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Aurel Stein

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Aurel Stein

Sir Aurel Stein
Aurel Stein in 1909
Born Stein Márk Aurél
26 November 1862 (1862-11-26)
Died 26 October 1943(1943-10-26) (aged 80)
Kabul, Afghanistan
Citizenship British
Nationality Hungarian (birth)/British (naturalised)
Fields Archaeology
Influences Xuanzang; Sven Hedin

Sir Marc Aurel Stein, KCIE, FBA [1] (Hungarian: Stein Márk Aurél) (26 November 1862 – 26 October 1943) was a Hungarian-British archaeologist, primarily known for his explorations and archaeological discoveries in Central Asia. He was also a professor at various Indian universities.

Early life

Stein was born in Budapest into a Jewish family. His parents and his sister retained their Jewish faith but Stein and his brother, Ernst Eduard, were baptised as Lutherans, apparently to increase their prospects.[2] After completing his school education, he studied at Universities of Vienna, Leipzig and Tübingen. He graduated in Sanskrit and Persian Language and received his Ph.D. from Tübingen in 1883. In 1884 he went to England to study oriental languages and archaeology. He became a British citizen and made his famous expeditions with British sponsorship.

In 1887, Stein went to India. He joined the Punjab University as Registrar. Later, between 1888 and 1899, he was the Principal of Oriental College, Lahore.[3] Stein was influenced by Sven Hedin's 1898 work Through Asia. Realizing the importance of Central Asian history and archaeology he sent a proposal to the government to explore, map and study the people of Central Asia. In May 1900 he received the approval to lead an expedition to Chinese Turkestan which was strategically located in High Asia where the Russians and Germans were already taking interest.


Photograph of Aurel Stein, with his dog and research team, in the Tarim Basin

Stein made four major expeditions to Central Asia—in 1900–1901, 1906–1908, 1913–1916 and 1930.[4] He brought to light the hidden treasure of a great civilization which by then was practically lost to the world. One of his significant finds during his first journey during 1900–1901 was the Taklamakan Desert oasis of Dandan Oilik where he was able to uncover a number of relics. During his third expedition in 1913–1916, he excavated at Khara-Khoto.[5]

Map of Taklamakan from Stein's Serindia 1921, vol. V.
Letter from Aurel Stein to Rudolf Hoernle from Kashgar. Dated 25 May 1901.

The British Library's Stein collection of Chinese, Tibetan and Tangut manuscripts, Prakrit wooden tablets, and documents in Khotanese, Uyghur, Sogdian and Eastern Turkic is the result of his travels through central Asia during the 1920s and 1930s. Stein discovered manuscripts in the previously lost Tocharian languages of the Tarim Basin at Marin and other oasis towns, and recorded numerous archaeological sites especially in Iran and Balochistan.

During 1901 Stein was responsible for exposing forgeries of Islam Akhun.

Stein's greatest discovery was made at the Mogao Caves also known as "Caves of the Thousand Buddhas", near Dunhuang in 1907. It was there that he discovered the Diamond Sutra, the world's oldest printed text which has a date (corresponding to AD 868), along with 40,000 other scrolls (all removed by gradually winning the confidence and bribing the Taoist caretaker).[6] He acquired 24 cases of manuscripts and 4 cases of paintings and relics. He was knighted for his efforts, but Chinese nationalists dubbed him a burglar and staged protests against him.[7] His discovery inspired other French, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese treasure hunters and explorers who also took their toll on the collection.[8]

During his expedition of 1906–1908 while surveying in the Kunlun Mountains of western China, Stein suffered frostbite and lost several toes on his right foot.

When he was resting from his extended journeys into Central Asia, he spent most of his time living in a tent in the spectacularly beautiful alpine meadow called Mohanmarg which lies at the mouth atop the Sind Valley where from he translated Rajatarangini from sanskrit to English.[9][10] Stein was a lifelong bachelor, but was always accompanied by a dog named "Dash" (of which there were seven).[11][12]
Photograph of Aurel Stein's grave marker in Kabul
He died in Kabul on October 26, 1943 and is buried in Kabul's British Cemetery.[13]

Stein was not only a great archaeologist but also ethnographer, geographer, linguist and surveyor. His contribution to the academic world is outstanding. His collection is important for the study of the history of Central Asia and the art and literature of Buddhism. He wrote several volumes on his various expenditions and discoveries which include Ancient Khotan, Serindia and Inermost Asia.

