Sir Aurel Stein

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Marc Aurel Stein

Birthdate: (80)
Birthplace: Budapest, Budapest, Hungary
Death: October 26, 1943 (80)
Kabul, Afghanistan
Immediate Family:

Son of Nathan Stein and Anna "Nanette" Stein (Hirschler)
Brother of Terez "Therese" Rosenbaum (Stein) and Erno "Ernst" Stein

Occupation: Archeologist
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Sir Aurel Stein

Sir Marc Aurel Stein, KCIE, FBA [1] (Hungarian: Stein Márk Aurél) (26 November 1862 – 26 October 1943) was a Hungarian-British archaeologist, primarily known for his explorations and archaeological discoveries in Central Asia. He was also a professor at various Indian universities.

Stein was also an ethnographer, geographer, linguist and surveyor. His collection of books and manuscripts taken from Dunhuang caves is important for the study of the history of Central Asia and the art and literature of Buddhism. He wrote several volumes on his expeditions and discoveries which include Ancient Khotan, Serindia and Innermost Asia.

Early life

Stein was born in Budapest into a Jewish family. His parents and his sister retained their Jewish faith but Stein and his brother, Ernst Eduard, were baptised as Lutherans, apparently to increase their prospects.[2] After completing his school education, he studied at Universities of Vienna, Leipzig and Tübingen. He graduated in Sanskrit and Persian Language and received his Ph.D. from Tübingen in 1883. In 1884 he went to England to study oriental languages and archaeology. He became a British citizen and made his famous expeditions with British sponsorship.

In 1887, Stein went to India. He joined the Punjab University as Registrar. Later, between 1888 and 1899, he was the Principal of Oriental College, Lahore.[3] Stein was influenced by Sven Hedin's 1898 work Through Asia. Realizing the importance of Central Asian history and archaeology he sent a proposal to the government to explore, map and study the people of Central Asia. In May 1900 he received the approval to lead an expedition to Chinese Turkestan which was strategically located in High Asia where the Russians and Germans were already taking interest.


Stein made four major expeditions to Central Asia—in 1900–1901, 1906–1908, 1913–1916 and 1930.[4] He brought to light the hidden treasure of a great civilization which by then was practically lost to the world. One of his significant finds during his first journey during 1900–1901 was the Taklamakan Desert oasis of Dandan Oilik where he was able to uncover a number of relics. During his third expedition in 1913–1916, he excavated at Khara-Khoto.[5]

The British Library's Stein collection of Chinese, Tibetan and Tangut manuscripts, Prakrit wooden tablets, and documents in Khotanese, Uyghur, Sogdian and Eastern Turkic is the result of his travels through central Asia during the 1920s and 1930s. Stein discovered manuscripts in the previously lost Tocharian languages of the Tarim Basin at Marin and other oasis towns, and recorded numerous archaeological sites especially in Iran and Balochistan.

During 1901 Stein was responsible for exposing forgeries of Islam Akhun.

Stein's greatest discovery was made at the Mogao Caves also known as "Caves of the Thousand Buddhas", near Dunhuang in 1907. It was there that he discovered the Diamond Sutra, the world's oldest printed text which has a date (corresponding to AD 868), along with 40,000 other scrolls (all removed by gradually winning the confidence and bribing the Taoist caretaker).[6] He acquired 24 cases of manuscripts and 4 cases of paintings and relics. He was knighted for his efforts, but Chinese nationalists dubbed him a burglar and staged protests against him.[7] His discovery inspired other French, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese treasure hunters and explorers who also took their toll on the collection.[8]

During his expedition of 1906–1908 while surveying in the Kunlun Mountains of western China, Stein suffered frostbite and lost several toes on his right foot.

When he was resting from his extended journeys into Central Asia, he spent most of his time living in a tent in the spectacularly beautiful alpine meadow called Mohanmarg which lies at the mouth atop the Sind Valley where from he translated Rajatarangini from sanskrit to english.[9][10] Stein was a lifelong bachelor, but was always accompanied by a dog named "Dash" (of which there were seven).[11][12]

He died in Kabul on October 26, 1943 and is buried in Kabul's British Cemetery.[13]

Stein was not only a great archaeologist but also ethnographer, geographer, linguist and surveyor. His contribution to the academic world is outstanding. His collection is important for the study of the history of Central Asia and the art and literature of Buddhism. He wrote several volumes on his various expenditions and discoveries which include Ancient Khotan, Serindia and Inermost Asia.

