Tim Winter

Silk Road seminar: summaries and links

Click on the lectures below to see a summary with relevant links to further reading
11 January 2021: Professor Tim Winter (University of Western Australia) on the curious geographies of the Silk Roads

There remain fundamental questions about what is the Silk Road and how to conceptualise it.

Susan Whitfield’s 2019 Silk Roads states on page 1: ‘There was no “Silk Road”’. Debates and ‘rethinking’ on which countries should be included, include the maritime routes (or not), include Iran (or not) which have gone on for decades have resulted in confusion. So, going back to basics via Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World – Illustrated Edition (for young readers): the camel suggests it comes from Central Asia which is the bulk of the story, but ‘subsequent chapters [are] about Lenin, and then we learn about WWII; so why is Peter Frankopan telling children about the Second World War?’

Winter had a look at National Geographic’s ‘Maritime Silk Road Reborn’ which resulted in even more confusion. Compounded by further debates and statements about when and where it starts or ends published in series’ of science journals, political science journals, think tank publications. SO, at the same time academics are backing off the term, people from other disciplines are stabilising the term and claiming authoritative definitions. Winter asks: ‘What does this confusion tell us?’

Ferdinand von Richthofen coins the term in 1877 but it doesn’t really take off until the 1930s and only takes on global fame in the 1990s. Why? A (very) brief overview of how it all developed leading onto the current situation:

  1. 1890-1915: numbers of countries/explorers/scholars involved in rush for antiquities from NW China: Aurel Stein, Otani Kozui, Sven Hedin, Albert von Le Coq, Francis Younghusband, Nikolay Przhevalsky, Paul Pelliot, Dimitri Klementz, Nicholas Petrovsky, Alberl Grunwedel
  2. 1910s – 1920s – 1930s: National Geographic magazine articles by explorers who framed their travels in the footsteps of previous explorers + railroads superseded by car travel and then Sven Hedin’s book The Silk Road + translation of The Travels of Marco Polo by Yule-Cordier bring the concept into popular culture = romance + grand adventure
  3. Big jump to 1990s: a lot happens during the Soviet period in Central Asia of course, in China, and elsewhere but these decades could be called a ‘dormant’ period for Silk Road discourse
  4. 1990s end of Cold War: Karakorum highway + independence of Central Asia = opening up in conjunction with UNESCO Silk Road research initiatives of geopolitical engagement => massive expansion of the concept to include the Steppe, Oasis, and Sea routes (see this 2021 article by Susan Whitfield for Japan’s role) ==> 9/11 shifts attention back towards Central Asia + these republics building their economies in terms of trade and tourism
  5. Recently: the narrative has found a more equal weighting between the overland and sea routes

Xi Jinping (president of the PR China) has undertaken a series of trips driving connectivity across several sectors giving rise to an explosion in cultural sector projects. The geographies have shifted back to China e.g. the Mogao Caves and Xi’an as ‘gateways of the Silk Road’. Winter argues that this ‘says something about the ways in which the Chinese state is trying to promote particular types of citizenry to convince the Chinese public of the merits of the risks of the Belt & Road Initiative…as a foreign policy today’; often using Chinese historical figures. Winter asks what are the ‘degrees to which these will become part of the Western imaginary’.

Interregional narrative:

  1. expansion in material culture being folded into the narrative e.g. Tim Williams’ 2014 The Silk Roads: an ICOMOS Thematic Study. Roughly 500 sites now thought about and included by the countries in the region as transboundary nominations.
  2. Maritime Silk Road now coming to the fore – driven by nations but also intergovernmental agencies e.g. UNWTO, which prompts Winter to ask: What types of research/documentation are being understood/identified as authoritative study of the maritime routes?

Shift (again) away from Central Asia and a period of about 500 years to a ‘transregional, transoceanic, transcontinental history that brings us to the 21st century’ where we are seeing historical figures folded into the story of a route reborn = ‘a populist depiction of history in international affairs that carries weight’.

What we see now is a ‘convergence between what is happening in the 21st century in geopolitics and diplomacy and international affairs converging with the ways in which the Silk Road narrative is expanding and the money that goes into doing Silk Road research, the collaborations … the ways in which countries are responding … and the overlay of the BRI’ = investment in tourism infrastructure across the region in coming decades.

