Stein, Aurel, Serindia: Detailed Report of Exploration in Central Asia and Westernmost China Carried Out and Described Under the Orders of H.M Indian Government , 5 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1921), vol. I, p.263.
Stein Textile Loan Collection. On loan from the Government of India and the Archaeological Survey of India. Copyright: Government of India.
Triangular piece of leather with some fur present.
Length: 10.2 cm, Width: 5 cm
Niya includes a group of towns in the southern region of the Taklamakan Desert, at the foot of the Kunlun mountains. Once a military post under the Kingdom of Khotan, Niya became an important oasis along the southern Silk Road. Stein excavated several groups of dwellings there and found hundreds of wedge-shaped wooden tablets, some laced together in pairs with string and affixed with clay seals. The appearance of Pallas Athena, Eros and other Greek deities on some seals showed the impact of western classical art on Khotan. The tablets were inscribed with Kharoshthi, an ancient script of northwest India. Stein identified some as Buddhist prayers and others as administrative documents and he dated them to the period of the Kushan empire, which thrived in the first three centuries AD. Among ruins of dwellings and orchards, Stein found numerous textile fragments, Roman coins, wooden furniture with elaborate carving, pottery, Chinese basketry and lacquer, and documents in Chinese script which he dated to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). The V&A holds, on loan, a large number of textiles from Niya, including leather, wool yarn, appliquéd and stitched wool felt, and braided animal hair.
This fragment is of buff coloured leather, with some fur still present. It is unclear what this piece would have been used for, although it is likely to have had a utilitarian function. It was recovered from the site of Niya, which dates from the 2nd to the 3rd century AD. Niya was probably the capital city of the kingdom of Shanshan whose people were of Indian origin. The site of Niya is remarkable for the carved wooden capitals, beams and balustrades that show similarities to the western classical decoration that filtered through Iran and Northwest India.
The site is also part of an area of Central Asia we now call the Silk Road, a series of overland trade routes that crossed Asia from China to Europe. The most notable item traded was silk. Camels and horses were used as pack animals and merchants passed the goods from oasis to oasis. The Silk Road was also important for the exchange of ideas. Whilst silk textiles travelled west from China, Buddhism entered China from India in this way.
This textile was brought back from Central Asia by the explorer and archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943). The V&A has around 650 ancient and medieval textiles recovered from the Silk Road by Stein at the beginning of the 20th century. Some are silk while others are made from the wool of a variety of different animals.