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Events - Symposium

Secrets of the Silk Road Symposium

Reconfiguring the Silk Road: New Research on East-West Exchange in Antiquity Saturday, March 19, 2011 University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology



David W. Anthony
Abstract - Horseback Riding and Bronze Age Pastoralism in the Eurasian Steppes
The people who populated the Tarim Basin during the Bronze Age initially came from the west, and brought with them pastoral herding economies that had been evolving for 3000 years before the oldest of the Tarim ‘mummies’ was buried. This paper reviews the evidence for the development of pastoral herding economies in the Eurasian steppes before and during the Bronze Age. Pastoralism spread from west to east, arriving in the western Altai in the mid-fourth millennium BC. By the time that pastoral populations spread into the Tarim, perhaps in the late third millennium BC, a variety of very different kinds of pastoral economies had evolved in the mountains and steppes to the west.


Elizabeth Wayland Barber
Abstract - The Xinjiang Textiles: More Corridors in the Goldmine
The textiles in the "mummy" exhibit touring the USA display a far more interesting array of techniques than the information available in advance indicated. This talk offers further description, analysis, and historical placement both of some remarkable masterpieces and of some pieces that give more insight into early practices for making cloth and clothing. One is impressed again by how much we have lost elsewhere-by how rare and informative these textiles are within the Eurasian archaeological record.


Peter Brown
Abstract - The Silk Road in Late Antiquity: Politics, Trade, and Culture Contact between Rome and China, 300-700 CE

This is a study of the modes of political and cultural communication which led to a rare level of "intervisibility" between the various societies and states along the Silk Road in the Late Antique period (roughly 300-700 CE). It will examine the cultural meanings of the objects which passed along the Silk Road as examples of a form of "archaic globalization". It ends by examining the meaning to contemporaries of the deliberate hybridization of objects taken from distant lands that were put on display in their respective societies. It is this bricolage of objects, to create spaces that were perceived both as local and non-local, which accounts for the passing of cultural and artistic influences along the kingdoms of the Silk Road from Byzantium to China in the Late Antique period.


Michael D. Frachetti
Abstract - Seeds for the Soul:  East/West Diffusion of Domesticated Grains along the Inner Asian Mountain Corridor.
Inner Asia has commonly been conceived as a region of Nomadic societies surrounded by agricultural civilizations throughout Antiquity.  Societies of China, SW Asia, and Eastern Europe each developed agriculture in the Neolithic, while the earliest evidence for agriculture from the Eurasian steppe shows it was not a major part of local economies until the Iron Age (c. 700 BC).  Newly discovered botanical evidence of ancient domesticated wheat and millet at the site of Begash in Kazakhstan, however, show that mobile pastoralists of the steppe had access to domesticated grains already by 2300 BC and that they were likely essential to the diffusion of wheat into China, as well as millet into SW Asia and Europe in the mid-3rd millennium BC.  Currently, Begash provides the only directly dated botanical evidence of these crisscrossed channels of interaction.  Whatsmore, the seeds from Begash were found in a ritual cremation context rather than domestic hearths.  This fact may suggest that the earliest transmission of domesticated grains between China and SW Asia was sparked by ideological, rather than economic forces.   This paper describes the earliest known evidence of wheat in the Eurasian steppes and explores the extent of ritual use of domesticated grains from China to SW Asia, across the Inner Asian mountains.


Philip L. Kohl

Philip L. Kohl is Professor of Anthropology and the Kathryn W. Davis Professor of Slavic Studies at Wellesley College. He has conducted fieldwork in Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Daghestan, Russia. Author of over 140 publications, his most recent book is The Making of Bronze Age Eurasia (Cambridge, 2007), a study of societies of Bronze Age Western Eurasia as evidenced in the archaeological record. Dr. Kohl will handle the question/answer session and discussion at the conclusion of the symposium.