"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."[14]

Great Game

Stein, as well as other contemporary explorers like Sven Hedin, Sir Francis Younghusband and Nikolai Przhevalsky, were active players in the British-Russian struggle for influence in Central Asia, the so-called Great Game. Their explorations were supported by the British and Russian Empires as they explored the remaining "blank spots" on the maps, providing valuable information.[15]

The art objects he collected are divided between the British Museum, the British Library, the Srinagar Museum, and the National Museum, New Delhi.


Stein received a number of honours during his career. In 1909, he was awarded the Founder's Medal by the Royal Geographical Society 'for his extensive explorations in Central Asia, and in particular his archaeological work'.[16] In 1909, he was awarded the first Campbell Memorial Gold Medal by the Royal Asiatic Society of Bombay. He was awarded a number of other Gold Medals: the Gold Medal of the Société de Géographie in 1923; the Grande Médaille d’or of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland in 1932; and the Gold Medal of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1935. In 1934, he was awarded the Huxley Memorial Medal of Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.[17]

In the 1910 King's Birthday Honours, he was appointed Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire (CIE) for his service as Inspector-General Of Education and Archaeological Surveyor in the North-West Frontier Province.[18] Two years late, in the 1912 King's Birthday Honours, he was promoted to Knight Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire (KCIE) for his service as Superintendent of the Archaeological Department, North-West Frontier Circle.[19]

He was made an honorary Doctor of Letters (DLitt) by the University of Oxford in 1909. He was made an honorary Doctor of Science (DSc) by the University of Cambridge in 1910.[17] He made an honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD) by the University of St Andrews in 1939.[17][20]

In 1921, he was elected Fellow of the British Academy (FBA).[3]


1898. Detailed Report on an Archaeological Tour with the Buner Field Force, Lahore, Punjab Government Press.

1900. Kalhaṇa's Rājataraṅgiṇī – A Chronicle of the Kings of Kaśmīr, 2 vols. London, A. Constable & Co. Ltd. Reprint, Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, 1979.

1904 Sand-Buried Ruins of Khotan, London, Hurst and Blackett, Ltd. Reprint Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, Madras, 2000

1905. Report of Archaeological Survey Work in the North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan, Peshawar, Government Press, N.W. Frontier Province.

1907. Ancient Khotan: Detailed report of archaeological explorations in Chinese Turkestan, 2 vols. Clarendon Press. Oxford.[21]

1912. Ruins of Desert Cathay: Personal Narrative of Explorations in Central Asia and Westernmost China, 2 vols. London, Macmillan & Co. Reprint: Delhi. Low Price Publications. 1990.

1921a. Serindia: Detailed report of explorations in Central Asia and westernmost China, 5 vols. London & Oxford, Clarendon Press. Reprint: Delhi. Motilal Banarsidass. 1980.[21]

The Thousand Buddhas : ancient Buddhist paintings from the cave-temples of Tung-huang on the western frontier of China.[21]

1921b “A Chinese expedition across the Pamirs and Hindukush, A.D. 747.” Indian Antiquary 1923.[22]

1928. Innermost Asia: Detailed Report of Explorations in Central Asia, Kan-su and Eastern Iran, 5 vols. Oxford, Clarendon Press. Reprint: New Delhi. Cosmo Publications. 1981.[21]

1929. On Alexander's Track to the Indus: Personal Narrative of Explorations on the North-West Frontier of India. London, Macmillan & Co. Reprint: New York, Benjamin Blom, 1972.

1932 On Ancient Central Asian Tracks: Brief Narrative of Three Expeditions in Innermost Asia and Northwestern China. Reprinted with Introduction by Jeannette Mirsky. Book Faith India, Delhi. 1999.

1940 Old Routes of Western Iran: Narrative of an Archaeological Journey Carried out and Recorded, MacMillan and co., limited. St. Martin's Street, London.

1944. "Archaeological Notes from the Hindukush Region". J.R.A.S., pp. 1–24 + fold-out.

A more detailed list of Stein's publications is available in Handbook to the Stein Collections in the UK,[5] pp. 49–61.

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Sir Aurel Stein's Timeline

November 26, 1862
Budapest, Budapest, Hungary
October 26, 1943
Age 80
Kabul, Afghanistan