Friday, November 16, 2012

Raiders of the Lost Caves

Paul Pelliott, rumaging in 1908
This morning I attended the 10th anniversary celebrations of the International Dunhuang Project website. Sounds a bit dull, but there's a cracking story behind it. 
Back in 1900, a Daoist monk rediscovered a massive stash of manuscripts (mostly about Buddhism, but also history, mathematics, folk songs and dance) dating from the 5th - 11th centuries, in some caves that had been hitherto sealed up in Dunhuang in western China. In the following years, when Indiana-Jones-type characters roamed the world and China was in chaos, much was sold off to explorers like Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliott who took them back to the great libraries of the west, where they still reside. 
Although sensitive to some, the case has never reached Elgin Marbles proportions, and most Chinese and international scholars seem happy for the manuscripts simply to be accessible to as many people as possible - thus the website. To date, 378,465 manuscripts have been digitised, most of them by the IDP's UK office within the British Library.   

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