Reconfiguring the Silk Road: New Research on East-West Exchange in Antiquity

Reconfiguring the Silk Road: New Research on East-West Exchange in Antiquity

Reconfiguring the Silk Road: New Research on East-West Exchange in Antiquity

Reconfiguring the Silk Road: New Research on East-West Exchange in Antiquity

Synopsis

From the Bronze Age through the Middle Ages, a network of trade and migration routes brought people from across Eurasia into contact. Their commerce included political, social, and artistic ideas, as well as material goods such as metals and textiles. Reconfiguring the Silk Road offers new research on the earliest trade and cultural interactions along these routes, mapping the spread and influence of Silk Road economies and social structures over time. This volume features contributions by renowned scholars uncovering new discoveries related to populations that lived in the Tarim Basin, the advanced state of textile manufacturing in the region, and the diffusion of domesticated grains across Inner Asia. Other chapters include an analysis of the dispersal of languages across the Eurasian Steppe and a detailed examination of the domestication of the horse in the region. Contextualized with a foreword by Colin Renfrew and introduction by Victor Mair, Reconfiguring the Silk Road provides a new assessment of the intercultural evolution along the steppes and beyond.

Contributors: David W. Anthony, Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Dorcas R. Brown, Peter Brown, Michael D. Frachetti, Jane Hickman, Philip L. Kohl, Victor H. Mair, J. P. Mallory, Joseph G. Manning, Colin Renfrew.

Excerpt

The routes and highways that linked East with West, the Silk Roads, carried with them an allure of romance, attractive both for the world of China and for those of Greece, Rome, and Byzantium, which these highways brought together. They have fascinated travelers, from Strabo and Zhang Qian to Marco Polo and on to Aurel Stein. For us today they are brought to vivid life again by the tangible material reality of the wonderfully preserved finds which the archaeologists of Xinjiang have brought to light in recent years. Many of these were seen in the exhibition Secrets of the Silk Road, which prompted the symposium leading to the present volume. This gives an excellent idea of the increasing research activity which these important finds have stimulated. And it indicates also how many outstanding problems remain to be resolved.

It is indeed time now to “reconceptualize” the Silk Roads, as Victor Mair sets out to do so effectively in his Introduction. By re-examining the material realities which are increasingly well documented through on-going excavation, we can perhaps now step aside from the potent mirages which have fascinated scholars and the general public for so long, as Peter Brown well evokes in his contribution. The wonderfully preserved textiles unearthed in recent decades are replacing those mirages with a splendor all of their own which is palpable: you can see them and admire them today.

Yet when we see this rich material dating from the last two millennia BC onwards, we begin to realize how little we yet know about the very early days of this key region of Xinjiang and about the lands lying immediately to the west. The remarkable finds from the Xiaohe burials, so successfully recovered and published by Idris Abdurssul and his colleagues of the Xinjiang Institute (Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology 2003, 2008), followed by their work at the so-called Northern Cemetery, reported here by Mair, have opened a new chapter in the prehistory of this crucial region. Yet it is scarcely conceivable that those buried at Xiaohe around 2000 BC were the first inhabitants of this region with all its rich variety of habitats. These people were farmers, already using both wheat and millet, crops that were originally domesticated in lands that lie far to the west (for wheat) and to the east (for millet) of Inner Asia. These farmers must have had hunter-gatherer predecessors, benefiting from the rich waterways and lakes in the Taklamakan area, which is so difficult to imagine today in this now desiccated landscape. These new discoveries hint at how much we still have to learn.

Comparable research is now being undertaken to the west, in Kazakhstan, as Michael Frachetti reports here. He presents good eco-

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