In ‘pulling those threads together’ we see that ‘it’s a depiction of premodern globalisation that has continued to expand over the course of the 20th century [via] a convoluted pathway’. Since the 1990s, ‘more and more research’ which has ‘unpacked that history of regional connectivity in a much more expansive way’ has combined with ‘popular cultural depictions, institutional practices, and materialities’. These, in conjunction with ‘having another history of globalisation to write’ about (a present-day as opposed to early 20th century explorers which looked at the past which the texts and artefact discoveries pointed toward) and a shifting geopolitical landscape have let the concept of the Silk Road take flight. But what has happened is that the Silk Road geocultural history has come to embody ‘values & ideals: cross cultural dialogue, peace and international cooperation, dialogue between civilisations, cosmopolitanism, East-West dialogue, peaceful inter-polity relations’. These remain problematic issues in need of continuous unpacking.

For more work by Tim Winter, see his articles on Academia.edu and ongoing research at Silk Road Futures

Image credit: reproduced with permission from Tim Winter

18 January 2021: Dr Dmitry Voyakin (Director of the International Institute for Central Asian Studies, Samarkand) Recent Archaeological Discoveries in Kazakhstan, including an investigation of Aral Sea Region

Dmitry Voyakin began by saying that talking about archaeological discoveries in Kazakhstan is very difficult because every expedition, even a single archaeologist on a small dig finds some useful information and we would need many hours to explore these. In respect of the time, Dmitry prepared a short introduction:

‘For all of us, especially for Kazakhstan, archaeology has a specific significance, and even more significant for countries and nations whose written history is barely available or completely unknown…the history of Kazakhstan in that information is only provided by archaeology…resources which are practically inexhaustible.’ Kazakhstan and the entire region can be seen as an open air museum. Over the years a holistic picture of the history of culture has been produced.

During the 4th – 3rd millennium BCE changes in climate were taking place which contributed to the establishment of production economy: cattle breeding and agriculture. Evidence from Botai Settlement points towards horse (and canine) domestication.

14th century BCE proto-urban (Early Bronze Age) sites with fortifications, utility systems, streets, water collection systems, temple complexes nearby. Additionally, what may be the ‘rudiments of semiotic system of writing’ are ‘important for understanding the level of cultural development of the society’. These were agricultural and animal domestication cultures with advanced irrigation and mining systems. Smelting and working of metals (copper and bronze) ‘reached a high level here’ and underpinned the economy as well as being exported to the Balkans and eastern China. These were the foundations of the Silk Road and statehood in the region.

Early Nomadic cultures which gave rise to the Saka, Sarmatians among several others. The establishment of these states coincide in time and complexity with those of ancient Iran, Greece, Han period China, Bactria and Khorezm.

important sites discussed by Voyakin

Berel, Altai Mountains: a site in permafrost which preserved human, horse and textile remains associated with Saka elite (Pazyryk Culture).

Evidence of the diverse nature of economic ties between nomadic and sedentary groups in terms of agricultural and livestock products, handicrafts as well as weaponry and horse equipment moving from the steppes to the urban centres and luxury goods such as textiles, incense and other goods going out into the steppes. There were numerous settlements on the border of oasis sites specialised in supplying these goods to nomads. The relationship between nomads and agricultural communities was based upon a ‘unified social structure’.

Semirechye and Zhetysu: the settling of the Sogdians and Turks and their influence on the development of the culture settlements. ‘More convincing evidence is needed as to why the so-called Turkic-Sogdian cultural synthesis became possible in the system of western Turkic khanates.’ The grasslands, rivers and mountain systems of this region provide an ideal location for cattle breeding as well as establishing urban centres.

Kayalyk: one of the largest medieval cities and a cosmopolitan centre with evidence of a Zoroastrian or Manichean temple, sites associated with Christianity, a Buddhist temple, Hanaka mausoleums, a mosque (situated exactly in the centre of the city which goes to the dominance of Islam in the region) and Hammam and temple. Unfortunately, many of the mausoleums are heavily destroyed and bear a resemblance to the Uzgen architecture in Kyrgyzstan.

This is one of the most important places along the Great Silk Road and has been included in the transnational nomination to UNESCO World Heritage.

Ilibalyk: a Christian cemetery has been excavated with named individuals from gravestones: ‘So far in the corpus of our stones, we have someone with a Biblical name: Petros and Barsabba; a Persian name Shirin (meaning “sweet”), a Turkic name Kush (meaning “strength”) and the name Tegin (meaning “prince”); Sodgian-influenced name Yoshmid (meaning “Sunday”).

Voyakin also brought to our attention the prevalence of the four-petalled floral motif seen at Ilibalyk (2019), Kailyk (2003), Huvara (2019) ‘extremely interesting because Christian history is still “terra incognita” in Kazakhstan.’ As interesting is some new DNA research which revealed evidence of the high-probability of a European female at Ilibalyk.

