Friday, December 20, 2013

A Few of Our Favourite Things: #8 Helen Wang

As part of IDP's 20th anniversary celebrations we have asked twenty of our friends and supporters to select their favourite item from the IDP collections. The full selection will form an online catalogue and will be featured in the spring and autumn 2014 editions of IDP News


Helen Wang is Curator of East Asian Money at the British Museum. In addition to researching Money on the Silk Road (2004) and Textiles as Money on the Silk Road (2013), she’s worked collaboratively with lots of IDP friends to produce important reference works on the collections of Sir Aurel Stein. These include the Handbook to the Collections of Sir Aurel Stein in the UK (1999, revised 2008); Sir Aurel Stein in The Times (2002); Catalogue to the Collections of Sir Aurel Stein in the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (2002) and its Supplement (2007); and Sir Aurel Stein, Colleagues and Collections (2012). Her chosen item is a photograph of Stein’s assistant Miss Lorimer Photo 1280/1(1).

Photograph of Miss Lorimer Photo 1280/1(1). Courtesy of Christina Lorimer.

Helen Wang writes:

I’ve chosen Miss Lorimer (Stein’s Recording Angel, or R.A.) in recognition of her outstanding commitment and contribution to Sir Aurel Stein’s projects and undertakings. Miss Lorimer worked with Stein for thirteen years, spending nine years at the British Museum, and four years in India. Although Stein was an exceptionally competent keeper of records and accounts (if in doubt, take a look at his papers in the Bodleian Library), it’s quite clear that he preferred the open air to the office. After all, how many ‘Education Officers’ are able to spend months on expeditions away from their desks? And how many archaeologists of no fixed abode are able to keep such close tabs on their recording team?

When the shipments arrived in London, it was the small team of Mr Andrews and Miss Lorimer who set to work on the collection. Stein joined them when he could. At the British Museum, the Stein Collection had its own space, with its own lock and key, and it was here that Andrews and Lorimer unpacked the finds, stored them safely, and created the slips. These were long strips of paper, once used like index cards in the museum, and now superseded by spreadsheets and databases. Each object had its own slip, which typically recorded the object’s ‘Stein number’ (his unique system, combining upper and lower case letters, and Roman and Arabic numerals to indicate the precise context of a site find, purchase or gift), its measurements and a description. The slips served as the basis for the thousands of object descriptions published in Stein’s publications, and they were essential for managing the collection. Some parts of the collection travelled, and Miss Lorimer, in particular, had to keep track of everything. For example, in 1911 over 400 Chinese manuscripts were sent to Paul Pelliot in Paris for cataloguing, and remained there throughout the First World War.

The Stein Collections are phenomenally important – for the wonderful objects and manuscripts, of course, but also for the meticulous recording of the contexts in which they were found. This does not happen by itself. Without the painstaking efforts of people like Miss Lorimer, who mostly work behind the scenes and are seldom acknowledged, our understanding of the Silk Road would be so much the poorer.

Friday, December 13, 2013

A Few of Our Favourite Things #7: Hans van Roon

As part of IDP's 20th anniversary celebrations we have asked twenty of our friends and supporters to select their favourite item from the IDP collections. The full selection will form an online catalogue and will be featured in the spring and autumn 2014 editions of IDP News


Hans van Roon is a Dutch chartered accountant and financial specialist who in 1987 read Peter Hopkirk’s Foreign Devils on the Silk Road and never stopped reading again. This was the beginning of his own personal Silk Road journey. He publishes on a regularly basis the latest news about the Silk Road and anything related to IDP on his blog Mongols China and the Silk Road.

His favourite object is the third of five nearly complete Sogdian letters from the beginning of the fourth century, discovered in 1907 by Aurel Stein some 90km west of Dunhuang.

Detail from Or.8212/98

Hans van Roon writes:

Many readers will be familiar with this letter but this one is special to me as:
  • This was found by Aurel Stein;
  • These letters are the most ancient monuments of the Sogdian language;
  • This one is almost complete and full of drama with an abandoned wife in the middle of nowhere while, we as readers know her cry for help never arrived at its destination;
  • It is written by a woman and the length of the letter suggests that it is not her first and only letter. It ends with the famous bitter words of anger to her husband: ‘I would rather be a dog’s or a pig’s wife than yours!’
  • It makes you feel that you are in direct contact with someone from the fourth century, which is something magical!

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Few of Our Favourite Things #6: Maria Menshikova

As part of IDP's 20th anniversary celebrations we have asked twenty of our friends and supporters to select their favourite item from the IDP collections. The full selection will form an online catalogue and will be featured in the spring and autumn 2014 editions of IDP News


Maria Menshikova is Curator of the Dunhuang collection in the State Hermitage Museum. She started work at the Hermitage over forty years ago and while there studied art history. Her interest in Dunhuang dates back to childhood as her father, Professor Lev Menshikov, was a renowned Chinese scholar and curator and cataloguer of the Dunhuang Chinese manuscripts at the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts. She has recently curated an exhibition of Sergei Oldenburg’s expedition to Dunhuang at the Hermitage (pictured above at the opening). Her chosen item is a pair of seated guardians DH-1 and DH-2.

Pair of Sitting Fantastic Beasts, DH-2 and DH-1. © The State Hermitage

Maria Menshikova writes:

It so happened that through my visual memory I always remember the images from Dunhuang. In my childhood my father, Lev Nikolaevitch Menshikov, showed me the pictures of the ceiling ornaments, books with the reproductions and photographs of the Mogao Thousand Buddhas caves. And on Sundays papa took me to the museums and of course to the Hermitage and the rooms with the Dunhuang collection. Maybe it was my childish impression but in the exhibition the most attractive for me were the fantastic beasts, the dogs that sat in the middle of the room in the glass cages. I was not afraid of them but thought they were looking at me breathing and smiling as the real pets can.

Two sculptures of the fantastic animals were brought from Dunhuang to St. Petersburg in 1915 by the second Russian Turkestan Expedition, led by academician Sergei Feodorovitch Oldenburg. No other such beasts from Dunhuang are known or have survived. They must be the pair of seated guardians at the entrance to the Buddhist cave. One of them is shown with the open mouth like roaring, the second with the closed mouth but tentative. They are vigorous and listen to the sounds of the world. Any moment they are ready to protect the Buddhist faith from any evil.