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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 October, 2003, 09:20 GMT 10:20 UK
The original Chinese takeaway
By Marcus George
BBC News Online

British adventurer Sir Aurel Stein sent home more than 40,000 relics from his explorations round Asia, most of which are still in the UK. Either one of history's heroes, or one of its greatest plunderers, the 60th anniversary of his death again raises the question of whether museums need to confront their own past.

Stein (right) conducted "the most daring and adventurous raid"

Sir Aurel Stein brought the cultural treasures of the wilds of western China to the vaults of the British Museum.

His feats were described by one of his contemporaries as "the most daring and adventurous raid upon the ancient world that any archaeologist has attempted".

While his life's work is celebrated in the western world, he is remembered in a very different way by countries whose heritage he "looted".

The heritage taken is China's parallel to the Greek claim on the Elgin Marbles - priceless friezes taken from the temple of the Parthenon in the 19th Century: both are unique cultural relics taken away by Europeans.

The Marbles are still housed at the British Museum; negotiations with Greece have ended with the museum adamant the historic statues are staying in the UK. A museum which is being built to house them in Greece is set to remain empty.

Cultural disputes

But what should happen to all this cultural heritage residing far from its origins?

Now the expertise to care for antiquities is universal, heritage institutions of the West have more difficulty maintaining their role as sole guardians of world heritage.

A resolution passed in the 1980s by the United Nations agency of education and culture, Unesco, urged the return of artefacts to their country of origin. It has subsequently chalked up several successes in helping to resolve disputes over cultural and historical items.

Aurel Stein's explorations along the Silk Road

In many respects, Stein was the ruthless raider some describe. But he did what was normal in the context of the era, says the British Museum's Helen Wang, an expert in coins of the region.

"Locally these items would have been traded, bought, sold and the collection would have been destroyed," she says.

"He wanted these relics to be where experts could look at them. For him it was irrelevant where they ended up."

A fascination with Buddhist writings introduced Stein to the Silk Road - a collection of trade routes across Central Asia connecting China and the Far East with the Mediterranean and the West.

He wanted these relics to be where experts could look at them - for him it was irrelevant where they ended up
Helen Wang, British Museum
While his first expedition across the Taklamakan Desert was arguably the most arduous, it was the second to the Caves of One Thousand Buddhas at Dunhuang, where he uncovered thousands of manuscripts and prized paintings on silk, which was to be the most important.

Whole fields of research in ancient China and the history of Buddhism in the region developed from his findings alone.

During his life Stein journeyed extensively through Central Asia and the Middle East, intent on furthering the world's knowledge of past civilisation and bagging even more heritage in the process.

Yet his determination always drove him onto new pastures. Aged 81, the prodigious scholar arrived in Kabul for the first time, intent on exploring Afghanistan's pre-Islamic past. He became ill and died within a week.


Most of the Stein artefacts at the museum are not on permanent show because of their delicacy. The Stein room is where the collection's most prestigious silk paintings live, far from public gaze. And in the vaults of the museum lie several thousand more artefacts - carved tablets, pots, figures - in darkness.

But not for long. Through the museum's digitisation process the whole collection will soon be accessible to the public on the internet.

A parallel digitisation programme, the International Dunhuang Project, is going on at the nearby British Library, a result of more than two decades of academic collaboration. The library, in collaboration with the museum, is also putting on an exhibition of Stein's manuscripts, paintings and artefacts next year.

Yet while the question of returning the Dunhuang treasures has arisen several times - the Chinese Worker's Daily carried a campaign for their return several years ago - Chinese authorities have never formally brought up the issue of the Dunhuang treasures.

Stein's grave in Kabul

Chinese academics have long recognised Stein's establishment and development of archaeology in the region, but have severely castigated his "destruction and plundering" when acquiring the antiquities.

Susan Whitfield, of the British Library, believes the issue is overplayed.

"We have had a close working relationship with China and Stein's collections in London has never been an issue. It just doesn't come up."

The British Library holds thousands of manuscripts Stein took from the sites he discovered, including the Diamond Sutra, dated 868AD, the first dated example of block printing.

By the mid 1920s, China refused permission for any further explorations in the region. Chinese officials had known about the existence of the Dunhuang caves but had not acted on it, says Susan Whitfield.

"China became very sensitive about allowing foreigners into the region. Lobbied by their own academics they restricted the access.

Little by little, we will expect to see the return of items taken from Dunhuang - they should go back to their original place
Yasha Ke, Chinese Embassy
"Later they became aggrieved about the relics going out of China because they felt they weren't in control."

Despite the digitisation projects, the issue of the Stein collections in the UK may one day, like the importance of the Elgin Marbles for Greece, become a cause celebre.

"When the time comes I think the Chinese authorities will request the return of these relics," says Yasha Ke, an official in the cultural section of the Chinese Embassy in London.

"It's hard to say when that will be. Little by little, we will expect to see the return of items taken from Dunhuang. They should go back to their original place.

"But it should be done gradually. The handover needs to be well arranged because if it is done all at once it will be chaos."

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