International Dunhuang Project

Dunhuang scroll

Preserving the world's earliest paper archive

In 1900 the discovery of a cave library at the Silk Road oasis town of Dunhuang revolutionized scholarship on China and the Silk Road. The cave library had been hidden for almost 1000 years and it contained tens of thousands of manuscripts, the world's earliest dated printed book and hundreds of fine paintings on silk. Along with other important artefacts, paintings and manuscripts from similar sites in western China, this material was dispersed to institutions worldwide. There was so much material that for most of the twentieth century it remained uncatalogued and in need of conservation.

In 1993 Peter Lawson, the head of the Library's Oriental Conservation Studios, brought together curators and conservators from China, India, Russia, Germany, France and the UK. At this conference, the delegates decided to create the International Dunhuang Project (IDP), with the secretariat based at the British Library. The aims of the IDP are to preserve the vast amount of Silk Road material held at institutions across the world and to make it available to more people through websites. The first website was launched in 1998.

The challenges

One of our first challenges was to overcome the multilingual aspects of the projects. With material held in so many countries, and of interest to people all over the world, we need to ensure that everything's available in all relevant languages.

Developing websites in different languages is essential to the IDP's success. It's incredibly important to enable more scholars to get access to these collections. The British Library's collection of manuscripts is immense and it's not easy for scholars to travel here - particularly from China. High quality digitisation and broad bandwidths have enabled us to develop a digital solution with quick, free and easy access to anyone with a computer and internet access worldwide.

With so many different international centres working to preserve the material, another challenge - and one of the biggest we face - is ensuring quality control. This involves establishing reliable systems to ensure consistency of approach, as well as training staff from the different conservation centres. We're also constantly checking the quality of the work being carried out, so that the same standards are maintained in every country. Flexibility is essential, because different countries will have different methods of conservation. But, by sharing information and maintaining international standards, we aim to ensure consistency.

Library departments' involvement

The International Dunhuang Project involves many different Library departments. One good example of this collaboration is the Star Chart from Dunhuang.

This Star Chart is the earliest map of the night sky in the world. It shows over 1300 stars, accurately plotted in 12 sectors of the sky. Working with two French astronomers, the IDP carried out some research into the chart, and the initial findings were published as part of the first Silk Road exhibition catalogue in 2004. We worked with the Exhibitions team to display the manuscript, and also with conservation and curators to review its condition.

In 2009, a full research paper was prepared for publication in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage. IDP then liaised with the Library's science curator, along with the Exhibitions, Marketing, Education, Development and Press teams, to plan a programme of events and publicity to celebrate the 2009 International Year of Astronomy. As a result, the Star Chart went on display in the Library's Treasures gallery and a number of the Library's curators were involved in selecting other star charts to be included in this exhibition.

Why is the IDP important?

The Dunhuang and Central Asian manuscript collections at the Library are immensely important for world scholarship. They, along with the many manuscripts and items held at other centres around the world, are also fragile and unique treasures. One of the main aims of the IDP is to work with conservation colleagues worldwide to agree international standards for their conservation and preservation.

As part of the IDP, the Library's developed excellent links with conservators worldwide. We exchange staff, skills and knowledge to ensure that high standards of conservation are maintained among all IDP partners. We've also helped to organise eight conservation conferences, bringing together conservators from around the world. This kind of collaboration not only benefits the IDP, but it also extends the skills we have in the Library, which can only benefit all of our collections.