A Few of Our Favourite Things: #8 Helen Wang

As part of IDP's 20th anniversary celebrations we have asked twenty of our friends and supporters to select their favourite item from the IDP collections. The full selection will form an online catalogue and will be featured in the spring and autumn 2014 editions of IDP News

Helen Wang is Curator of East Asian Money at the British Museum. In addition to researching Money on the Silk Road (2004) and Textiles as Money on the Silk Road (2013), she’s worked collaboratively with lots of IDP friends to produce important reference works on the collections of Sir Aurel Stein. These include the Handbook to the Collections of Sir Aurel Stein in the UK (1999, revised 2008); Sir Aurel Stein in The Times (2002); Catalogue to the Collections of Sir Aurel Stein in the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (2002) and its Supplement (2007); and Sir Aurel Stein, Colleagues and Collections (2012). Her chosen item is a photograph of Stein’s assistant Miss Lorimer Photo 1280/1(1).

Photograph of Miss Lorimer Photo 1280/1(1). Courtesy of Christina Lorimer.

Helen Wang writes:

I’ve chosen Miss Lorimer (Stein’s Recording Angel, or R.A.) in recognition of her outstanding commitment and contribution to Sir Aurel Stein’s projects and undertakings. Miss Lorimer worked with Stein for thirteen years, spending nine years at the British Museum, and four years in India. Although Stein was an exceptionally competent keeper of records and accounts (if in doubt, take a look at his papers in the Bodleian Library), it’s quite clear that he preferred the open air to the office. After all, how many ‘Education Officers’ are able to spend months on expeditions away from their desks? And how many archaeologists of no fixed abode are able to keep such close tabs on their recording team?

When the shipments arrived in London, it was the small team of Mr Andrews and Miss Lorimer who set to work on the collection. Stein joined them when he could. At the British Museum, the Stein Collection had its own space, with its own lock and key, and it was here that Andrews and Lorimer unpacked the finds, stored them safely, and created the slips. These were long strips of paper, once used like index cards in the museum, and now superseded by spreadsheets and databases. Each object had its own slip, which typically recorded the object’s ‘Stein number’ (his unique system, combining upper and lower case letters, and Roman and Arabic numerals to indicate the precise context of a site find, purchase or gift), its measurements and a description. The slips served as the basis for the thousands of object descriptions published in Stein’s publications, and they were essential for managing the collection. Some parts of the collection travelled, and Miss Lorimer, in particular, had to keep track of everything. For example, in 1911 over 400 Chinese manuscripts were sent to Paul Pelliot in Paris for cataloguing, and remained there throughout the First World War.

The Stein Collections are phenomenally important – for the wonderful objects and manuscripts, of course, but also for the meticulous recording of the contexts in which they were found. This does not happen by itself. Without the painstaking efforts of people like Miss Lorimer, who mostly work behind the scenes and are seldom acknowledged, our understanding of the Silk Road would be so much the poorer.