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Albert von Le Coq

Sir Aurel Stein


Sir Aurel Stein (1862-1943), considered by the Chinese to be the most heinous of the 'foreign devils' and by Western scholars to be 'the most prodigious combination of scholar, explorer, archaeologist and geographer of his generation', embarked on his first archaeological expedition to Chinese Turkestan in 1900. His amazing discoveries led to honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, knighthood from the British government, the gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society, and numerous other awards. His findings were divided: the murals are to be seen in the National Museum of New Delhi, but the rest lies largely unmarked and poorly displayed at the British Museum, possibly in deference to China's outrage at his successful 'theft'.


Stein was born in Budapest, studied Sanskrit and Persian in Germany, Britain and Austria and joined the administration of Britain Raj in 1887. In 1990, well aware of the extraordinary discoveries of Sven Hedin and the potential gold mine that Chinese Turkestan offered archaeologist and historians, he organized his first journey to Khotan to search for evidence of Indian influences on Buddhist art and to undertake ' a systematic exploration of the Silk Road sites'. Stein believed that since native treasure seekers were finding manuscripts and antiquities with careless, unprofessional searches, a thorough investigation would certainly yield more of the same.


At Dandan Oilik where Hedin first travelled, northeast of present-day Khotan, Stein found Sanskrit texts of the Buddhist canon, some dating from the fifth and sixth centuries, in what had once been a library in a monastery. Among the ruins were painted wooden panels depicting a two-humped Bactrian camel, revealing a mix of Indian, Persian and Chinese influences-the term 'Serindian art' was coined by Stein. He continued on to the town of Niya, which was once an important oasis along the southern route of the Silk Road, where he found more wooden tablets, letters inscribed in Kharoshthi, a script of northwest India that dates from the time of Christ. These tablets are concurrent with the arrival of paper from China around the second century AD, for paper was initially rare and expensive. Nearby, he found wooden tablets with clay seals bearing the figure of Athena, with aegis and thunderbolt, as well as other Greek figures, including Eros and Heracles.


Stein's second mission in 1907 (accompanied by his faithful terrier, Dash) took him to Charkhlik, across the haunted Great Desert of Lop, so named by Marco Polo, to Loulan, his only guide being the recently available map of the region by Hedin. At Loulan, Stein found military records and official documents in an old rubbish dump dating from the third century. Little is known about this period of Chinese history, a fact which has only made the Chinese even more enraged about the removal of these documents. Kharashthi documents on wooden tablets show Loulan had once been an outpost of an ancient Indian empire. Stein next left for Dunhuang, where he made his most remarkable discoveries at the Mogao Caves, the largest rock temple complex in Central Asia.


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From Book "The Silk Road Xi'an to Kashgar"-Judy Bonavia

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