"Stein's fourth expedition to Central Asia, however, ended in a failure so humiliating that he never wrote about it and seldom referred to it. Nor was it mentioned in his obituaries. Both of Stein's biographers, Jeannette Mirsky in 1977 and Annabel Walker in 1995, mention this debacle but fail to explore the circumstances surrounding it. This prompted my own investigations in the Harvard archives. The story they revealed is one of assorted rivalries: between British and American diplomats in China, between Harvard's Fogg Museum and the British Museum, and finally, between the two Harvard sponsors of the expedition. It also reveals much about how awakening nationalism changed the rules of archaeology."[14]

Great Game

Stein, as well as other contemporary explorers like Sven Hedin, Sir Francis Younghusband and Nikolai Przhevalsky, were active players in the British-Russian struggle for influence in Central Asia, the so-called Great Game. Their explorations were supported by the British and Russian Empires as they explored the remaining "blank spots" on the maps, providing valuable information.[15]

Fragment of carpet discovered by Aurel Stein in a refuse pit at Loulan, Xinjiang, and attributed to 3rd–4th century. Courtesy of The British Museum.

The art objects he collected are divided between the British Museum, the British Library, the Srinagar Museum, and the National Museum, New Delhi.


Stein received a number of honours during his career. In 1909, he was awarded the Founder's Medal by the Royal Geographical Society 'for his extensive explorations in Central Asia, and in particular his archaeological work'.[16] In 1909, he was awarded the first Campbell Memorial Gold Medal by the Royal Asiatic Society of Bombay. He was awarded a number of other Gold Medals: the Gold Medal of the Société de Géographie in 1923; the Grande Médaille d’or of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland in 1932; and the Gold Medal of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1935. In 1934, he was awarded the Huxley Memorial Medal of Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.[17]

In the 1910 King's Birthday Honours, he was appointed Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire (CIE) for his service as Inspector-General Of Education and Archaeological Surveyor in the North-West Frontier Province.[18] Two years late, in the 1912 King's Birthday Honours, he was promoted to Knight Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire (KCIE) for his service as Superintendent of the Archaeological Department, North-West Frontier Circle.[19]

He was made an honorary Doctor of Letters (DLitt) by the University of Oxford in 1909. He was made an honorary Doctor of Science (DSc) by the University of Cambridge in 1910.[17] He made an honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD) by the University of St Andrews in 1939.[17][20]

In 1921, he was elected Fellow of the British Academy (FBA).[3]


  • 1898. Detailed Report on an Archaeological Tour with the Buner Field Force, Lahore, Punjab Government Press.
  • 1900. Kalhaṇa's Rājataraṅgiṇī – A Chronicle of the Kings of Kaśmīr, 2 vols. London, A. Constable & Co. Ltd. Reprint, Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, 1979.
  • , London, Hurst and Blackett, Ltd.Sand-Buried Ruins of Khotan1904 Reprint Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, Madras, 2000
  • 1905. Report of Archaeological Survey Work in the North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan, Peshawar, Government Press, N.W. Frontier Province.
  • , 2 vols. Clarendon Press. Oxford.Ancient Khotan: Detailed report of archaeological explorations in Chinese Turkestan1907. [21]
  • , 2 vols. London, Macmillan & Co.Ruins of Desert Cathay: Personal Narrative of Explorations in Central Asia and Westernmost China1912. Reprint: Delhi. Low Price Publications. 1990.
  • 1921a. Serindia: Detailed report of explorations in Central Asia and westernmost China, 5 vols. London & Oxford, Clarendon Press. Reprint: Delhi. Motilal Banarsidass. 1980.[21]
  • The Thousand Buddhas : ancient Buddhist paintings from the cave-temples of Tung-huang on the western frontier of China.[21]
  • 1921b “A Chinese expedition across the Pamirs and Hindukush, A.D. 747.” Indian Antiquary 1923.[22]
  • 1928. Innermost Asia: Detailed Report of Explorations in Central Asia, Kan-su and Eastern Iran, 5 vols. Oxford, Clarendon Press. Reprint: New Delhi. Cosmo Publications. 1981.[21]
  • 1929. On Alexander's Track to the Indus: Personal Narrative of Explorations on the North-West Frontier of India. London, Macmillan & Co. Reprint: New York, Benjamin Blom, 1972.
  • 1932 On Ancient Central Asian Tracks: Brief Narrative of Three Expeditions in Innermost Asia and Northwestern China. Reprinted with Introduction by Jeannette Mirsky. Book Faith India, Delhi. 1999.
  • 1940 Old Routes of Western Iran: Narrative of an Archaeological Journey Carried out and Recorded, MacMillan and co., limited. St. Martin's Street, London.
  • 1944. "Archaeological Notes from the Hindukush Region". J.R.A.S., pp. 1–24 + fold-out.

