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They often depicted images of the families themselves, so serve as a record of changing fashions in ancient China.They also reveal the talent of the unnamed early artists, showing skilful composition and ability to capture different ages and characteristics in groups of figures.He bought around 10,000 documents and paintings for the British Museum for £130. His linguistic skills allowed him to identify some of the best items in the collection, which he took away for just £90.

Why they were shut away remains a mystery, but the darkness and dry desert air had allowed them to survive. Culture Show presenter Kate Bryan, who visited Dunhuang for The Art of Chinese Painting, says the place still "buzzes with the excitement of what was discovered there." "The Library Cave had tens of thousands of priceless manuscripts, scrolls and paintings that spanned all the great dynasties.

They tell the story not just of people and politics but also of art." Many of the paintings were commissioned by families for Buddhist funeral rituals, to earn themselves merit and secure the rebirth of their loved ones.

But they declined and told the priest to seal the treasures away again.

British-Hungarian explorer Aurel Stein heard about the discovery and met with Wang in 1907.

"It's the world's largest site of medieval Buddhist art, with sculptures and paintings, fine art and murals.

They show how different styles and iconography progressed until the 14th Century." Dunhuang had been a major commerce hub on the Silk Road, and a centre of religion for Buddhist monks and missionaries.

"As a scholar, I believe they were both brilliant archaeologists, and genuinely believed in the scholarly importance of what they were doing for Chinese history.

"But as a Chinese, I feel it is China's loss if we don't provide the opportunity for this material to be studied and researched.

"It is incomparable to anything else," says Zhang Hongxing, the V&A's Senior Curator of Chinese Collections.

"The caves are like a gallery covering 1000 years of art.

The cave is one of the 500 surviving caverns at the Mogao Caves, on the edge of the Gobi desert, at Dunhuang in western China.

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