The Tangut documents are part of the Stein collection that is held at the British Library. They were recovered by Aurel Stein in 1914, during his Third Expedition to Central Asia (1913–1916). From the moment they were unearthed from the ancient city of Kharakhoto, a major centre of the Tangut State of Xia located in the Gobi Desert right inside the present-day Chinese border with Mongolia, these important items have remained untreated. This has made their study impossible.
Conservator Vania Assis is in charge of repairing and stabilising the documents, which have survived in a fragmentary state, in the aim of eventually digitising them as part of the International Dunhuang Project. This task is a time-consuming process, where all fragments need to be humidified to unfold all their existing layers. However, in order for this to happen, all the sand from excavation needs to be removed beforehand, or else it would sink into the paper fibres and permanently obscure the text. Only once cleaned can the fragments be flattened and repaired, using small Japanese paper tabs to stop disintegration.
So far, more than 1500 items have been conserved, and many are already housed in spot welded polyester sleeves, ready to be digitised. Hopefully, making these items accessible will help unfold more secrets about the Tangut Empire which only existed from 1038 to 1227.