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Monday, 11 November, 2002, 08:53 GMT
Silk Road treasures united on the web
Close-up of Dunhuang cave manuscript, British Library
Manuscripts offer glimpse into life on the Silk Road
A treasure trove of more than 50,000 manuscripts, paintings and artefacts from ancient caves and temples along the Silk Road are going on show on the web.

In real life, the collection is spread out all over the world, but researchers will now be able to find it all in digital form on a website developed jointly by the British Library and the National Library of China.

"The idea is that scholars will always get as close as they possibly can on their computer screens to the objects," explained Dr Susan Whitfield, Director of the British Library's International Dunhuang Project.

The materials recovered from the Dunhuang cave in China in the early 20th Century offer a glimpse into the daily life of merchants, officials, soldiers, monks and farmers in Silk Road towns.

Among the artefacts are hundreds of paintings on silk and tens of thousands of manuscripts in more than 15 languages and scripts.

Material scattered

"The cave was sealed in AD 1000 and completely hidden," Dr Whitfield told the BBC programme Go Digital. "It was discovered accidentally in 1900 and when it was open, it was found to contain these 50,000 items of manuscripts and paintings."

Dr Susan Whitfield, Director of the British Library's International Dunhuang Project
Dr Whitfield: They are fragile artefacts
But the cave's contents were dispersed with shortly after their discovery. Foreign archaeologists and explorers travelling along the Silk Road would visit the site and walk away with groups of manuscripts.

The artefacts are now spread across the world, in major museums in Beijing, London, Paris and St Petersburg.

"Recreating a virtual Dunhuang cave to give scholars worldwide free access to this geographically scattered material from their laptops has always been the aim of the project," said Dr Whitfield.

"On the screen, they can sit at home and look at the collection on their computer screens. And all our images will be at least as legible, if not more legible, than the original so it will be easier to read than the manuscript."

The other reason behind making digital copy of the artefacts is to ensure that they are preserved for future generations.

"These are delicate fragile collections," said Dr Whitfield. "They have worldwide significance and handling does unfortunately compromise their long-term preservation."

The collection can be found at either http://idp.nlc.gov.cn or http://idp.bl.uk.

See also:

15 May 01 | Entertainment
14 Jun 01 | Science/Nature
11 Mar 02 | Science/Nature
01 Mar 02 | Entertainment
08 Sep 02 | Technology
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