Friday, 2 December 2011

Digging through the Directors' Correspondence: Letters from Aurel Stein

Digging through the Directors' Correspondence: Letters from the Archaeologist M. Aurel Stein
By: Virginia Mills - 02/11/2011

From the website of Kew Royal Botanical Gardens

Read about our trip to the British Library's International Dunhuang Project, the amazing scrolls discovered by archaeologist M. Aurel Stein, and some of Stein's letters that we recently unearthed from the Kew's Directors' Correspondence archive collection.

Recently, the Directors' Correspondence team decamped to the British Library to see some of the material they hold on the Danish botanist Nathaniel Wallich, which has been digitised as part of a collaborative project with RBG Kew and other institutions. Watch out for more news and blogs on the Wallich and Indian Natural History project coming soon.

We were also lucky enough to visit the International Dunhuang Project: a collaborative project digitising manuscripts and artefacts from Dunhuang and other sites on the Silk Road. This well established project has partners in China, Japan, Germany, Korea, Russia, France, USA, Sweden, India, Ireland and the UK allowing related but widely dispersed historical documents, photographs and relics, and treasures of all kinds to be brought together into a single digital collection of over 322,000 images and still growing!

Bundles of manuscript rolls from the walled-up temple library, Dunhuang. Digitised by the International Dunhuang Project. © The British Library.

Sir Marc Aurel Stein

At the beginning of the 20th century archaeologists began to excavate numerous sites along the Silk Road that had long been buried under the desert sands. One such archaeologist was Aurel Stein (1862 to 1943). His most famous acquisitions came from the 'Library Cave' at Dunhuang, and include the Diamond Sutra, the world's oldest dated printed book (A.D. 868). The British Library's Stein collection contains over 45,000 manuscripts as well as paintings and photographs taken by Stein on his travels all over central Asia.

Photograph taken by Stein in March 1908 of him and his researchers (and his dog Dash II) at Ulugh-mazar, China. Digitised by the International Dunhuang Project. © The British Library.

Letters from Stein in the Directors' Correspondence

Inspired by our trip to the British Library we looked up Stein within our very own DC collection and found a rather more modest two documents, which we thought were interesting none the less.
The letters from Stein in the DC collection date from October 1903 and concern ancient cereals which Stein found preserved within the ruins of ancient dwellings at Khotan, buried under drift sand in the Taklamakan desert. He explains that documents from the same site have allowed him to determine that the ancient city was ruined at about A.D. 269. Stein is interested to know whether the historic cereals are materially different from those grown in the area in the 20th century. Stein's labourers, from the nearest Oasis towns, had no difficulty in recognizing all but one of the cereals. This one was however familiar to one of Stein's party from the Kangra district in India, who identified it as a root used as a condiment. The fact that there was an Indian man within Stein's own party who recognised this condiment, apparently from an Indian plant, which Stein was digging up in China over 1500 years later, is just one small but striking illustration of how far reaching was the trade that once brought exotic commodities along the Silk Road.

Extract taken from a descriptive list enumerating the ancient cereal grains found by Stein and sent to Kew for identification. Annotations on the right hand side show that the experts at Kew identified one of the cereals as Panicum miliaceum, a form of millet still grown for livestock feed today. © RBG, Kew

Stein also enquired of Kew whether there was any truth to the stories that wheat had been grown from ancient seeds found in Egyptian tombs. If you are interested in finding out whether these enduring stories are fact or legend you can read the answer given by Kew's experts at the Millennium Seed Bank: how long can seeds live?

- Virginia -

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