Thursday, January 28, 2016

Revisiting Kharakhoto

The ancient Tangut city of Kharakhoto lies north-east of Dunhuang in the Gobi Desert, just inside the present-day Chinese border with Mongolia. For Colonel Pyotr Kuzmich Kozlov (1863-1935), leader of the 1907–1909 Russian Expedition to Mongolia and Sichuan, it was the city of his dreams: 'ever since reading about the ruins in the explorer Potanin's book Kharakhoto has been constantly on my mind'. His discovery of the site in March 1908 was undoubtedly the triumph of Russian activity in Central Asia and heralded the start of Tangut studies.

IDP's photograph of the ruined city, The British Library,
Photo 1187/1(48) Photographer: Rachel Roberts.

Kharakhoto was a major city of the thriving Tangut state of Xia (known in China as Western Xia: Xixia) and many documents written in Tangut were found by Kozlov. The city was one of the first to be overthrown by the Mongols when they invaded in 1226. They later established a Tangut province within their empire and the city continued to be known by its Tangut name, Edzina or Etsina, as attested by Marco Polo:

'When the traveller leaves this city of Ganzhou, he rides for twelve days until he reaches a city called Edzina, which lies on the northern edge of the desert of sand. This is still in the province of Tangut. The inhabitants are idolators. They have camels and cattle in plenty. The country breeds lanner and saker falcons, and very good ones. The people live by agriculture and stock-rearing; they are not traders.' (after Yule 1903: 223)

Kozlov sent ten chests of manuscripts and Buddhist objects to St. Petersburg after this initial visit in 1908 and acquired more material, including Buddhist paintings, on his return journey in May 1909. The artefacts he discovered reflect the cultural richness of the Tangut Xia State. The paintings and other pieces (3,500 items) are now in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg while the manuscripts and printed documents (8,000 items) are with those from Dunhuang at the Institute of Oriental Studies (some are on IDP, ms. prefix=Tang.). Kozlov was leading an exploratory rather than an archaeological expedition and the site was too large for a complete excavation. Several years later when Sir Aurel Stein arrived he found many more artefacts and manuscripts. Stein recorded his first view of the city in 1914:

'It was a striking site, the most impressive perhaps that I had seen on true desert ground, this dead town, with massive walls and bastions for the most part still in fair preservation, rising above the bare gravel flat which stretches towards it from the river bank ... There was nothing in the surroundings of the dead town to impair the imposing effect created by the massive strength of the town walls and the utter desolation which reigned within.' (Stein 1928: 437)

Stein's photograph of the ruined city, The British Library,
Photo 392/29(95)

In the field Stein excavated several parts of the ancient city. Whenever he found remains of manuscripts he marked them according to their find site with a site id. (K.K. for Kharakhoto) and site feature number (given in roman numerals, I, II etc.,). Most of the manuscripts collected by Stein were fragments, the more complete material having been removed by Kozlov. In many cases the manuscripts were found too fragmentary and compressed conditions to separate. These he carefully collected and placed inside sheets of local paper, inscribing the wrapper with the find site. The wrappers were often secured with pins.

Some of the unconserved bundles, The British Library, December 2015. Photographer: Alexis Matilla.

Stein's Third Expedition material was first sent to Srinigar, arriving there in October 1915. As Stein remarked, 'war risks would have made its temporary transmission to London, as originally contemplated, a very unwise course.'(Innermost Asia: 981). Here Fred Andrewes, Principal of the Technical Institute of the Kashmir State, was entrusted with their sorting and numbering: he had worked with Stein on material from his previous expeditions. He was joined in early 1919 by Miss Lorimer, who had being working with the Stein collections in London since 1909: they had worked together on these until 1913 when Andrewes had left for Kashmir (Wang 1998). However, it appears that little was done on the Tangut manuscripts. Miss Lorimer completed her contract and returned to England in 1922. By this time Andrewes was in new Delhi working on the collections from Stein's first and second expeditions, a portion of which had been sent to India.

In January 1924 Stein asked the British Museum for space to store and work on this Third Expedition material while he completed his detailed report (Or.15495). 44 boxes arrived at the Museum in May 1924.

In 1925 there was an exhibition at the British Museum of a selection of material from Stein's third expedition (I will report separately on this). Most of the Tangut illustrated material, described by Stein in Innermost Asia, was sent to India (now in the collections of the National Museum of India in New Delhi). While the artefacts from the Third Expedition were given Museum registration numbers in 1928 (the number prefixed with 1928), the manuscript material was treated separately. Chinese and other languages material was appended onto existing sequences, Or.8211 and Or.8212 (both sequences were assigned in 1919). The former was originally for material mainly in Chinese catalogued by Chavannes, and the second sequence originally for other language material from Stein's first and second expeditions). The third expedition material was later added to these.

