no need of camouflage being protected from predators by its human rearers. Used to being brought food, the caterpillar/silkworm does not travel far and might die if it is not regularly brought new leaves. It digests more efficiently and grows more quickly but, like its wild cousin, after several instars it spins a cocoon — also larger and whiter.

Comparison of the cocoons from the domesticated and wild moths.

Most of the domesticated pupae do not develop into moths as they are killed before they can break the precious cocoons. The cocoons are usually boiled, as this enables the 300-900 metres of silk to be unwound. The moths that do hatch have a very short life. Unable to fly or eat, they are placed together for mating. The males might get the chance to mate two or three times but they have then used up their usefulness and die. The females live to lay their eggs, like their wild ancestors, but unable to eat or move from their confined space.

Further images and information:
On Bombyx mandarina in Spain.
On Bombyx mandarina in Japan.

On the bombyx mori lifecycle.
On its lack of smell compared to its wild cousin

And a blog post on modern domestic sericulture and its challenges today.

Posted in Textiles | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Early Exhibitions of the Collections of Aurel Stein: Part 1: 1910

This is the first of a series of posts to list twentieth century exhibitions which have included Central Asian manuscripts, paintings, coins and other artefacts from the collections of the archaeologist M. Aurel Stein (1862–1943). These collections are now largely divided between The British Museum, The British Library, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Museum of India, with small collections elsewhere. They are all included in the scope of the International Dunhuang Project and further details on them and on Aurel Stein and his contemporaries can be found on its web site.

As research in progress it may well have omissions. If you know of any other exhibitions of Stein material during this period I would be very grateful if you could leave a comment.

Stein’s first expedition to Central Asia was in 1900-01 and his excavations uncovered over a thousand artefacts, including manuscripts and coins. The preliminary sorting and identification of the artefacts was largely completed within a few years and many were acquisitioned into the British Museum collections in 1907, indicated by the registration number of the artefacts — prefixed by this date. The manuscripts and coins were assigned to different departments, that of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books and Department of Coins and Medals respectively. Most of the former were sent to specialists in the various languages and scripts across Europe to complete catalogues and their acquisition into the British Museum collections did not take place until several years later.

The fact that much of this material was fragmentary probably meant that it was not considered suitable for display: and, in any case, and much had been sent elsewhere for cataloguing. I have not been able to find any record of its display in this early period but it was included in the exhibition of 1914 (see later post).

Stein’s second expedition, 1906–08, yielded many more finds, including the hundreds of paintings — many in good condition — from the Library Cave at Dunhuang Mogao. The British Museum had made two significant other purchases of Chinese paintings: the Admonitions scroll (1903,0408,0.1), and close on one hundred and fifty paintings from a German collector, Olga-Julia Wegener.1 These new acquisitions were an impetus for an exhibition alongside the fine collection of Japanese paintings previously exhibited over two decades previously in 1888.

The paintings from Dunhuang became part of the Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings. Sidney Colvin (1845–1927), the Keeper, wrote the preface to the exhibition catalogue, and Laurence Binyon (1868–1943), Assistant Keeper, curated the exhibition. Binyon had already discussed paintings found by Stein on his first expedition at Khotan in his 1908 publication, Painting in the Far East: An Introduction to the History of Pictorial Art in Asia, Especially China and Japan (London: E. Arnold 1908). But he only discussed the Dunhuang material in the 1913 revised edition after working on this exhibition. In this year he also became Keeper of the Sub-Department formed in 1913 to deal specifically with Chinese, Japanese and other ‘oriental’ works.

The exhibition was held in the Prints and Drawings Gallery of the Museum. It was opened in June 1910 and remained on display until April 1912. The catalogue was on sale for threepence.The exhibition showed twenty-five paintings from Dunhuang.

1910: An Exhibition of Chinese and Japanese Paintings (Fourth to Nineteenth Century AD)

Prints and Drawings Gallery, The British Museum.

Catalogue: A Guide to an Exhibition of Chinese and Japanese Paintings (Fourth to Nineteenth Century AD) in the Prints and Drawing Gallery. London: British Museum 1910.

