I came face to face the other night with a portrait of Sir Aurel Stein, which was a coincidence, given that I am currently reading his Sand-Buried Ruins of Khotan. Actually, I have to confess that the coincidence was not very wild, as I was in the Council Room of the Royal Asiatic Society, of which Stein was for many years a most distinguished member.
We were there to celebrate the association between the Society and CLC which has led to the reissue of 103 titles from its library, with plans for more. It was enormously gratifying and morale-boosting to see ‘our’ books on display beside their originals, and to compare the quality, which stood up to expert inspection, even in the more difficult works with detailed archaeological or architectural images.
Stein was not part of our first batch of books from the RAS, because when we started planning the project, his works were still in copyright. Like Flinders Petrie, another Grand Old Man of archaeology, Stein was very long-lived (1862–1943), and, also like Petrie, he is the father of his subject, though ‘Father of Sino-Turkestanic Archaeology, Plus Several Other Areas’ is a bit of a mouthful.
In fact, Stein has a greater claim to ‘fatherhood’ in this sense than Petrie, to the extent that Petrie had many predecessors (coming soon!), who had been unsystematically digging (or dynamiting, in Belzoni’s case) their way into Egyptian ruins for more than half a century before he brought scientific rigour to surveying and excavation. But Stein made discoveries and revealed civilisations of which nobody in the West previously had the slightest inkling.
I first came across Stein in Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, published in 1980 by Peter Hopkirk of The Times, which tells the extraordinary story of European exploration and excavation – and plundering, from the Chinese point of view – of the cities of the Silk Road, along which since very ancient times trade had been conducted between China and the countries to its west.
Stein was born in Hungary, where he became fascinated first by the character and exploits of Alexander the Great, and then by the fabulous countries of the East which Alexander had sought to explore and/or conquer, and in which traces of the fusion of cultures known as Graeco-Buddhist could still be found. In additional to a traditional, classical education, he studied Sanskrit, Old Persian and philology, as well as the history, culture and languages of India; and on a visit to England to examine oriental collections, he came under the wings of two Sir Henries – Rawlinson, the Assyriologist, and Yule, the doyen of Indian studies.
Deciding to go to India (after military service making maps in the Austro-Hungarian army), Stein took up academic posts in Lahore and Calcutta, but on every possible occasion he was off exploring, first in the Peshawar valley, but from 1900 much further afield. I remember being intrigued in Hopkirk’s account by the name of the Taklamakan desert (‘You can get in, but you won’t get out again’), especially by how so many words could be conveyed by four syllables. In spite of this warning, Stein went in – and thankfully came out again.
His motive was to find ancient manuscripts, a few of which had been coming on to the market in India, and were being seized upon by philologists and historians. He was remarkably successful, and in three expeditions (1900–1, 1906–8 and 1913–16) revealed the existence of a network of cities along trade routes in this apparently desert region, from which not only scrolls but writings on wood and leather panels, sculptures, coins, wall-paintings and textiles emerged, preserved in the dry climate.
His most famous discovery was the ‘Caves of the Thousand Buddhas’ in Dunhuang, from which came statues, Buddhist and secular texts, and a woodblock-printed scroll containing the Diamond Sutra and dating from the ninth century: the earliest known printed document. This is where thing get ethically difficult. Stein did not discover these treasures in an abandoned ruin: they were walled up in a cave, and he apparently bribed its guardian to let him carry some of them off to Britain, where they now reside in several of the great museums. From the Chinese point of view, this was straightforward robbery, and, as a consequence, a further expedition to China in 1930 was thwarted by the understandable hostility of Chinese academics.
Stein then turned his attention to archaeological surveys of Iran and the Middle East, pioneering aerial surveying with the help of the Royal Air Force. He maintained all his life his fascination with Alexander the Great, and in 1943 achieved his lifelong ambition of visiting Afghanistan, where Alexander had reputedly built a colonial city. Sadly, he fell ill almost immediately on arrival, died, and was buried in Kabul.
Hopkirk argued that Stein has never been given the credit he deserves as an archaeologist and explorer, partly because the whole area of his interest became much harder to visit after the rise of Communism in China, and partly because of the perennial (and proper) debate over the return of cultural treasures.* It is certainly the case that Stein’s name is not as familiar as those of Petrie, Schliemann, Evans or Carter.
And the book? The writing is earnest and very detailed (‘exhaustive’, as the ODNB puts it), and you really do need to have the large colour map (available to download) open at a high magnification to trace the progress of Stein’s travels. However, the descriptions of his various remarkable discoveries and his slightly patronising but affectionate account of the people he encountered make me look forward to reading his other books. Next up are the two-volume Ruins of Desert Cathay (1912) and On Alexander’s Track to the Indus (1929): others will follow!
* Thanks to George Clooney and Boris Johnson for adding to the gaiety of the nation recently. But Mr Clooney, the Pantheon and the Parthenon are not quite the same thing; and why (spoiler alert!!!) do only the non-Yanks end up dead (as always)?