Stein collection

Detail from Or.8210/S.253. Illustrated Sutra of the Buddha’s Names, from Cave 17 of the Mogao caves, Dunhuang, China (9th-10th century AD).

The collection contains over 45,000 manuscripts and printed documents on paper, wood and other materials from different sites along the Silk Road.

About the collection

Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943) was a British-Hungarian explorer and archaeologist. Between 1900 and 1916 he carried out three expeditions to Central Asia, conducting excavations, as well as geographical surveys and photography.

The British Library Stein collection includes items of enormous international cultural significance. A few of its highlights are:

There are over 20,000 items in Chinese, several of which feature other languages written on the verso side. About 14,000 scrolls, booklets and fragments in Chinese are from the library cave (Cave 17) of the Mogao caves site, near Dunhuang, in China's Gansu province. The Stein collection also includes 5,000 more manuscripts on paper and 4,000 woodslips and wood shavings in Chinese found in different Silk Road sites. A 4-year project is currently underway to digitise nearly 800 copies of the Lotus Sutra scrolls in Chinese from the collection.

The Tibetan manuscripts in the Stein collection are the earliest surviving manuscripts in this language, offering an unparallelled resource for the study of early Tibetan history and religion. They comprise over 3,000 manuscripts from the library cave in Dunhuang, a further 3,000 wooden slips and paper fragments from Tibetan military forts on the Silk Road, and over 1,000 manuscripts from Kharakhoto and other sites in the Gobi desert.

In addition, the Stein collection also contains material in several other languages, such as Tangut, Khotanese, Sanskrit, Kuchean, Sogdian, Uighur, Turkic and Mongolian.

Lesser-known items from the collection are few paintings on hemp and paper, a small collection of textile fragments, and artefacts such as sutra wrappers, papercuts and paste brushes, along with over 10,000 prints, negatives and lantern slides taken by Stein in India, Pakistan, Chinese Central Asia, Iran, Iraq and Jordan, dating from the 1890s to 1938.

What is available online?

As part of the International Dunhuang Project (IDP), the British Library has digitised most of the material from the Stein collection. IDP is a ground-breaking international collaboration, which aims to make the items from sites along the Eastern Silk Road freely available online. The website also includes reference and educational material.

Collection items are also described in our Asian and African Studies blog and the IDP blog, both of which you can subscribe to if you want to receive regular updates. We also share information on news, discoveries, bibliographical resources and collection items on Twitter with the profiles @BLAsia_Africa and @idp_uk.

The Digital Archive of Toyo Bunko Rare Books (National Institute of Informatics - Digital Silk Road Project) includes digital versions of Aurel Stein's reports from Central Asia. 

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

You can consult printed materials, manuscripts and archives in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room once you have obtained a Readers’ Pass.

Stein collection items are restricted due to their fragile nature. In order to protect the precious originals, all readers should refer to surrogate forms in the first instance. Most of the manuscripts have been digitised and can be accessed for free on the IDP website. Those that are not, have been microfilmed and can be consulted in that format in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room. Several facsimiles and catalogues are available in open access.

If you wish to see original material, please contact us at apac-enquiries@bl.uk and we will redirect your request to the relevant curator. Please give us the detailed reasons for your request, a list of the items you need to consult, as well as precise dates of your intended visit. We must be informed with at least two weeks’ notice (one month over the summer).

Readers should also note that no photography is allowed when viewing these items and that some of them may not be available.

The Stein photographs are catalogued in Explore Archives and Manuscripts. They can be viewed in the Asian and African Studies Print Room by appointment only by e-mailing apac-prints@bl.uk.

What is available in other organisations?

The Stein Collections are now housed in various institutions, including:

  • The British Museum Stein collection from Chinese Central Asia consists of almost 400 paintings from Dunhuang, some textiles, several thousand artefacts from various sites, including architectural features, terracotta sculptures, and over four thousand coins
  • The Victoria and Albert Museum is the custodian of an important collection of textile fragments, ceramic and Buddhist art objects, which were brought back by Sir Marc Aurel Stein.
  • The Bodleian Library has a large collection of Stein papers.
  • A large proportion of Stein's finds from his second and third expedition are kept at the National Museum of India.
  • The Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences holds many of Stein's expedition photographs, personal papers, and some manuscripts.

Further information

Stein, M. Aurel. Preliminary report on a journey of archæological and topographical exploration in Chinese Turkestan. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1901 (Online version of 1904 edition). 

Stein, M. Aurel. Sand-buried ruins of Khotan; personal narrative of a journey of archaeological and geographical exploration in Chinese Turkestan. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1903. 

Stein, M. Aurel. Ancient Khotan: Detailed report of archæological explorations in Chinese Turkestan. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907 (Online version).

Stein, M. Aurel. Ruins of Desert Cathay: Personal Narrative of Explorations in Central Asia and Westernmost China. London: Macmillan, 1912 (Online version).

Stein, M. Aurel. Serindia: Detailed report of explorations in Central Asia and westernmost China. 5 vols. London & Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1921 (Online version).

Stein, M. Aurel. Innermost Asia detailed report of explorations in Central Asia, Kan-su and Easternn Iran. 5 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1928 (Online version).

Stein, M. Aurel. On Ancient Central-Asian tracks: brief narrative of three expeditions in innermost Asia and north-western China. London: Macmillan & Co., 1933. 

Wang, Helen (ed.). Sir Aurel Stein, Proceedings of the British Museum Study Day, 23 March 2002. London: British Museum Occasional Paper 142, 2004 (Online version).

Helen Wang and John Perkins. Handbook to the Collections of Sir Aurel Stein in the UK. British Museum Occasional Paper 129, 2008 (Online version).

Helen Wang. Sir Aurel Stein: Colleagues and Collections. British Museum Research Publication 184, 2012.

Whitfield, Susan and Sims-Williams, Ursula. The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and FaithLondon: British Library, 2004.

How to guides

Get a Reader Pass

Access over 170 million collection items for free with a Reader Pass.

Find Chinese manuscripts and printed books

There are several catalogues for our Chinese material

How to handle prints, drawings and photographs

Watch our video to see how you should handle these vulnerable items.

Search the India Office Records for baptisms, marriages and burials

How to search the India Office Records for baptisms, marriages and burials

How to order images

Instructions on how to order images of the British Library's collections from our Imaging Services