We have to assume, however, that the Tangut material remained unsorted for several decades as it was not assigned a manuscript number until 1959. This work was probably prompted by two factors: first the completion and publication of the catalogue of Chinese manuscripts from Dunhuang by the former Keeper of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts, Lionel Giles (1875-1958). Giles had retired in 1940 but continued work on the catalogue. The second was the appointment of Eric Grinstead (1921-2008) as Assistant Keeper. Grinstead took an interest in Tangut and probably led work on the sorting of this material.

In 1959 the manuscript prefixes Or.12380-85 were assigned to the Tangut material. It must have been at this time that the first 1839 fragments were conserved and encapsulated within glass: they remain in glass today (Or.12380/1-1839). (The prefixes Or.12381-5 do not seem to have been used, a point noted by in the Register of Oriental Manuscripts, March 19 1970.) Grinstead wrote a short article for the British Museum Quarterly introducing the material in 1961 (Grinstead 1961).

A few more complete items, such as the scroll Or.12380/1840, were lined — a typical treatment for this type of material at the time. In 1962, in another article for the British Museum Quarterly, Grinstead discussed the text on the scroll Or.12380/1840, 'The General's Garden', describing it as 'a twist of paper when first studied, is now mounted in its original form as a roll, 230 x 20 cm, containing 115 columns, complete at the top, but most unfortunately incomplete at the bottom and lacking the first third of the work altogether.'(Grinstead 1963: 36).

The General's Garden The British Library,

It is clear that other material started to be sorted, possibly by Grinstead, but was then deemed too fragmentary or delicate for conservation. Some material, for example, was removed from the original wrappers used by Stein and sorted into envelopes — often recycled standard issue British Museum brown ones, as seen below.

The image below shows such an envelope originally addressed to Grinstead containing several fragments. Grinstead's name has been crossed out and the site id. inscribed instead.'K.K.II.0284.a.xxii.' and the description 'Debris inscrit.'The postmark is dated 29 January 1959.

Other material was placed inside new paper sleeves (see below). But, judging from the comments on the envelopes and papers, when sent to the conservators (then the British Museum Bindery) they deemed much 'impossible' to conserve. They were returned to Grinstead and thence to storage.

Grinstead continued his research, publishing another article in 1967. However, by this time he had left the Museum to join the Central Nordic Institute for Asiatic Studies in Copenhagen. More activity was started when Professor Nishida visited the British Library to work on the collections. His first visit was in 1963. Professor Nishida identified fragments belonging to the same texts and these were conserved in codex format. However, the mass of unconserved material remained undisturbed.

In 2001 Ksenia Kepping from the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts, St Petersburg, visited the Library and some funds were found for her to compile a new catalogue. Unfortunately, Dr Kepping died before this work could be completed. However, during this period some of the material in plastic was reencapsulated into Melinex and preliminary records added to IDP.

Now, thanks to the support of the Ningxia Archives in China, the British Library has now been able to employ a new conservator to work on this material and for the production of 8000 images in the initial funded stages (up to summer 2016). The first step has been to make an inventory of all the remaining unconserved bundles and this revealed some of the working practices outlined above. We hope to learn more as we do more on this material.

IDP Conservator, Vania Assis, and IDP intern, Feichi Gao, preparing the inventory of unconserved bundles.
Photographer: Alexis Matilla


Galambos, Imre. 2015. Translating Chinese Tradition and Teaching Tangut Culture. Berlin: de Gruyter. Open Access.
Grinstead, Eric D. 1961. 'Tangut Fragments in the British Museum.' The British Museum Quarterly 24.3/4: 82–87.
Grinstead, Eric D. 1962. 'The General's Garden: A Twelfth Century Military Work.' The British Museum Quarterly 26.1/2: 35–37.
Grinstead, Eric D. 1967. 'The Dragon King of the Sea.' The British Museum Quarterly 31.3/4: 96-100.
Stein, M. Aurel. 1928. Innermost Asia: Detailed Report of Explorations in Central Asia, Kan-su and Eastern Iran. London.
Wang, Helen. 1998. 'Stein's Recording Angel: Miss F. M. G. Lorimer.'Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 8.2: 207–228.
Yule, Henry. 1903. The Book of Ser Marco Polo. (3rd ed.). London: John Murray.