Excavating the Sogdians: Aurel Stein’s Collecting Legacy

Without archaeologists and anthropologists, many of the objects in museums that shape the Sogidan story would not be known to us. Aurel Stein (1862-1943) played a major role in telling the Sogdian story. His numerous excavations in Central Asia and the Middle East was spurred by his passion for uncovering histories along the Silk Road. Objects and stories found during his expeditions form the foundation for Sogdian history. I will highlight Stein's most fruitful excavation sites, mention significant objects from his expeditions, and lastly illustrate his research methods. 

Aurel Stein was a British archaeologist active in the early 20th century. His research interests and expeditions focused on the historical, geographic and religious interactions between India and Iranian worlds. From an early age Stein was fluent in many languages, his family speaking both Hungarian and German at home. He studied Sanskrit and comparative philology in Vienna as well as Old Persian and Indology while earning his doctorate degree in Leipzig and Tubingen. While serving in the military Stein was trained in map-making and geographical surveying.

As Principal of the Oriental College in Lahore, Pakistan Aurel Stein familiarized himself with the travels of Alexander the Great, Xuanzang and Marco Polo. As Stein retraced the steps of Xuanzang through research and expeditions, Stein became more deeply interested in the historic meeting places of Iranian, Indian, and Chinese cultures. 

Stein led four expeditions to Central Asia between 1900 and 1930 as well as one to Persia where he conducted archaeological, geographical, and ethnographic research. Stein conducted significant excavations in Turfan and Dunhuang, major oasis towns along the Silk Road. Stein is especially famous for ‘discovering’ the library cave at the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang. Stein’s two trips to Dunhuang resulted in a large amount of documents, artifacts, paintings, and textiles. Paper records such as a Sogdian Zoroastrian prayer (seen below), Sogdian Ancient Letters, and a pair of Sogdian marriage contracts provide important clues into Sogdian traditions and culture. 

Zoroastrian prayer, the Ashem Vohu, Sogdian MS

Zoroastrian Prayer in Sogdian

In 1900, Stein led his first expedition to the Taklamakan Desert, funded by Government of India and the Government of Punjab and Bengal. Here he focused on sites of Khotan, Niya, Miran, and Loulan. In Khotan, he found manuscripts on wood, paper, leather and other materials, in Prakrit, Khotanese, Chinese, and Tibetan languages. In Niya and Loulan sites, Stein uncovered carved architectural features, mummies in coffins, and manuscripts.  

From 1906-1908 Aurel Stein embarked on a more ambitious expedition following the southern branch of the Silk Road from Afghanistan to China. This trip was funded by the Government of India and the British Museum. The highlight of this trip was the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas in Dunhunag. The cave site is located at the intersection of northern and southern Silk Road routes at the edge of the Tarim Basin and Taklamakan Desert when traveling from China. The Cave of the Thousand Buddhas was an integral Buddhist cave temple that was heavily decorated for over 1,000 years. The cave complex consists of 492 caves with 45,000 swaure meters of frescoes and over 2,000 stucco statues. It is one of the most marvelous Buddhist art collections in the world. The amount of artifacts housed in these caves proves its importance as a major pilgrim site for Buddhist monks, like Xuanzang.  Cave 17, or the “library cave,” was first visited by archaeologists in the late 1890s and crammed full of manuscripts, printed documents and paintings on silk and paper. Aurel Stein, along with other archaeologists before and after him, took thousands of the manuscripts once held in Cave 17 and stored them in various institutions.  

Cave of One Thousand Buddhas

Cave of One Thousand Buddhas

Documents and artifacts found in Cave 17 preserve a variety of religious, legal, literary, economic, and official documents along with biographies, calendars, vocabularies, and texts relating to mathematics, art, and customs. Most of the texts are in Chinese and Tibetan, but a large amount are also in Sanskrit, Khotanese, Sogdian, Tangut, and Old Turkish. The cave’s contents illustrate the presence of Buddhism in Dunhuang as well as Nestorian Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Daoism, and Manicheism. One of the most significant documents from the library cave is a Zoroastrian prayer written in Sogdian. This prayer is by many centuries the oldest surviving manuscript of any Zoroastrian scripture. Other religious records such as an Ossuary from Mulla Kurgan tell us of how Sogdians practiced Zoroastrianism in their homeland and abroad.

From 1913 to 1916 Stein returned to excavation sites near Turfan on the northern Silk Road, making stops in Astana, Bezeklik, Dunhuang, and Kashgar. Stein traveled by following the ruins of watch-towers and small military stations. Very little human interference and a sterile desert environment assured that what was left of ancient civilizations was well preserved. Watch towers that were once massively built in bricks and stamped clay was reduced to shapeless mounds (Stein, 406). Archaeological evidence shows that all of the ancient records on wood, furniture, and implements from the excavations, were left behind by Chinese soldiers who, during first century BC and CE, had kept guard over their frontiers.  

Recycled paper goods from Astana graveyard

Recycled Paper Goods from Astana Graveyards

To save space in archaeological reports, Aurel Stein labeled similar items from a single site and photographed them together. This photo shows paper goods including from tombs in Astana, Tufan: a hat decorated with flowers, a rolled-up flag, a string of coins, and shoes. (Hansen 2015, 84) In the tombs Stein found many funerary garments made from recycled paper. As seen in the shoe above, paper documents were molded into shoes, sewn with thread, and then dyed or painted. By disassembling clothes for the deceased, archaeologists have been able to learn a lot about life on the Silk Road. One such burial object made from recycled paper is this Female Tomb Figurine

Excavating the Sogdians: Aurel Stein’s Collecting Legacy