On the Question of Silk in Pre-Han Eurasia

Article excerpt

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.


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. …