Talgar: Iron age (?) cauldrons which are most likely local productions, this cast iron was not only used for weaponry but for ordinary object such as scissors. Interestingly, the cauldrons excavated in Talgar were C14 dated with results ranging from 45,000 BP to 25,930 BP – how can this be? These cauldrons were produced by using coal, not wood, which gave such an early date.

Akyrtas: associated with the first Arab conquests and shows evidence of a palace or fortress.


Shymkent: a medieval site which is also an archaeological park

Kultobe with bricks with Aramaic inscriptions

Dzhankent and Huvara where a gem intaglio was uncovered with an inscription in middle Persian

Otrar with its advanced irrigation system and high walls

Sauran with its minarets (no longer standing but the foundations have been excavated)

Aral Asar and Kerderi 2: more can be read at Silk Road Adventures and Global Domain News

Oghuz and more can be read on the Oghuz Turks and the domestication of cats

EVEN more reading can be had at:

UNESCO Silk Roads

Virtual Maps of archaeology in Kazakhstan

UNESCO International Institute for Central Asian Studies publications

25 January 2021: Professor Simon Kaner (Executive Director, Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, and Director, Centre for Japanese Studies, University of East Anglia) on curating the exhibition Nara to Norwich: Art and Belief at the Ends of the Silk Roads

Simon Kaner and principal partners (see below) are curating an exhibition titled Nara to Norwich: Art and Belief at the Ends of the Silk Roads at the Sainsbury Institute, which would have launched this year. Given the current circumstances, the exhibition is now planned to open in 2024. A wide ranging geographic exploration which looks to redefine the extent of the Silk Roads, specifically: Nara (particularly the Shosoin imperial treasury) as the eastern terminus of the globalised Silk Roads and ‘struck by recent discoveries of silk…around the North Sea’ the team began to talk about parallel interactions and shifts in religious practices as a result of the emergence of Buddhism in East Asia and Christianity in the communities of the North Sea.

The foundations were laid with Simon Kaner’s contribution to the World Heritage nomination for Okinoshima Island and that process which requires situating a place within a global context through comparative analysis in order to establish a site’s Outstanding Universal Value.

Okinoshima Island ‘raises interesting issues’ particularly around maritime and island heritage and seascapes: ‘sacred seascapes and how that works in conjunction with landscapes’; ‘Japan and its connectivity’; ‘indigenous religious beliefs (Shinto) and its connections to Buddhism’. Ritual activities on the island coincide with the periods when Shinto coalesces as a set of religious beliefs and as Buddhism is introduced. The island is situated within the larger context of a ‘broad range of trading and exchange of diplomatic gifts [which] all formed part of the envoy trips going back and forth between the Japanese and Chinese courts.’

  1. Since the 4th century, ritual activities have been held on the island; it is associated with the Munakata clan and the Shimbaru-Nuyama Mounded Tomb Group and related shrine;
  2. Cluster of rocks and related ritual deposits: shifts over time of the placing of ritual objects: ‘from on top of the rocks to the shade of rocks to rituals partly in the shade to rituals out in the open air’ and laterally to the construction of shrine buildings;
  3. ‘Shosoin of the Sea’ = ‘80,000 objects [from some 23 sites] have been recovered during excavations in the 1950s and 1970s’ and include: Korean Silla kingdom gold ring, bronze mirrors (evidence of relationships between Japan, Korea, China), gilt dragon headed banner finials (similar to ones seen at the Korean Gyeongju palace site), model of a silk weaving loom in gilt bronze, tri-glazed (sancai) pottery ‘inspired by Chinese models but made in Japan’.

What all this means is that between the 5th and 9th centuries, envoys from the Japanese court are ‘stopping by’ Okinoshima and ‘paying homage to the three Munakata deities. These three female deities controlled the straights and they needed to be duly honoured to make sure you had a safe journey to Korea and China and back.’

In the context of comparative analysis, Kaner was invited to look at ‘sacred islands, mountains, groves, pilgrimage centres, natural places, burial grounds, trade routes’. In thinking about trade routes he began looking (again) at Viking trade networks and Saxon and Viking burial mounds and the shifts in ritual practices from worshipping outdoors to indoors: narratives which can be woven together which offset ‘Okinoshima in its East Asian context in terms of history of religion, politics, and interactions’. This is where recent work on the archaeology of religion comes in and ‘thinking about the archaeology of a religious experience’ and ‘understanding the change from worship in natural places to worshipping at monuments’ and a kind of comparison between shifts in practice related to Buddhism at one end and those related to Christianity at the other. ‘Isolation and taboo’ are related concepts which are picked up in these places but also, all along the Silk Routes. All this goes to the ‘Outstanding Universal Value of secret places and hidden treasures.’ This naturally gave rise to questions of:

‘How can non-visitors appreciate the value of Okinoshima’ given the taboo against people visiting the island – it is a ‘hidden, secret place’

How can we bring sites which are not normally accessible to people and tell them stories?

