Monday, July 6, 2015

Reuniting Dispersed Collections

Photo 392/28(460). Stein at T.XIII., 18 March 1914.

Stein used the Latin term limes to describe the series of Chinese Han period (206 BC – AD 220) defensive walls and watchtowers to the north of Dunhuang. He carried out excavations on his second and third Central Asian expeditions in 1907 and 1914 respectively. The artefacts he uncovered include numerous woodslips, Sogdian Letters, pottery, weapons, textiles and shoes.

One of the artefacts discovered in 1907 was a small bag made of silk and constructed of four pieces. In Serindia Stein writes:

But of particular interest are the two private letters written on very fine greyish silk, Doc Nos. 398, 398 a (Plate XX), which had been sewn up into the inner lining of a small silk bag, T.XII.i.003.a.…

…The two letters are addressed to an officer serving on the Tun-huang Limes by another employed far away on the northern frontier. They throw curious sidelights on the life led by such official exiles, besides furnishing us with actual specimens of an ancient writing-material which was previously known only from textual evidence, such as that quoted in connexion with the invention of paper.1

Chavannes transcribes the letters in Documents Chinoises Découverts par Aurel Stein drawing the conclusion that one of them is a letter of recommendation2.

MAS.773. Small bag made of grey silk from the British Museum collections.

Stein’s second expedition was jointly funded by the British Museum and the Government of India and his finds were sent to London for sorting before distribution between the two countries. The bag and its lining remained in the UK where conservators at the Museum then separated its constituent parts. The manuscript sections duly became part of the collections of the British Library when it was established in 1973 and they moved out of the Museum with the Oriental Collections in 1981, so becoming physically removed from their original housing.

Or.8211/398, Or.8211/398(bis), Or.8211/398(A). Letters written in Chinese on silk from the British Library collections.

IDP’s founding aim was to reunite the dispersed collections of Dunhuang and Central Asia. This example illustrates how material from institutions in the same country with strong historical links can become separated and how digitisation and online catalogues can virtually bring them back together.


1. Stein, Aurel. Serindia, Chapter XVIII, Sec. v, p. 681. Oxford, 1921.

2. Chavannes, Édouard. Documents Chinoises Découverts par Aurel Stein, pp. 89–90. Oxford, 1913.

The two silk letter fragments found at Dunhuang were previously published in:
Chugoku Hoshosen 10: Mokkan, chikkan, hakusho, p.20.
中国法書選 10:木簡・竹簡・帛書[漢・晋/隷書]
Tōkyō : Nigensha, 1991.

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