The researches are trying to find why the same sacred symbol has been found in apparently unconnected ancient sites around the world.
Depictions of three hares joined by the ears can be seen in British medieval churches, 13th century Mongol metalwork and temples from China’s Sui dynasty of the 6th and 7th Century, the Daily Telegraph reported on Saturday.
Academics have long been baffled as to why the circular motif became prominent in Christian, Islamic and Buddhist cultures separated by such great distances and times, the paper said.
In each place the depiction of the hares, chasing each other in a circle with the ears touching each other’s heads, is virtually identical.
A four-strong British research team, led by an archaeologist, will travel to the town of Dunhuang in the western Chinese province of Gansu next month to examine caves which might shed light on the mystery, the report said.
“We don’t know for sure how the symbol travelled to the West but the most likely explanation is that they were on the valuable oriental silks brought to Western medieval churches to wrap holy relics, as altar cloths and in vestments”
More than 1000 years ago, Dunhuang was a key staging point on the Silk Road, the famous network of trading routes which linked China with Central Asia and Iran, with branches into Tibet and South Asia.
As well as commodities, the Silk Road saw religions and ideas spread great distances, and the researchers said this could be the key to the hare motif.
“We don’t know for sure how the symbol travelled to the West but the most likely explanation is that they were on the valuable oriental silks brought to Western medieval churches to wrap holy relics, as altar cloths and in vestments,” art historian Sue Andrew told the Daily Telegraph.
The earliest known example of the symbol is in textile canopies painted on the ceilings of caves in Dunhuang, which the researchers will examine.
The town in famous for a network of caves containing thousands of documents and fabrics from the Silk Road, which were sealed in about 1000 AD.
The caves and their contents – preserved astonishingly well by the dry local climate – were rediscovered by Hungarian-born, British-based explorer Marc Aurel Stein, who trekked along the Silk Road a series of times between 1900 and 1930.
“It is a very beautiful and stirring image which has an intrinsic power which is quite lovely,” archeologist Tom Green, who is leading the team, told the newspaper.
“If we can open a window on something that in the past had relevance and meaning to people separated by thousands of miles and hundreds of years, it could benefit our present day understanding of the things we share with different cultures and religions,” he said.