Textile Society of America



Helen Persson

Date of this Version



Textiles as Cultural Expressions: Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–27, 2008, Honolulu, Hawaii


Copyright 2008 by the author.


The Taklamakan Desert in the Tarim Basin is now within the boundaries of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China. Taklamakan is one of the largest sandy deserts in the world and covers an area of 270,000 km2. It is bounded by Kunlun Mountains to the south, Pamir Mountains and Tian Shan to the west and north. Life-giving water from the mountains forms rivers and lakes and hence creating lush oasis on the borders of the desert. Neolithic stone tools show that humans have long been present in the area. Branches of trade routes, later known as the Silk Road – although there were several – ran along the edges of the desert utilizing the oasis as resting points and trading sites.

The East Asian section at the V&A Museum is acting as custodian for nearly 600 textile fragments; all recovered from the chain of abandoned oasis settlements in the Tarim Basin. They were brought back from three long expeditions by Hungarian born British archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943) during 1900 -1916. These significant textiles, dating from 200 BCE to 1200 CE, came to the Museum in three instalments (1923, 1932 and 1933) and are on loan from the Government of India. The collection comprises plain woven silks in a rich array of colours, pattern woven silks, embroidery, and wool in all qualities, plant fibres, leather, fur and grass.

Stein visited the area of Loulan, west of the dried-up salt lake Lop-nor, twice in 1906 and 1913. Loulan was once an important town on the Loulan branch of the southern Silk Road and one of the 36 city-states of the Tarim Basin. The city-state was a large complex comprising many archaeological sites: dwellings, administrative quarters, refuse heaps, Buddhist stupa and shrines, and burial area. Loulan is the Chinese interpretation of the indigenous name of this kingdom which was Kroraina in Indian Karoshti. The first time Loulan is mentioned in Chinese records refer to its conquest by the Xiongnu in 176 BCE. A Chinese military expedition was dispatched to Loulan and in 109 BCE the local king was forced to pay tribute to China. About CE 260 the Chinese founded a military station and named it Loulan Station. However, it is likely that this was the main centre even before the arrival of the Chinese.