Hungary for Discovery; Late, Great Geographers. (People)

By Kerr, Rachel | Geographical, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Hungary for Discovery; Late, Great Geographers. (People)


Kerr, Rachel, Geographical


Sir Aurel Stein (1862-1943)

Described in 1942 as "the greatest explorer of our time", Aurel Stein, the Hungarian-born archaeologist and traveller, rediscovered and unfolded the mysteries of the Silk Road, armed with a ferocious appetite for discovery and accompanied at all times by his small dog

What was he famous for?

Over his lifetime Stein covered an incredible 40,000 kilometres across Central Asia, on foot or on horseback, in his quest to find ancient civilisations. During his three expeditions, in 1900, 1906 and 1913, he spent a total of seven years on the road. For much of the time he travelled alone, with just a faithful hound for company. In fact, the explorer had a total of seven dogs in his lifetime, all of them -- curiously -- named Dash.

In 1904 Stein became a British subject and thereafter spent the majority of his life working in the service of the British Government for which he gained a knighthood. Stein was also one of the first to realise the importance of aerial photography in archaeological studies.

A late, great archaeologist then?

On the first of his three famously successful expeditions, in 1900, he travelled from the Northwest Frontier of India to Chinese Central Asia, accurately identifying, surveying and excavating ancient sites in hostile desert conditions. To this day, his reports of the expeditions, along with his maps of previously uncharted territory, remain the standard archaeological, historical and geographical references to this part of the world. The Central Asia historian Owen Lattimore described Stein as "the most prodigious combination of scholar, explorer, archaeologist and geographer" of his era -- a true renaissance man, it seems.

What was he like?

A precocious child, this characteristic followed him into later life. Stein simply would not take no for an answer. Methodical and meticulous, he overcame the physical, financial and political obstacles which conspired to prevent his travels. He had little interest in power or fame, and was only concerned about money when the lack of it prevented him doing what he wanted. His only desire seems to have been the discovery of ancient civilisations.

How was his work viewed in Asia?

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese viewed him in a different light to the West -- as an imperialist villain who robbed them of their past. Even Sir Leonard Woolley's compliment, calling Stein's forays "the most daring and adventurous raid upon the ancient world that any archaeologist had ever attempted," reflects this pillaging of others' heritage.

Some may have described Stein as a cad, certainly he was responsible for some slightly underhand manoeuvres. In his third expedition, he removed enough antiquities to fill 182 packing cases, which were shipped back to the UK. …

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