Archaeology and the Great Game: Explorers on the Silk Road

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ceramic camel

Lead glazed ceramic camel, 8th century, Tang Dynasty. Camels were essential to trade along the Silk Road and were frequently depicted in early Tang burials. Copyright image by Paris Franz, all rights reserved.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw explorers from many nations converge on the forbidding deserts of Chinese Central Asia.

An archaeological terra incognita, the region posed an irresistible lure for adventurous scholars from Russia and Britain, Sweden and Germany, Japan and France, each keen on being the first to uncover lost Buddhist civilisations buried in the sands of the Taklamakan Desert.

The Lure of the Silk Road

In so doing, they discovered the great trade routes that once linked east and west, all the way from Chang’an, in the heart of ancient China, to Rome.

It was an idea as much as a physical reality, its romance embodied in its name, the Silk Road. The German scholar Baron Ferdinand von Richtofen was the first to use the name in the nineteenth century. It’s an evocative name, bringing to mind images of splendid ancient civilisations, just waiting for intrepid explorers from the great powers of the day to discover their secrets.

The reality was rather more complex. The Silk Road was not just one road, but many; its northern and southern routes skirted the Taklamakan, before branching out in different directions, south to India and west to Central Asia, Persia and beyond, and many goods travelled along it. The road could just as easily received a moniker for jade, horses, or Buddhism, as silk.

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Imperial Confrontations in Central Asia

This period was the high noon of empire, as three empires– the British, the Russian and the Chinese– confronted each other in Central Asia. It was not an equal contest. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Chinese Qing Dynasty became  enfeebled, its power over its western extreme tenuous at best.

That left the British and the Russians to compete for influence over strategically important Central Asia. This competition became known as The Great Game, a game with India as the prize. The phrase originated with a young British officer, Lieutenant Arthur Connolly, in the 1830s, and later formed the backdrop to Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim.

The archaeological expeditions that ventured along the Silk Road thus took place in a highly charged political context. Each expedition found itself the object of some suspicion from rivals and from local populations. At the same time, the explorers leading the expeditions were quick to use their respective countries’ resources and prestige to get their journeys underway.

Hungarian-born British archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein raised the danger of the Russians and the Swedes possibly getting there first in his application to the colonial Indian government for funding for his first expedition to Chinese Turkestan in 1900.

So, the expeditions were in some respects extensions of the Great Game. They certainly showed signs of imperial high-handedness, with their removal of vast amounts of artefacts from sites across the region. At the end of each expedition caravan loads of artefacts made their way west to museums in London, Paris, Berlin and St Petersburg.

map taklamakan desert

Cartography played an important role in the expeditions along the Silk Road. Archaeologist Aurel Stein drew this map of the Taklamakan Desert in 1922. Image by National Institute of Informatics – the Digital Silk Road Project

In addition, cartography was key to the colonial enterprise, and mapping played a key role in many of the expeditions. Swedish explorer Sven Hedin earned renown for his map-making skills, and surveying permeates Aurel Stein’s report of his first expedition.

It would turn out to be a fairly narrow window of opportunity for the foreign explorers, lasting from the 1890s to the mid-1920s, from Sven Hedin’s first expedition to American Langdon Warner’s second expedition in 1925.

Passport issues shortened Aurel Stein’s last expedition in 1930, with his finds remaining in China. The Qing Dynasty fell in 1911, and China subsequently became a republic. A growing nationalism effectively closed the door on foreign expeditions by the end of the 1920s.

A Contentious Notion: Western Influences Along the Silk Road

Explorers such as Hedin and Stein may not have been dyed-in-the-wool imperialists– the ‘foreign devils’ of later Chinese propaganda– but they were products of their time, steeped in the classics and secure in their notions of Western superiority. Their desire to rediscover lost civilisations and to prove how far the West influenced those civilisations united them.

Imperialist mindset apart, the concept of Western influence was not unjustified. The discovery of distinctly Hellenistic influences in the Buddhist art of Gandhara reinforced the notion, and led Kipling to write memorably in his novel Kim of the Greco-Buddhist sculptures in the Wonder House at Lahore:

         …done, savants know how long since, by forgotten workmen whose hands were feeling, and not unskilfully, for the mysteriously transmitted Grecian touch.