‘The Admonitions Scroll’ (1903,0408,0.1) was the first item in the Chinese section of the exhibition while exhibits 2-26 were items from the Stein Collection. These were only acquisitioned into the Museum’s collections in 1919 (indicated by their Museum registration number) while some were sent to India for acquisition in the National Museum collections. Sydney Colvin (1845–1927), Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, notes in his preface to the catalogue that:
‘The work of unpacking and repairing these is still in progress, but we are able to include in our Exhibition enough specimens to show their extraordinary interest.'(4)

The works displayed are listed below with, in some cases, their current British Museum or National Museum of India registration numbers as well as their original Stein site id. (Ch.001 etc). They are linked to online records and images where these are available. The brevity of the captions and lack of illustrations in the original catalogue makes it difficult to identify all of the works. Any uncertainty is indicated by ‘?’.


[Slope 1: see plan above]
2: Miraculous Birth in Heaven with female divinities

This is probably Ch.lv.0015, the female divinities being in fact bodisattavas. The piece is now probably the National Museum of India, re. no. unknown and not yet online. It was published in Plate LXXXIII in Serindia.

3: Scenes from Buddha’s Life, The British Museum, ?1919,0101,0.96 (Ch.iv.009, Stein Painting 96)

4: Scenes from Buddha’s Life, The British Museum 1919,0101,0.91 (Ch.0039, Stein Painting 91) and 1919,0101,0.89 (Ch.xxii.0035, Stein Painting 89)

5: Scenes from Buddha’s Life, The National Museum of India NM 2003-17-312 (Ch.xlvi., Stein 492)

6: Scenes from Buddha’s Life, The British Museum 1919,0101,0.97 (detail below).

7: Scenes from Buddha’s Life, The British Museum 1919,0101,0.95 (Ch.lxi.002, Stein Painting 95)

[location not specified: assume on walls of the gallery]
8: Vajrapāṇi, 1919,0101,0.134 (Ch.004, Stein painting 134)

9: Bodhisattva.

10: Buddha with rice bowl, The National Museum of India reg. no. not known (Ch.i.001)

11: Mañjuśrī, Possibly that in The National Museum of India 99-17-93 (Ch.0023, Stein Painting 290)

12: Vajrapāṇi.

13: Avalokiteśvara.

14: One of Four Lords (?Vaiśravaṇa) The British Museum 1919,0101,0.138 (Stein Painting 138, Ch.lv.0018)

15: Virūpākṣa

16: Vaiśravaṇa

17: Maitreya

18: Kṣititgarbha, The British Museum 1919,0101,0.19 (Stein Painting 19, Ch.lviii.003)

19: Scenes from Buddha’s Life, The British Museum 1919,0101,0.100 (Ch.xxvii.001)

20: Vaiśravaṇa

21: Avalokiteśvara, Possibly that in The National Museum of India 99-17019 (Ch.00108)

22: Kṣititgarbha

23: Avalokiteśvara

24: Vajrapāṇi

25: Avalokiteśvara

26: Paradise of West, The British Museum 1919,0101,0.67 (Stein Painting 67, 68, Ch.lii.004)


1910-11: Display of the embroidery of ‘Sakyamuni Preaching on the Vulture Peak’

Department of British and Medieval Antiquities.

In his preface to the 1910 catalogue (above), Colvin notes that this work ‘will shortly be placed on view’ in this location. I have not yet found any further evidence to suggest whether this exhibit went ahead or not.


1. Although Sidney Colvin described this as a ‘fine acquisition’ in his preface to the exhibition guide, many of the paintings are now accepted as either misattributions to earlier artists or forgeries. See Michelle Ying-Ling Huang, ‘The Olga-Julia Wegener and Arthur Morrison Collections of Chinese Paintings in the British Museum.’ In Susan Bracken at al., eds. Collecting East and West: 147-166. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2013.


The next post in this series will continue with details of the items from the Stein collection displayed at the Festival of Empire in 1911.

Posted in Exhibitions | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment