Tag Archive | Aurel Stein

Dr. Stein

A fragment of very minor interest, barely worth blogging. But it is mid-summer.

I’m still writing a biographical sketch of Sir Harold Deane, first Chief Commissioner of the North-West Frontier Province of British India and formerly political officer in Dir and Swat, at which time he has a claim to have inaugurated the archaeological exploration of (the archaeologically remarkable) valley of Swat.

An optimistic sweep of JSTOR a few days ago introduced me to a fabulous resource, the correspondence of the Directors of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, more than 28,000 letters annotated, scanned and uploaded. Blessings on the anonymous heroes responsible.

Among them are seven short letters which give, as letters sometimes do, a vivid impression of a momentary human encounter. (They are discoverable in the Global Plants collection on JSTOR under the Identifier nos. KDCAS7981-KDCAS7987.) These letters carry dates between October 29 and November 22, 1910, and are all addressed to Sir David Prain, Director of the Gardens at Kew. The author of six of the seven is Lady Mary Gertrude Deane, known as Gertrude, widow of Harold Deane, who had died in 1908 at the age of 54.

The key detail of the exchange (of which we see Gertrude’s side almost exclusively) is her offer to Prain and Kew of the botanical specimens that had been collected by her late husband in NWFP over the course of the last few years of his life. As she explains, it is all still packed in a trunk in the flat she was occupying in Overstrand Mansions, overlooking Battersea Park in south-west London. She and her husband had left India abruptly when Harold was taken ill in 1908, and their possessions, including this trunk, evidently followed them before and after his death just two weeks after their arrival in Britain in July of the same year.

The first letter from Gertrude Deane, on October 29, 1910, contains her offer to donate the specimens to the collections at Kew. On November 1 Gertrude indicates that the offer has been accepted, expressing her pleasure at the news, and on the next day she writes to inform Prain that the trunk has been dispatched to Kew by goods train, enclosing the key that opens it. By November 9 Prain has acknowledged receipt, and on November 18 Gertrude suggests dates when she might visit Kew and see her husband’s collection in its new home. On November 22 final arrangements are being reached for tea at Prain’s house and a viewing, at some imminent but unspecified date, of a selection of her husband’s specimens, now incorporated into the collection at Kew. The seventh letter is an internal memo to the Director from Dr. Otto Stapf, Keeper of the Herbarium at Kew, proposing how the specimens might be presented to Lady Deane when she did visit.

What emerges clearly from this correspondence is Gertrude’s relief and delight that something can be done with her late husband’s collection. It’s easy enough to imagine what her flat felt like, filled with reminders of their life, abruptly curtailed, in Peshawar. For my purposes Harold Deane’s botanical interests illustrate nicely the intellectual dimension of a successful Imperial administrator’s engagement with the territory he managed, an intense concern for the botany of the NWFP parallel to his earlier interest in the archaeological remains of Malakand and Swat.

But the most interesting detail of the correspondence, for me at least, is only obliquely to do with Sir Harold Deane. This is where the thread of letters starts, the original source of Gertrude Deane’s idea to approach Kew, as it is indicated in the first letter to Prain on October 29. Gertrude describes discussing what to do with the material with “Dr. Stein”, who had come to visit her, and the implication is that it was Dr. Stein who had encouraged her to approach Kew.

In 1910 Aurel Stein was in the middle of a three year sabbatical in Europe, a significant chunk of it spent between London and Oxford, largely taken up with cataloguing within the British Museum, and also writing up, the incredibly rich discoveries he had made during his Second Central Asian Expedition, in particular the manuscripts and paintings that he had removed from the “Thousand Buddha Caves” at Dunhuang. Stein has suffered physically during this expedition, to the extent of losing the toes of his right foot to frostbite while crossing the mountains back into India. By late 1910, also, the dog that has accompanied him during the two-year expedition, across hot and cold deserts, Dash the Great, had been released from quarantine (we can all currently sympathise), but would thenceforth stay in Oxford, adopted by Stein’s closest friends, Helen and Percy Allen. Stein had exceptionally good connections within the intelligentsia of the Imperial capital, and Gertrude Deane was benefiting from it.

