On the Question of Silk in Pre-Han Eurasia

By Good, Irene | Antiquity, December 1995 | Go to article overview

On the Question of Silk in Pre-Han Eurasia


Good, Irene, Antiquity


When was silk first brought across the steppe from far China towards the European world? There is silk from the Middle Bronze Age of Uzbekistan, in Scythian burials of Siberia and among the Hallstatt grave-goods of western Europe. Teasing out the story of silk depends on identifying the textile, and distinguishing its several varieties apart.

Introduction

According to historical tradition, official initiation of silk trade from China into western Asia took place during the First Han Dynasty in the late 2nd century BC. However, numerous occurrences of silk preceding this date by several centuries have been found well beyond the borders of Han China (Figure 1). In assessing the significance of this evidence, the use of wild silks is a critical factor to be considered.

Wild silk has been historically documented in western Asia and in the Mediterranean region since early medieval times. It was an important cottage industry in several provinces of Iran at least as far back as the 13th century AD (Seyf 1983: 52) was prevalent in Syro-Palestine during the 19th century (Farsoon 1970: 298), and today is an integral component of the economy of India, (Jolly 1974: 246), but the full extent and antiquity of this technology is presently unknown and is only cursorily mentioned in the literature (e.g. Balkrishna 1925: 45). Moreover, the use of wild silk must have preceded the domestication of silkworms, and the geographic distribution of economically viable wild silkworm species is worldwide (Freina & Witt 1987; Jolly 1974: 8-18: Leggett 1949: 36-57; Peigler 1993).

The determination of fibres has, until recently, been overlooked as an avenue of investigation in archaeological materials science, primarily because of the scarce incidence of textile remains in the archaeological record. Methods of fibre identification, along with limited understanding of their procurement and use, have also been inadequate. Archaeologists have often had to settle for distinguishing between animal and plant fibre and nothing more.

The use of wool as a textile fibre has throughout its history had a broad geographical distribution, whereas silk is most often associated with China. Even without actual textile remains, the use of wool can be indirectly inferred from the analysis of faunal remains, where distinction between sheep-rearing for meat, dairy and wool products can be ascertained (Payne 1973: 281-303; Stein 1986: 39-41). Silk leaves weaker traces in the archaeological record. If it is not present in archaeological contexts, it is not assumed to be present, even when the area under investigation is in China. Indeed there are great lacunae in the archaeological evidence within China relating to the domestication of the Chinese silkworm, and it is primarily through documents that anything is known of the early history of Chinese sericulture (Anon. 1980: 7; Barber 1991: 31).

Thus in the case of silk, the importance of an accurate identification of archaeological textile fibres is especially pronounced. In order to interpret ancient societies, access to silk per se, and more specifically, to the technology of processed silk, which has a significant bearing on long-distance contacts between East and West in prehistory, reliable methods of fibre identification are needed.

The nature of silk

A problem common in the study of ancient silk stems from a basic misunderstanding of the material itself, as well as confusion with its nomenclature. `True' silk, or edelseide, denotes the Chinese domesticated and processed silk. it is thus called because even in Byzantine times, when domesticated silk was processed in the West, Chinese silk was still by far of the finest quality (Sylwan 1949: 15). This silk is derived from the domesticated Bombyx mori species of moth. The domestication of this moth was a Chinese development. The difference between raw silk, in which the gum (a highly soluble protein called sericin) remains, and processed or de-gummed silk, in which the sericin has been removed, is substantial in the rendering of cloth. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

On the Question of Silk in Pre-Han Eurasia
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.