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Central Asia was a rich cultural melting pot in the first millennium. Textiles provide a unique opportunity to discover more about its diverse population, different faiths and extensive trade networks. In the early 20th century, Sir Aurel Stein travelled along the Eastern Silk Road, now within the boundaries of the Peoples’ Republic of China, collecting a wealth of materials from various remote sites.
The Victoria & Albert Museum is the custodian of nearly 600 textile fragments from Stein’s unique collection and this paper will discuss the variety of materials and techniques held by the Asian Department. This paper will offer glimpse of aspects of life along the Silk Road in the first millennium CE: the relationships between traders and indigenous people, the practical life of soldiers, religious activities and distribution of wealth. It will also provide an analysis of the finds from dwellings and tombs of Loulan, 0-250 CE – can such analysis reveal hitherto unknown information about the individuals buried there? Were certain designs and colour palette, types and weights of silk reserved for specific uses or particular social groups or was the choice of burial cloth more random? Can the different types of textiles be grouped according to gender, age, rank or ethnic background? This paper will attempt to answer these questions and provide an opportunity to explore a unique textile collection in one of Europe’s premier Museums.