But what the glimpse of Aurel Stein in that opening letter also tells us is something about who he now was after the Second Expedition. Gertrude Deane begins her short letter of October 29, “When Dr. Stein came to see me the other day…”, and ends it “Dr. Stein served under my husband & is an old friend of our’s. We have known him many years.” She frames her letter with Aurel Stein because she knows perfectly well, I think, the power of the name she is dropping.

Here is Jeannette Mirsky in her biography Sir Aurel Stein, Archaeological Explorer (p. 322) on the transformation to Stein’s status and prospects that Dunhuang and the aftermath had wrought:

“Stein was suddenly seen as a hero. As the knight-errant who had freed documents languishing in a ‘black hole’, he was impressive; as the victor of an ambush set by a merciless cold, he was irresistible. This double victory assured that his requests were no longer ignored or postponed. Suddenly all doors were open to him; he had but to ask and that ‘great machine’, the bureaucracy, listened. If heretofore his work happened to coincide with the interests of the government, now the government bent to facilitate his work. The panorama gained by his new position extended to the furthest reach of his hopes.”

Aurel Stein could indeed be considered Deane’s protégé, as Gertrude suggests: her husband had been a critical source of support at an earlier stage of Stein’s career. But Stein recognised his debts and was scrupulous in repaying them, and in 1910, newly invested with honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, the Founder’s Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, and in June 1910 with the insignia of a Companion of the Indian Empire by the King, he and Gertrude knew that his name could open doors for others, too.

Athena in China


Take a look at the cover of any of Aurel Stein’s books after Sand-buried Ruins of Khotan (1904), and on the title page, and often also embossed on the front cover, you’ll find this image: a vignette of the goddess Athena in confrontational pose, brandishing a thunderbolt in her right hand and holding on her left arm the aegis, a terrifying goatskin shield tasselled with snakes and bearing the head of the Gorgon Medusa.

The picture is the work of Stein’s friend and collaborator, the artist Fred Andrews, and it’s based on a discovery Stein made while excavating at Niya, a site in the Tarim Basin in what is now Xinjiang, the extreme north-western region of China. Stein was investigating the ancient Buddhist cultures of the Silk Road, and in a third-century-AD rubbish tip (“its odours … still pungent after so many centuries”) he uncovered hundreds of letters written on wood, in an Indian language and script. The letters were sealed with clay, and the clay bore the personal seal-impressions of the senders of the letters:

From an historical point of view they claim exceptional interest, for they have furnished convincing evidence of the way in which the influence of classical Western art asserted itself even in distant Khotan. It was a delightful surprise when, on cleaning the first intact seal impression that turned up, I recognised in it the figure of Pallas Athene, with aegis and thunderbolt, treated in an archaic fashion. This particular seal … was found thereafter to recur frequently, and probably belonged to an official who was directly connected with the administration of the ancient settlement.

Alkidemos seal

On another letter Stein found “a seal with Chinese lapidary characters in juxtaposition with one showing a portrait head unmistakably cut after Western models.” This was quintessential Silk Road, “half-way between Western Europe and Peking,” the arena where Indian, European and Chinese cultural currents intermingled.

But it was Athena who became Stein’s emblem, and I’ve idly wondered for some time what the image meant to him.

Athena was a goddess of the intellect and the arts, an embodiment of those things that make human society civilized. She’s a goddess of war, too, obviously so in an image like this one. But Athena presides over the rational aspects of warfare, the strategy and tactics rather than the bloodletting (though that’s a pretty subtle distinction), justified war rather than aggression. So what a book under the sign of Athena promises is intellectual activity in the cause of human civilization, and that’s a fair summary of what Stein achieved in Central Asia.

But another question I had was how far Stein appreciated the history of his vignette of Athena. Because, coincidentally or not, the image he chose to adorn his books is an extremely significant one.