Victor H. Mair

Abstract - The Northern Cemetery: Epigone or Progenitor of Small River Cemetery No. 5?
Although it was only excavated in 2002–2005, Small River Cemetery No. 5 (SRC5; also called Xiaohe Mudi and Ördek’s Necropolis) is already well known, both to archaeologists and to the general public. A clearly related site, called simply the Northern Cemetery (Beifang Mudi), has been discovered even more recently approximately 600 km to the southwest. The resemblances to SRC5 are so close that there can be no mistaking their consanguinity, although the Northern Cemetery is thought to be slightly earlier than SRC5. The puzzle that remains to be solved, however, is how these two closely related sites, which are so far apart on the map, came to resemble each other so nearly. Since the people of both SRC5 and the Northern Cemetery seem to have entered the Tarim Basin with their cattle, ovicaprids (goats and sheep), and wheat—all of which were domesticated in Southwest Asia thousands of years earlier—a great deal more research is necessary to determine whether the people of these two sites embarked from a common staging ground and separately went their own ways, or whether one of the two groups sprang from the other. The purpose of this paper is to explore these various possibilities in a provisional fashion. Considering the fact that we do not yet have even a preliminary archaeological report for the Northern Cemetery, merely sketchy and informal descriptions by those who have been there, this is all that can be done for the present moment. Perhaps our tentative discussion will encourage a timely excavation and publication of the findings.


J.P. Mallory
Abstract - Indo-European Dispersals and the Eurasian Steppe
J P Mallory Contacts between Europe and China that bridged the Eurasian steppelands are part of a larger story of the dispersal of the Indo-European languages that were carried to Ireland (Celtic) in the west and the western frontiers of China (Tokharian, Iranian) in the east. Reviewing some of the problems of these expansions 15 years ago, the author suggested that it was convenient to discuss the expansions in terms of several fault lines – the Dnieper, the Ural and Central Asia. The Dnieper is critical for resolving issues concerning the different models of Indo-European origins and more recent research forces us to reconsider the nature of the Dnieper as a cultural border. Recent research has also suggested that we need to reconsider the eastern periphery of the Indo-European world and how it relates to its western neighbors.


Joseph G. Manning
Abstract - At the Limits: Long Distance Trade in the Time of Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Kings
This brief paper will examine the “pre-history” of the silk road. Although many histories of the silk road proper begin with the first century AD and the interaction between the Roman and Han empires, the story of the road begins earlier, and must begin with an outline of east west trading patterns in the Achaemenid Persian empire and the consequences of Alexander the Great’s campaigns in the East. This paper tells that story. We begin with the Persians and Alexander’s conquest of the Persian empire, and then continue into the second century BC, when a higher volume of trade was pulled into the Mediterranean by the demand from the great cities of Alexandria, Antioch and Rome. The story of the silk road is really about the cultural and economic impact of long-distance trade between China and the Mediterranean world, India and China via India and the Red Sea began in the second century BC.


Colin Renfrew
Abstract - Before Silk: Unsolved Mysteries of the Silk Road
The extent of contact between east (China) and west (Europe and Western Asia) in the prehistoric period has been much debated but remains little understood. In 1921 John Gunnar Anderson’s excavations at Yangshao in Henan province led him to interpret the painted neolithic pottery found there as derived from that of neolithic Greece, a suggestion discounted by most subsequent scholars. Yet the genetics of the millet found in the neolithic of China and of eastern Europe leads archaeobotanists today to suggest a single source. The origins of copper and bronze metallurgy are likewise debated, and the mechanisms of transmission from the west of the horse-drawn chariots seen in burials of the late Shang dynasty are still open to question. Xinjiang province, with its remarkable preservation and its many insights from the second and first millennia BC offers tantalising clues, not least the Tarim "mummies" with their wonderfully preserved clothing and their western appearance. The presence there in the eighth century AD of the Tocharian language, the easternmost in the Indo-European language family, has led to intriguing speculations. These will be critically addressed. It will be argued that we are the dawn of a new era in the archaeology of prehistoric Eurasia, with the Silk Road offering challenges to many long-held ideas.


Richard Hodges
(Williams Director, Penn Museum), C. Brian Rose (Deputy Director, Penn Museum; Curator-in-Charge of the Mediterranean Section, Penn Museum; James B. Pritchard Professor of Archaeology, University of Pennsylvania), and Nancy Steinhardt (Curator, Asian Section, Penn Museum; Professor of East Asian Art, Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Pennsylvania) will also participate in the Symposium.