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Map of the Eastern Silk Road showing the routes north and south of the Taklamakan Desert

Map of the Eastern Silk Road showing the routes north and south of the Taklamakan Desert.

The International Dunhuang Project: The Silk Road Online

The International Dunhuang Project (IDP) is a ground-breaking international collaboration to make information and images of all manuscripts, paintings, textiles and artifacts from Dunhuang and archaeological sites of the Eastern Silk Road freely available on the Internet and to encourage their use through educational and research programs.

Little was known of the remarkable heritage of the Silk Road until explorers and archaeologists of the early twentieth century uncovered the ruins of ancient cities in the desert sands, revealing astonishing sculptures, murals and manuscripts. One of the most notable discoveries was the Buddhist cave library near the oasis town of Dunhuang on the edge of the Gobi desert in western China. The cave had been sealed and hidden at the end of the first millennium AD and only re-discovered in 1900. Forty thousand manuscripts, paintings and printed documents on paper and silk were found in the cave itself. Tens of thousands more items were excavated from other Silk Road archaeological sites. These unique items have fascinating stories to tell of life on this great trade route from 100 BC to AD 1400. Yet most were dispersed to institutions worldwide in the early 1900s, making access difficult.

The turmoil of the twentieth century meant that conservation and cataloging were delayed, further hindering access. Following a conference in 1993 to discuss the problem of preservation and access, the IDP was formed in 1994 with external funds out of a desire by the holding institutions to work together to rectify this by reuniting all these artifacts through the highest quality digital photography, by coordinating international teams of conservators, catalogers and researchers to ensure the objects’ preservation and cataloging, and by pushing the limits of new web technologies to make this material accessible to all.

IDP’s directorate was established at the British Library and it has centers of operation in China, Russia, Japan, Germany, France and Korea.

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