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Banner fragments - The Stein Collection

The Stein Collection

  • Object:

    Banner fragments

  • Place of origin:

    Dunhuang (discovered)

  • Date:

    9th century to 10th century (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Plain and pattern-woven silk, clamp-resist dyed, with stitching

  • Credit Line:

    Stein Textile Loan Collection. On loan from the Government of India and the Archaeological Survey of India. Copyright: Government of India

  • Museum number:

    LOAN:STEIN.556:1 to 3

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

These silk fragments once formed part of a Buddhist ritual banner. Such banners were carried aloft hooked on a staff and they also fluttered from the tops of stupa (domed memorial shrines). These particular pieces were recovered from Cave 17 of the Mogao Grottoes. This shrine is one of China's great Buddhist pilgrimage sites and is situated near the oasis town of Dunhuang. The shrines were carved out of the gravel conglomerate naturally occurring in the region. The Cave of the Thousand Buddhas, of which there are several in the area, is named after a legend concerning a monk's dream of a thousand Buddhas appearing on a cloud over the valley where the caves are situated. Most of the textiles from cave17 would have been used as banners or wrappers for religious texts.

The site is 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 Silk Road was also important for the exchange of ideas. While silk textiles travelled west from China, Buddhism entered China from India along this route.

These textiles were brought back from Central Asia by the explorer and archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943). The Victoria and Albert Museum has around 600 ancient and medieval textiles recovered by Stein at the beginning of the 20th century. Some are silk while others are made from the wool of a variety of animals.

Physical description

Three fragments of a Buddhist ritual banner. These fragments comprise the remains of a headpiece of plain weave red-brown silk with border and a suspension loop of patterned weave in brown silk, showing a small floral spot design. At the top of border are four painted Chinese characters. A fragment of one arm, of patterned weave in pale brown silk, showing a small diamond lattice design, is still attached to the headpiece border. Also attached to border is the remains of a first body panel of patterned weave silk, showing a small diamond lattice design. The remains of the body panel and the two separated fragments of the same patterned weave are clamp-resist dyed showing a large lozenge pattern consisting of small, connected floral motifs in red brown and green outlined in cream on a blue ground. The longer separated fragment has remains of patterned weave brown silk sewn along one end.

Weave structures:
1. Infill
Warp: silk, single, red, 42 warps/cm; Weft: silk, single, red, 37 wefts/cm. Weave structure: 1/1 plain weave
2. Head border with dots pattern
Warp: silk, single, undyed, 38 warps/cm; Weft: silk single, undyed, 33 wefts/cm. Weave structure: 4-4 patterning weave for pattern on 1/1 plain weave for foundation
3. Panel with lozenge and floral pattern
Warp: silk, single, undyed, 40 warps/cm; Weft: silk, single, undyed, 30 wefts/cm. Weave structure: 2-4 patterning weave for pattern on 1/1 plain weave for foundation

Place of Origin

Dunhuang (discovered)


9th century to 10th century (made)



Materials and Techniques

Plain and pattern-woven silk, clamp-resist dyed, with stitching

Marks and inscriptions

In handwritten form but method not clear; Chinese; Upper border of head, on reverse.; 700 - 900


Height: 22.5 cm headpiece, Width: 28.8 cm headpiece, Length: 43.5 cm largest piece, Width: 16.3 cm largest piece

Object history note

Attached to each separate fragment is a circular sticky label showing Stein number possibly in Stein's handwriting or that of his assistant, Miss F M G Lorimer.

Historical context note

Dunhuang is at the eastern end of the southern Silk Road, in present-day Gansu Province. It lies between the western reaches of China and the Tarim Basin. When China began to expand into Central Asia during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), Dunhuang served as a base for military operations and trade. In the succeeding centuries, Buddhist shrines were established southeast of Dunhuang in a series of man-made caves called Qianfodong, "Caves of the Thousand Buddhas" (today also known as the Mogao Grottoes). Here spectacular cave temples were cut out of the cliffs, beginning in the fourth century AD. Over a period of several centuries, communities of Buddhist monks filled the caves with splendid sculpture and wall paintings. These included colossal Buddha statues, painted clay sculptures of deities, elaborate murals of Buddhist legends, and thousands of tiny painted Buddha images; all of which gave the site its name, Qianfodong. Buddhist cave temples had first been established in at Bamiyan (Afghanistan) and Gandhara (formerly in India, now Pakistan). At Qianfodong, Stein found paintings of graceful figures in the Gandharan style among landscapes and buildings that were distinctly Chinese; a fusion of Indian and Chinese art, which he had noted elsewhere along the Silk Road.

In 1900, a Daoist monk named Wang Yuanlu discovered a secret cave at Qianfodung, which contained thousands of documents and paintings. Stein purchased a significant amount of this material from Wang during his visit to the Dunhuang in 1907. Among the many religious works were Buddhist, Jewish, Nestorian, Daoist and Confucian texts; all of which dated from approximately 400 to 1000 A.D. Numerous languages were represented as well, including Chinese, Sanskrit, Tibetan and Hebrew. Stein also acquired many textile pieces. Most of these were silk, for Dunhuang lay on the main trade route between silk-growing regions of China and Central Asia. Elaborate embroideries depicted Buddhist legends and processions of donors. Patterned silks included Chinese and Sassanian (Persian) designs. From China came floral and geometric patterns, combined with figures of animals and birds. Sassanian motifs included pairs of confronted ducks, lions, and other beasts, combined with medallions and quatrefoils. Stein also found undecorated silks used as processional banners and valances for decorating bases of statues. The cave was sealed soon after 1000 A.D., apparently to protect the contents from invading armies. The V&A holds, on loan, a large number of textiles from Dunhuang, including plain and pattern woven silks in many colours, painted Buddhist banners and canopies, and wrappers for Buddhist texts.

Descriptive line

Banner pieces of plain and patterned woven brown silk, clamp resist-dyed in blue and brown, from Dunhuang, 9th to 10th century

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

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. II, p.993.
Zhao Feng, ed. Textiles from Dunhuang in UK Collections. Shanghai: Donghua University Press, 2007. pp. 296.

Production Note

Found in Cave 17 of the Mogao Grottoes (Caves of the Thousand Buddhas).




Plain weave; Patterned weave; Resist dyeing; Stitching

Subjects depicted

Floral patterns


Archaeology; Buddhism; Textiles


East Asia Collection

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