Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Last of the "Foreign Devils" Volume 50 Number 6, November/December 1997
by Shareen Blair Brysac

In December 1929 a sell-out crowd gathered at the Lowell Institute in Boston to hear Sir Aurel Stein, the Hungarian-born linguist and archaeologist-explorer, tell of his adventures on the ancient Silk Road. Sir Leonard Woolley, the discoverer of the Royal Cemetery at Ur in Mesopotamia, had called Stein's forays "the most daring and adventurous raid upon the ancient world that any archaeologist had attempted." Stein's three expeditions over freezing 18,000-foot Himalayan passes and across the scorching deserts of Chinese Turkestan, tracing ancient caravan routes while documenting the spread of Buddhism from India to China, had filled whole rooms in London's British Museum and Delhi's Museum of Central-Asian Antiquities (now the National Museum). It took 182 packing cases to hold the finds of his third expedition (1913-1916) to the region, which he called Serindia (the Greeks referred to China as Seres, from the word for silkworm).

Stein's fourth expedition to Central Asia, however, ended in a failure so humiliating that he never wrote about it and seldom referred to it. Nor was it mentioned in his obituaries. Both of Stein's biographers, Jeannette Mirsky in 1977 and Annabel Walker in 1995, mention this debacle but fail to explore the circumstances surrounding it. This prompted my own investigations in the Harvard archives. The story they revealed is one of assorted rivalries: between British and American diplomats in China, between Harvard's Fogg Museum and the British Museum, and finally, between the two Harvard sponsors of the expedition. It also reveals much about how awakening nationalism changed the rules of archaeology.

Shareen Blair Brysac is coauthor with Karl E. Meyer of the forthcoming A Tournament of Shadows, about the exploration of Central Asia.

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America