Aurel Stein

Aurel Stein

Stein in Dura Europos (February 1929)
Born 26 November 1862 (1862-11-26)
Died 26 October 1943(1943-10-26) (aged 80)
Kabul, Afghanistan
Citizenship British
Nationality British
Fields Archaeology
Influences Xuanzang; Sven Hedin

Sir Marc Aurel Stein (usually known as Aurel Stein) KCIE, FBA [1] (Hungarian: Stein Márk Aurél) (26 November 1862 – 26 October 1943) was a Hungarian 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 had him and his brother, Ernst Eduard, baptised as Lutherans, while his parents and sisters remained Jews (a common way at the time to increase the chance of one's sons being successful).[2] He later became a British citizen and made his famous expeditions with British sponsorship.


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

Stein was influenced by Sven Hedin's 1898 work, Through Asia. He made four major expeditions to Central Asia—in 1900, 1906–1908, 1913–1916 and 1930.[3] 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.[4]

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 of the Taoist[5] caretaker). He acquired 24 cases of manuscripts and 4 cases of paintings and relics. He was knighted for his efforts, but he continues to be vilified to this day in China for the removal of countless priceless artifacts from the caves. His discovery inspired other French, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese treasure hunters and explorers who also took their toll on the collection.[6]

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 Gulmarg (or 'Meadow of Roses'). Except for his latest dog (which was always called "Dash"),[7][8] he lived alone here. He died and is buried in Kabul.

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. His collection is important for the study of the history of Central Asia and the art and literature of Buddhism.

"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."[9]

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.[10]


  • 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.
  • 1904 Sand-Buried Ruins of Khotan, London, Hurst and Blackett, Ltd. 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.
  • 1907. Ancient Khotan: Detailed report of archaeological explorations in Chinese Turkestan, 2 vols. Clarendon Press. Oxford.[11]
  • 1912. Ruins of Desert Cathay: Personal Narrative of Explorations in Central Asia and Westernmost China, 2 vols. London, Macmillan & Co. 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.[11]
  • The Thousand Buddhas : ancient Buddhist paintings from the cave-temples of Tung-huang on the western frontier of China.[11]
  • 1921b “A Chinese expedition across the Pamirs and Hindukush, A.D. 747.” Indian Antiquary 1923.[12]
  • 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.[11]
  • 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,[4] pp. 49–61.


  1. ^ Gray, Basil (19 February 1944). "Obituary, Sir Aurel Stein, K.C.I.E., F.B.A". Nature 153 (3877): 216–217. doi:10.1038/153216a0. "SELDOM can there have been an instance of a task pursued so constantly, so indefatigably and with such zest through so long a life as by Sir Aurel Stein, who died on October 26, aged eighty. Oriental research, he acknowledged, had claimed him from his student days." 
  2. ^ Mirsky, Jeannette. 1977. Sir Aurel Stein: Archaeological Explorer, pp. 3-4, 32. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. Paperback edition, 1998.
  3. ^ The New Encyclopædia Britannica. 15th Edition. (1977). Vol. IX, p. 547.
  4. ^ a b Wang, Helen (ed.); Perkins, John (ed.) (2008). Handbook to the Collections of Sir Aurel Stein in the UK. British Museum. pp. 42–44. ISBN 978 086159 9776. ISSN 1747-3640. Retrieved 2009-07-04. 
  5. ^ Deuel, Leo. 1970. Testaments of Time, p. 459. Baltimore, Pelican Books. Orig. publ. Knopf, NY, 1965.
  6. ^ Larmer, Brook. 2010, "Caves of Faith", p. 136-138, National Geographic Magazine, June 2010.
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ Last of the "Foreign Devils" by Shareen Blair Brysac. Abstract in Archaeology, Volume 50 Number 6, November/December 1997. [1] Accessed 31 March 2011.
  10. ^ David Nalle (June 2000). "Book Review - Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia". Middle East Policy (Washington, USA: Blackwell Publishers) VII (3). ISSN 1061-1924. 
  11. ^ a b c d M. A. Stein - Digital Archive of Toyo Bunko Rare Books at
  12. ^

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 [2] 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.
  • 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 (October 25, 1999). Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia. Basic Books. ISBN 978-1582431062. 
  • 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.[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.

See also

External links

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