The notion of Western influence was strongly rejected as the colonial era drew to a close and former colonies gained their independence, unleashing a sometimes strident but understandable nationalism. The idea of every action having an equal and opposite reaction would appear as applicable to politics as it is to physics.

Recent years have seen a more measured return to the concept of Western influence, with a greater acknowledgement of influences flowing in both directions, east and west, along the Silk Road.

Bezeklik fresco two monks

Fresco of two monks from Bezeklik. Removed to Berlin, the fresco was later destroyed during an air raid in World War Two. From a catalogue by archaeologist Albert von Le Coq. Image by National Institute of Informatics – the Digital Silk Road Project.

The Explorers: Archaeologists, Scholars and Rivals

Swedish explorer Sven Hedin paved the way for expeditions into Chinese Central Asia. His first foray, in 1895, proved that travel into the Taklamakan Desert, and not just around it, was possible. Hedin’s venture almost came to grief when it ran out of water, his men having stored only enough for four days rather than the requested ten.

Hedin was a determined and stubborn character, which was no doubt why he survived, but he could also be reckless. It was this trait that got him into trouble in the first place, through not personally supervising the loading of water.

Hedin was primarily an explorer, but he also made a number of significant archaeological discoveries. At one site, he found stucco figures depicting the Buddha and realised he had found the remains of a long-lost civilisation.

As for Aurel Stein, he was particularly interested in discovering the extent to which Indian culture influenced the ancient cities of Central Asia. Unlike Hedin, Stein was meticulous in his approach, and keen to ensure the cooperation of the Chinese authorities. His first expedition took place in 1900-1901, during the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion, a period when it paid to take extra care.

The Germans, Stein’s main rivals, mounted four expeditions between 1902 and 1914. They made substantial finds of manuscripts, frescoes, paintings and statues at sites such as Turfan and Karakhoja. Other explorers included teams from France, the United States, Russia and Japan.

The Legacy of the Silk Road Expeditions

The foreign explorers who braved the deserts of Central Asia at the beginning of the twentieth century brought the wonders of the Silk Road back to the world’s awareness. They uncovered evidence of eclectic, cosmopolitan societies, full of a bewildering array of ethnicities, languages and religions– Chinese, Indians and Turks; Buddhists, Nestorians and Manicheans, among many others.

Once a flourishing highway, full of goods and ideas flowing both east and west, the ancient trade route had fallen into obscurity for nearly a thousand years, its cities reclaimed by the sand. It was a world that had vanished almost completely from the minds of even the people who lived there, living on only in folklore and stories of treasure.

The Great Game Returns to Central Asia

Researchers such as Stein and Frenchman Paul Pelliot shone a light on this vanished world during the thirty-odd years of their explorations, before wider geo-politics brought the curtain down again on Central Asia.

For the wider world, the area remains mysterious and obscure, thanks to the upheavals in China and its subsequent isolation during the Mao period, and to the incorporation of the Central Asian states into the Soviet Union. It is only now with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening up of China that Central Asia has regained its strategic importance, along with its mysterious allure.

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© Copyright 2014 Paris Franz, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past


  1. Chandran Methil says

    Modern China is trying hard to resurrect the old Silk Road. Obviously,this is not to connect to Europe which is undergoing a sustained period of very slow growth. After the breakup of the Soviet Union,many of the Central Asian states have become independent and hold large reserves of oil and other commodities. China’s status as a dominant power will depend largely on its access to raw materials.All the central Asian states are Muslim states and China’s relationship to her own Muslim populations in Western China have been heavy handed and punitive.Russia too has an interest in these states as well as Western powers.This is the new “Great Game ” being played out in Central Asia.The Chinese are trying to create a co-prosperity sphere on the ancient silk road.Economically,its trying to subvert Western institutions like the World Bank and the IMF by creating similar institutions headed by China as the recent Asia-Pacific and Asean summits suggest. These efforts look ominously similar to similar efforts in the 1930’s by Japan and its Co-prosperity sphere.The stalemate in American politics has given China practically a free hand in this area.

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