Aurel Stein and the Silk Road: a hundred years on
Sir M. Aurel Stein’s early twentieth-century photographs of ancient Silk Road settlements, stupas and forts in the Taklamakan Desert are shown alongside modern images and video taken on recent expeditions to Chinese Central Asia in this fascinating exhibition.
- Monday 6 January – Monday 24 February. Weekdays: 10.00am-5.00pm. Saturdays: 10:00am-4:30pm
- Displayed in the RGS-IBG Exhibition Pavilion, accessible from our Exhibition Road entrance
- An exhibition of photographs from the British Library, the University of Nottingham and the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).
- Aurel Stein and the discovery of the Silk Road: Join Dr Susan Whitfield at 2.30pm on 13 January for a Be Inspired talk related to the exhibition.
- Early images of China in the Picture Collection: Explore the work of Isabella Bishop, Sir Walter Caine Hillier and John Thomson, among others at 2.30pm on 20 and 27 January
The Silk Road
Two thousand years ago the towns, temples and forts of the Silk Road bustled with life, with rivers from the mountains creating fertile tracks through the Taklamakan. The desert has long taken over, and the skeletal remains of these once thriving communities are now buried by the sands.
Aurel Stein and the Silk Road: a hundred years on, marks 100 years since archaeologist and explorer Aurel Stein first documented the ancient remains on his travels along the Silk Road – an important trade route across Eurasia that allowed cultures, technologies and religions to spread on a global scale.
Stein took thousands of photographs, now held at institutions including the Society and the British Library, to record archaeological remains dating back around 2,000 years. A selection of these photographs is displayed in the exhibition alongside contemporary photographs of the same sites, taken by researchers from the British Library and the Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology.
Photo: Rawak Stupa from above south-west wall. 17 September 1906.
Despite China’s rapid growth over the last century, the arid and remote Taklamakan desert has protected many ancient sites along the Silk Road meaning the remains of farming settlements, Buddhist temples and Tibetan forts appear largely unchanged since Stein visited.
Photo: Rawak Stupa from above south-west wall. November 2008.
While tarmaced roads cross the edges of the desert, the only way of reaching the deepest Taklamakan is still by camel and the pace of travel is that of not only a century ago, but of millennia past.
The contemporary photographs in the exhibition were taken during two field trips in 2008 and 2011 as part of a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). While the researchers were following in Stein’s footsteps, unlike Stein’s expeditions a century ago, the local researchers from Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology were working with, rather than for, the team from Britain.
Mike Heffernan, Professor of Historical Geography at the University of Nottingham says, “Stein’s astonishing photographs of the ancient settlements of the Taklamakan define the very idea of remoteness – of lost worlds and ancient trading routes. The contemporary photographs provide a fascinating commentary on what has changed, and what has remained the same, in these extraordinary and vulnerable sites.”
Photo: Shrine at Mazar Tagh with fort in background, taken on IDP Field Trip, November 2008.
By showing Stein’s images alongside the contemporary photographs, the role of climate and landscape in preserving our heritage becomes clear.
Writing to the Royal Geographical Society about the Taklamakan Desert over 100 years ago, Stein said, “There is a special attraction about sites far away from the high roads, preserved from past and present interference by the dunes.”
Dr Susan Whitfield, Director of the International Dunhuang Project at the British Library, agrees, “The Taklamakan is a magical place. Now utterly silent and lifeless, when you come across the remains of ancient houses half buried in the sand you realise that once these were places bustling with life, their communities playing host to the passing monks and merchants of the Silk Road.”
Photo: IDP Field Trip: Camels returning to Daheyan guesthouse, 20 November 2011.
Early images of China
Stein’s photography along the Silk Road documents the first European expeditions through the Taklamakan, but Stein was not the first to take photographs of China.
Isabella Bird Bishop became famous in the late Victorian period for her independent travels and romantic accounts of “far off places”. Bishop’s 8,000 mile journey through China in 1897 was immortalised in her book “The Yangtze Valley and Beyond” as well as in photographs – many of which are now in the Society’s Collections.
There is the opportunity to explore Europe’s fascination with China through the work of Isabella Bird Bishop, Sir Walter Caine Hillier, John Thomson and others at two showcases during January 2014
In 2008, the Society produced an exhibition, Seeing China: Community Reflections, which explored maps and photographs of China from 1850 onwards through the personal reminiscences of London-based Chinese community groups.
The legacy of several centuries of contact between Britain and China provided a backdrop for contemporary issues such as global migration and identity, alongside an examination of the shared, and often unequal, histories of the two countries.
China – Learning resources
China is rarely out of the headlines, whether for its rapid industrial growth or its politics. The images we see of China today are of a country rich in history and culture, with a diverse range of peoples and environments within its extensive borders.
Being the third largest country in the world and home to approximately one fifth of the world's population, it has long sparked the imagination of many a traveller. The Society has developed a series of learning resources on the China – Snapshots in Time website which use the Collections to help explore the country’s fascinating history.