Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Breathing New Life into Old Information – Updating the IDP Stein Site Database

By Alexandra Sidebottom, UCL

The beautiful 1921 Clarendon Press edition of Serindia, by Aurel Stein
For the past six weeks, I have been undertaking a work placement at the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) as part of my Masters course. My main role has been updating and improving the existing Stein site database, and I am pleased to say this work is now complete. Sixty-seven detailed site entries have been included in the updated database. 

The Stein site database is an internal record of all of the sites Aurel Stein excavated during his three Central Asian expeditions. Prior to this project, it was a loosely-updated resource, lightly filled in over many years by different people. There was no standardised method to inputting data, and important information was often overlooked. Some minor sites had entries, whereas major sites such as the Mogao Caves, Ming-oi and Lou-lan had nothing. I believe this was because of several factors - a variety of researchers working infrequently on the database, the IDP’s understandable focus on more important and time-sensitive projects, and an assumption of knowledge within the IDP. 

Fundamentally, I wanted to make the Stein site database useful to IDP researchers. The data was due to be moved to a new database, so my goal was to make the information as high quality as possible. I organised and inputted the data in a standardised way – all the entries now have a site ID, their general location, a detailed site description, which expeditions they relate to, an excavation history, page numbers and a brief description. The detailed site descriptions can either replace Stein’s books or serve as a starting point for researchers depending on the level of detail required.

The IDP decided to use Aurel Stein’s three major works – Ancient Khotan, published in 1907, Serindia, published in 1921, and Innermost Asia, published in 1928 – as the primary source material for the updated database. For many of these sites, Stein’s work remains the major source. I therefore made sure to specify what was Stein’s opinion and what was objective fact; if Stein believed an artefact to be Han Chinese, or a language to be Kharosthi, or a fort abandoned during the 8th century, I tried to make it clear that it was his own interpretation of the evidence, coloured by the technology, scholarship and societal conditions of his era, and not necessarily the position of current academics or the IDP. Other material from previous IDP research was also incorporated; the sites of Astana, Endere, Miran and Niya have excellent profiles on the IDP site database website with collections history, detailed excavation history and maps, but this was not reflected on the internal site database prior to this project.

 I have found updating the database to be a deeply enjoyable process. Prior to this project, I had a working knowledge of Stein and his expeditions in Central Asia, but this gave me the opportunity to learn about the sites in detail, and to learn more about Stein himself through his books. Working with physical copies of Stein’s books has also been a highlight, despite the lack of an index. His three accounts of his expeditions are enormous, unwieldy things with multiple volumes, filled with beautiful colour plates of his finds, intriguing maps, and photos of eerie ruins in dusty deserts. In an era of increasingly digitised research, it has been refreshing to pore over dusty books.

 For the IDP online site database (incomplete), click here.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Introducing the Lotus Sutra Project - Conserving and digitising the Stein Collection's Chinese copies of the Lotus Sutra at the British Library


The Lotus Sūtra, whose earliest known Sanskrit title is the Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra and means “Sūtra on the White Lotus of the Sublime Dharma,” was possibly composed between the first century BCE and the second century CE. It is thought to contain the Buddha’s final teaching, complete and sufficient for salvation. Through the medium of parables and short stories, it delivers the message that all sentient beings have the potential to attain Buddhahood. As such, it is one of the most influential scriptures of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism, and it is highly regarded in a number of Asian countries, including China, Korea and Japan, where it has been traditionally practised.


The most prevalent versions of this Sūtra in Chinese are the Zheng fahua jing (徵法華經 “Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Correct law”), translated by the monk Dharmarakṣa between 286 and 288, and the Miaofa lianhua jing, (妙法蓮華經 “Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law”), translated by Kumarajiva over a century later, in 406. There is also an alternative version called the Tianpin Miaofa lianhua jing (添品妙法蓮華經 “Supplemented Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law"), compiled in 601 by the masters Jñānagupta and Dharmagupta.

Images and scenes inspired by the Lotus Sūtra can be seen in the murals adorning the caves of the Mogao Buddhist complex, near the oasis-town of Dunhuang, Gansu. An estimated 4,000 copies of the Lotus Sūtra were also found in one of the caves, commonly called the Library Cave or Cave 17. They are now dispersed across various institutions in Beijing, Paris, St Petersburg and London. In the British Library's collection, the Lotus Sūtra outnumbers all the other Chinese Buddhist texts brought back by Sir Aurel Stein during his second expedition to Central Asia (1906-1908). There are over a thousand manuscripts, some of which are scrolls measuring up to 13 meters long.

If a few have already been digitised and are now accessible via the IDP website, a large proportion has remained practically untouched since their discovery in 1907 and is currently unavailable online. Thanks to a generous grant from the Bei Shan Tang Foundation, in Hong Kong, work is now underway to address this issue. The aim of this four-year project is to conserve and digitise nearly 800 copies of the Lotus Sūtra in Chinese, with a view to make images and information about them freely accessible on the Internet.

For the past six months, I have been busy checking the condition of all these manuscripts in order to plan both the conservation and digitisation workflows for the years to come. I have been extremely lucky to be joined in this task by three colleagues from the British Library Conservation department, who have volunteered some of their precious time to assess the collection with me. Together, we have been writing up detailed condition status reports to facilitate future conservation treatment and handling during photography. Another important part of my curatorial role has also been to enhance information on each of the corresponding catalogue records.

Meanwhile, Vania Assis, full-time conservator for the project, has started conserving the scrolls. Although an initial estimate based on a sample of manuscripts had established that between 200 and 300 items would need to be conserved, the ongoing assessment of the scrolls has so far revealed that most of them require some level of intervention. They are extremely fragile: they present tears, missing areas, creases and other damage that make photographing them in their current state inadvisable. Vania has already completed treatment of more than 50 items and will tell you about her amazing work in a separate post.

The project's team should soon include two senior imaging technicians, who will be ensuring the digitisation of the Lotus Sūtra copies. We will let you know how the project progresses and will post updates as regularly as possible, so watch this space!