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March 2004 No.48  
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The Silk Road - Trade, Travel, War and Faith 
A British Library exhibition in collaboration with the British Museum
 
 
Priceless and rarely seen Silk Road treasures excavated by the archaeologist Aurel Stein will go on display alongside key items from around the globe in a major new exhibition at the British Library, from 7 May to 12 September 2004. Stein, an outstanding European explorer and archaeologist of the remote deserts of Eastern Central Asia, fought fierce rivalry in the opening decades of the last century to uncover buried ruins of vanished civilizations. Among his finds were the earliest dated printed book in the world, the Diamond Sutra, and thousands of objects offering an unprecedented glimpse into the everyday life of people on the Silk Road in the first millennium. In all, Stein tramped some 25,000 miles, accompanied on each expedition by a dog called Dash.
The evidence left by these multi-cultural civilisations had lain buried for up to 2,000 years in tombs, tips and temples beneath the desert sands of Eastern Central Asia. The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith at the British Library brings together over 200 of Stein's seldom seen Central Asian manuscripts, paintings, objects and textiles along with other fascinating artefacts scattered among museums in China, Japan, Germany and France.
 
Tibetan chronicles 
 
The Silk Road is not one well defined road but a complex network of trade routes, from precarious mountain paths to sandy tracks across desert wastes. The routes stretch some 8,500 kms from the shores of the Mediterranean to the ancient heartland of China, and passed through the territories of some of the great empires in world history. 
 
  From Samarkand in ancient Sogdiana
 
This exhibition concentrates on the Eastern half of this trade network, from Samarkand in ancient Sogdiana - home to the main Silk Road merchants - to the borders of ancient China. This was an area with many thriving kingdoms all, at some time, subject to invasion by armies as well as ideas, technologies, and faiths from the surrounding Persian, Arabic, Indian, Turkic, Tibetan and Chinese empires. 
 
The exhibition will take visitors on a journey eastwards through this territory, from Samarkand to Turfan, stopping at major towns on the Southern Silk Road - Khotan, Niya, Miran and Dunhuang. As well as being immersed into the landscape, history and cultures of the Silk Road, visitors will also learn about the everyday concerns of people living along the route. 
 
The exhibits range from anti-war poetry, court documents to reclaim land from squatters, prayers to assuage deaths from the plague, down to a letter apologising for getting drunk and behaving badly at a dinner party. Other everyday items, discarded in desert rubbish tips as people moved away from contracting oases include broken mouse traps, worn-out shoes, tax documents and contracts. 
 
Storyteller
 
 
Going from the ancient to the present day, the exhibition showcases the conservation and digitisation work of the British Library, emphasizing how international collaboration is making these collections accessible to all. Exhibition highlights include the Diamond Sutra of 868 AD, on public display in its original form for the first time in a century, restored following six months' delicate conservation work at the Library.
 
Another unique exhibit, the earliest manuscript star chart in the world, is also being newly researched by French and Chinese astronomers for this exhibition. It will be displayed along with modern sky maps to show the accuracy of early Chinese astronomy.
 
  Idiosyncratic tomb models and monsters
 
Other treasures include over 40 of the delicate ninth and tenth-century silk paintings from Dunhuang, third and fourth-century letters in ingenious wooden envelopes in Indian languages with Chinese and Greek seals from the ancient Silk Road kingdom of Kroraina, and a selection of the idiosyncratic tomb models and monsters from the seventh and eighth century cemetery at Astana near Turfan.
 
Stein was among the first to recognize the importance of saving and recording everything from an archaeological dig, however small or insignificant it may seem. As he wrote: 'The remains of ancient furniture such as the wooden chair ... the shreds of silks and other woven fabrics; the tatters of antique rugs; the fragments of glass, metal and pottery ware; the broken pieces of domestic and agricultural implements, and the manifold other relics, however humble, which had safely rested in the sand-buried dwellings and their deposits of rubbish - these all help to bring vividly before our eyes details of ancient civilisation that without the preserving force of the desert would have been lost for ever.'
 
Monster
 
The exhibition's curator, Susan Whitfield, says: "The Silk Road is part of all of our histories. Central Asia was the centre of the world, the progenitor of many of civilisation's most important inventions, and the crux of a world economy. For many hundreds of years it faded into world obscurity but now, with recent events, there is greater awareness of this part of the world and this provides us with an opportunity to try to start to understand this area, its history and its influence on our lives. 
 
"The exhibition is intended to raise as many questions as it answers. It tries to show just some of the complex interactions in art, politics, culture and life between the peoples and empires of the Silk Road."
 
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