The best way to communicate this is to show you some coins. One from Macedonia to start with,


followed by one from Sicily,


and rounded off by one from Afghanistan/Pakistan:


These coins are of kings called Antigonus, Pyrrhus and Menander, the first two from the third century BC and Menander’s from about 140 BC. Stunningly, despite being from opposite ends of the known world, they depict the same figure of Athena.

Menander was the most successful of a series of Greek kings who ruled in what is present day Afghanistan and Pakistan, and this Athena remained a consistent feature of the coins of his successors, even one of the very last Greek kings, Strato II, who ruled a tiny kingdom somewhere near Lahore at the end of the first century BC:


This is a very sorry-looking issue indeed, and it speaks volumes about Strato’s straitened circumstances. But Athena is still there, even if she appears to have become left-handed.

Why is this image so important to the Greek kings? The thinking these days is that the Athena represented on the coins is a reminiscence of a particular statue of the goddess: the tutelary deity of Pella, the capital of Macedonia, known as Athena Alkidemos, Athena “Defender of the People.” Athena Alkidemos of Pella in turn evoked Alexander the Great, whose capital was at Pella, and for whom Athena was an important patron. We’re told that when Alexander advanced into battle he was preceded by a sacred shield of Athena from her temple at Troy, carried by a senior bodyguard. What Antigonus, Pyrrhus, Menander and Strato all have in common is a need to associate themselves with the charismatic person of Alexander, who had dramatically changed the face of the Greek world, and in the case of Menander and Strato had made their rule as Greek kings in Central Asia possible in the first place.

Stein’s discovery in Xinjiang throws the net even wider, of course. The functionary in Niya was using as his official seal, half a millennium after Alexander’s death, an image that had originated 3,000 miles to the west.

Did the official have any clue of the significance of the image? It’s doubtful. The knowledge of what Athena Alkidemos meant, the mystique of the long-dead Alexander that these kings wished to confer on themselves, quite possibly disappeared with the fall of Strato’s kingdom. And what of Aurel Stein? What did he understand by it?

Stein was certainly very interested in Alexander. In a career of remarkable discoveries in Central Asia, one thing he never left behind was the deep fascination for Alexander that he’d formed in childhood. Describing a tour of Swat in 1926, for example, Stein candidly admits that his interest in Alexander even exceeds his devotion to Xuanzang (also spelled Hsüan-tsang), the seventh-century Buddhist monk whose account of his travels from China to India guided Stein’s exploration of the Chinese borderlands:

May the sacred spirit of old Hsüan-tsang, the most famous of those pilgrims and my adopted ‘Chinese patron saint’, forgive the confession: what attracted me to Swat far more than such pious memories was the wish to trace the scenes of that arduous campaign of Alexander which brought the great conqueror from the foot of the snowy Hindukush to the Indus, on his way to the triumphant invasion of the Panjāb.

The ultimate aim of this expedition was a longstanding preoccupation of Stein, and indeed an obsession shared by many Europeans who had visited the territory to the west of the river Indus: to locate Aornos, a seemingly impregnable fortress captured by Alexander in 327BC.

An image of Athena carrying associations of Alexander would have been an entirely apt one for Stein to stamp upon his books. But while I’m certain he and Andrews recognised the kinship of the seal image from Niya with the “Greco-Bactrian” coins of kings like Menander and Strato, I’m not so sure he would have read Alexander himself into it. When Stein discusses it, he describes it as as imitating “an archaic type of Athene Promachos”, a similar notion of the goddess as a protective deity, but the link to Athena Alkidemos of Pella and thence to Alexander had not yet been traced.

If so, it is sheer serendipity that it’s Athena Alkidemos that we find at the front of Aurel Stein’s books, since his career could hardly find a more appropriate patron goddess. Like many of the the men who studied the archaeology and ancient history of Central Asia, Alexander drew Stein to places, geographical and intellectual, far removed from the classical education of his childhood, but without ever quite losing his grip. Indeed sometimes it seems to me that the West can never contemplate this part of the world without Alexander the Great muscling in.

  • Athena (brooklynrenee3.wordpress.com)