A more detailed list of Stein's publications is available in Handbook to the Stein Collections in the UK,[5] pp. 49–61.

See also


  1. ^ Gray, Basil (19 February 1944). "Obituary, Sir Aurel Stein, K.C.I.E., F.B.A".  
  2. ^ Mirsky, Jeannette. 1977. Sir Aurel Stein: Archaeological Explorer, pp. 3–4, 32. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. Paperback edition, 1998.
  3. ^ a b "STEIN, Sir Aurel (26/11/1862-26/10/1943)". British Academy Fellows. British Academy. Retrieved 26 November 2014. 
  4. ^ The New Encyclopædia Britannica. 15th Edition. (1977). Vol. IX, p. 547.
  5. ^ a b Wang, Helen (ed.); Perkins, John (ed.) (2008). Handbook to the Collections of Sir Aurel Stein in the UK.  
  6. ^ Deuel, Leo. 1970. Testaments of Time, p. 459. Baltimore, Pelican Books. Orig. publ. Knopf, NY, 1965; "Collecting Aurel Stein", The Caxtonian Vol. XIX, No. 2, November 2011.
  7. ^ Jacobs, Justin (2010) "Confronting Indiana Jones: Chinese Nationalism, Historical Imperialism, and the Criminalization of Aurel Stein and the Raiders of Dunhuang, 1899–1944", pp. 65–90 in China on the Margins. Sherm Sherman Cochran and Paul G. Pickowicz (eds.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  8. ^ Larmer, Brook (June 2010) "Caves of Faith", pp. 136–138, National Geographic Magazine.
  9. ^ "JKMHC trekkers trek Mohanmarg". Retrieved 2014-05-25. 
  10. ^ "The illustrated Rajatarangini". Retrieved 2014-05-25. 
  11. ^ IDP Newsletter Issue No. 18. Retrieved on 2014-06-06.
  12. ^ Dash The Dog. Retrieved on 2014-06-06.
  13. ^ North, Andrew. (2012-06-09) Afghanistan's 'graveyard of foreigners'. Retrieved on 2014-06-06.
  14. ^ Brysac, Shareen Blair (November–December 1997). """Last of the "Foreign Devils. Archaeology 50 (6). 
  15. ^ Nalle, David (June 2000). "Book Review – Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia".  
  16. ^ "Gold Medal Recipients" (pdf). Medals and Awards. Royal Geographical Society. Retrieved 26 November 2014. 
  17. ^ a b c Strong, Sarah; Wang, Helen. "Sir Aurel Stein’s Medals at the Royal Geographical Society" (pdf). British Museum. Retrieved 26 November 2014. 
  18. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 28388. p. 4478. 23 June 1910. Retrieved 26 November 2014.
  19. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 28617. p. 4300. 23 June 1910. Retrieved 26 November 2014.
  20. ^ "STEIN, Sir Aurel". Who Was Who. A & C Black. April 2014. Retrieved 26 November 2014. 
  21. ^ a b c d M. A. Stein – Digital Archive of Toyo Bunko Rare Books at
  22. ^

