Ancient road show

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 July, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 July, 1995, 12:00am

AUREL Stein, traveller extraordinary, archaeologist par excellence, gifted linguist, was born in 1862 in Budapest and died in 1943 in Kabul. At one extreme he was labelled a bore, a man of such conventional views that even his brother Ernst found him uninteresting. At the other, however, he lived an amazingly daring life.

With extraordinary courage and doggedness he led a series of archaeological expeditions into the remote expanses of central Asia, which had a profound effect on our understanding of these areas of ancient, 'lost' civilisations.

The surveys and books he wrote are still studied and respected as are the wondrous objects he brought back, especially the vast quantity of manuscripts from Dunhuang.

Although born a Hungarian, Stein soon became a naturalised British citizen and for that reason he was able to work for the British in India, becoming Registrar of Punjab University at the age of 25. It was from India that he arranged and made his journeys to locate and survey the lost cities of Niya, Lou-Ian, Miran and Dandan-Uiliq as well as the Dunhuang caves.

Although the great Buddhist library he rescued from Dunhuang has come to dominate his reputation, in fact his main professional interest was always Gandaran culture. Even in extreme old age it was Gandaran civilisation that consumed his interest; when he dies at Kabul he was about to set off on yet another exploration into Gandaran territory.

There seems no doubt that Stein's single most important discovery was the world's earliest dated printed book, an important Buddhist scripture, the Diamond Sutra, which he found at Dunhuang and which has been for many years on public display in the King's Library at the British Museum.

Great historical Chinese pilgrims like Fa-hsien and Hiuen Tsiang had written of the wealthy communities that dotted central Asia, but those communities had been largely forgotten and buried beneath the drifting sands for at least a millennium by the time Stein arrived on the scene.

His surveys and excavations were soon recognised as models of archaeological scholarship. He was one of the earliest archaeologists to use strata dating techniques and was an incorrigible diarist and record keeper.

In matters of research his most important and lasting contribution to our knowledge was to prove for the first time a clear connection between the culture of ancient Gandara and of Chinese Turkestan. As it was already known that classical Greek art had been a powerful influence on Gandaran culture, Stein's proof of a Gandaran-Chinese link in effect established an artistic line that linked China to Europe.

Annabel Walker has written a good biography of a difficult subject. Stein as a man is the biographer's nightmare: boring, unemotional, a foreigner determined to be British, apparently asexual, a person who is almost an automation. Yet through all this lack of excitement shine Stein's discoveries and scholastic achievements.

The author has succeeded cleverly in compensating for Stein's deficiencies of character. Her assessment of his strengths carries the narrative along with sufficient momentum that the chapters never flag. The book is packed with detail, proof of the author's assiduous research and the readable style helps to make this the best biography of Stein to date.

Aurel Stein: Pioneer of the Silk Road by Annabel Walker John Murray $425