Further reading

  • Baumer, Christoph. 2000. Southern Silk Road: In the Footsteps of Sir Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin. White Orchid Books. Bangkok.
  • Brysac, Shareen. "Sir Aurel Stein’s Fourth ‘American’ Expedition." Downloaded from [1] on 31 March 2011.
  • Deuel, Leo. 1965. Testaments of Time; the Search for Lost Manuscripts and Records. Knopf, New York, 1965. paperback reprint: Pelican, Baltimore, 1970.
  • Falconer, John et al. 2002. Catalogue of the Collections of Sir Aurel Stein in the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Budapest, LHAS and British Museum. ISBN 963-7451-11-0.
  • Falconer, John et al. 2007. "Supplement to the Catalogue of the Collections of Sir Aurel Stein in the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Budapest, LHAS. ISBN 963-508-545-3.
  • Hansen, Valerie. 2012. "The Silk Road; A New History", Oxford University Press ISBN 978-0-19-515931.
  • Hopkirk, Peter. 1980. Foreign Devils On The Silk Road. John Murray (Publishers). Paperback edition, University of Massachusetts Press 1984. ISBN 0-87023-435-8.
  • Meyer, Karl E.; Brysac, Shareen Blair (25 October 1999). Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia.  
  • Mirsky, Jeannette. 1977. Sir Aurel Stein: Archaeological Explorer. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. Paperback edition, 1998.
  • Morgan, Joyce; Walters, Conrad, Journeys on the Silk Road: a desert explorer, Buddha’s secret library, and the unearthing of the world’s oldest printed book, Picador Australia, 2011, ISBN 9781405040419.
  • Pandita, S.N., Aurel Stein in Kashmir: Sanskrit of Mohand Marg. Om Publications, 2004. ISBN 978-8186867839.
  • Walker, Annabel. 1999. Aurel Stein: Pioneer of the Silk Road. University of Washington Press. ISBN 0-295-97730-2.
  • Wang, Helen (ed.). 1999. Handbook to the Stein Collections in the UK. British Museum Occasional Paper 129. ISBN 0-86159-129-1.
  • Wang, Helen (ed.). 2002. Sir Aurel Stein in The Times. London, Saffron Books. ISBN 1-872843-29-8.
  • Wang, Helen (ed.). 2004. Sir Aurel Stein. Proceedings of the British Museum Study Day, 2002. British Museum Occasional Paper 142. ISBN 0-86159-142-9.[2]
  • Wang, Helen (ed.). 2012. Sir Aurel Stein, Colleagues and Collections, British Museum Research Publication 184, ISBN 978-086159-1848. (This an online publication only) [3]
  • Wang, Helen and Perkins, John (eds). 2008. Handbook to the Collections of Sir Aurel Stein in the UK. British Museum Research Publication 129 (updated and expanded edition of Handbook to the Stein Collections in the UK, 1999). ISBN 978-086159-9776.
  • Whitfield, Susan. 2004. Aurel Stein On The Silk Road. Serindia Publications. ISBN 1-932476-11-3; also: The British Museum Press, London. ISBN 0-7141-2416-8.

External links

  • Aurel Stein in Kashmir, Kashmir Bhawan Center, Luton, United Kingdom.
  • The International Dunhuang Project Website of the project to conserve, catalogue, digitise and research the artifacts found in the Dunhuang Caves.
  • Digital Archive of Toyo Bunko Rare Books Digital versions of books by Marc Aurel Stein.
  • A page about Marc Aurel Stein in Hungarian
  • Aurel Stein and the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas. An exhibition of his archive photos in the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, 2007.
  • Life of Aurel Stein. Web catalog in four languages. A Hong Kong exhibition of his archive photos and documents conserved in the Oriental Collection of the LHAS, 2008. Preliminary articles on the web publication: 1 and 2
  • British Museum – Sir Aurel Stein at Sir Aurel Stein, proceedings of the British Museum study day, 23 March 2002 (online publication)
  • Expedition map
  • "The Stein Collection". Asia.  
  • Work by Aurel Stein at the Internet Archive
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