This has become even more significant over the past year when people were unable to travel – ‘are there ways in which these sites can be brought to life without actually going there – beyond books or the normal media. How might we engage intellectually?’ So this extends far beyond Okinoshima and informs future agendas around sustainable tourism and the notion ‘do you need to go visit these sites?’ and the authenticity of the experience.

As work at Okinoshima kicked-started the journey of looking at sacred sites in comparison the team began to explore what was happening at either end of these globalised trade routes. Martin Carver’s 2003 book The Cross goes North. Processes of Christian Conversion in Northern Europe and Dorothy Wong’s 2018 book Buddhist Pilgrim-Monks as Agents of Cultural and Artistic Transmission: The International Buddhist Art Style in East Asia, ca. 645-770 have served as guides to the agency of religious persons. They are aware that ‘comparative studies along the Silk Road are as old as notions of the Silk Road itself and there are many pitfalls, problems, but felt that perhaps they had more access to these sites and there are more projects happening which seem to merit opening up these questions again to see if there is more to be said.’

At the same time, much work has been done on sacred heritage, e.g. Sacred Heritage in Japan, edited by Aike Rots and Mark Teeuwen. Roberta Gilchrist’s 2019 [open access!!] book Sacred Heritage: Monastic Archaeology, Identities, Beliefs looks at sites in Glastonbury and Scotland to critically examine how ‘we can get a handle on how agency works’. A few questions being asked by Gilchrist:

  1. ‘How is sacred heritage used to construct narratives connected with nationalist and religious identities?
  2. What is the role of archaeology in authenticating or challenging sacred myths and religious narratives? Archaeology as authenticating the spiritual authority of sacred sites.
  3. Can sacred landscapes/seascapes be understood as contested sites with hold multiple meanings for different contemporary social groups?
  4. Authenticity as culturally relative, varies depending on social and cultural context
  5. How to establish the “spiritual credentials” of a place, “spiritual autheniticy”
  6. Authentic archaeology (archaeological evidence authenticated by experts)
  7. Authenticity as a deliberate strategy for negotiating the grey areas between fact and belief, and maintaining a neutral middle between established religions and alternative spiritualities’.

Exploring the answers to these questions is part of addressing how sacred sites are perceived by different individuals, some of whom may not share the same religious beliefs, or how they are experienced at all if you cannot visit the site. Creative use of digital technologies such as that being done by Sarah Kenderdine and her work at the Mogao Grottoes (Dunhuang).

The exhibition is currently organised around 4 main themes:
  1. ‘The materialisation of belief and the constitution of elite identities (landscapes of conversion, burial mounds and monuments)
  2. Technologies of travel, transport, trade and communication
  3. Material narratives of conversion: memory, collection and belief
  4. Comparative and creative historiography’

Within this broad framework initiatives include:

  1. Lordship and Landscape in East Anglia exploring the royal centre at Rendlesham
  2. Sutton Hoo burial ground
  3. The Prittlewell Prince (580 CE) burial containing objects from distant lands
  4. Helgo Buddha, Sweden (ca 6th century), found in a medieval cache in the 1950s
  5. Neil Price on the Viking Phenomenon (reach of these cultures eastward)
  6. Silk in Viking culture as discussed by Marianne Vedeler in her book Silk for the Vikings
  7. Roman coins in Japan and India

Kaner concluded with the parallel phenomenon of the end of burial mounds which occurs at roughly the same time in Japan and the North Sea region, in association with the appearance of Buddhism and Christianity respectively. In Japan, the Mozu-Furuichi Kofun Group: Mounded Tombs of Ancient Japan, which would have originally been covered in stone but which are now covered by trees, serve as nature preserves. Many of these are also a kind of ‘hidden heritage because 900 of the some 200,000 tombs which were built between the 4th and 7th centuries are now in the guardianship of the Imperial Household Agency and they are regarded as the final resting places of the imperial ancestors’ – no archaeological work can be undertaken within these sites. Gina Barnes has discussed ‘peer-polity interaction as a major social dynamic whereby there is a shared set of elite material culture which often shows up in burial mounds and we have this happening around a rather weakened central Chinese authority between the end of the Han and beginning of the Tang when state societies are emerging in both Korea and Japan.’ Adoption of Buddhism, particularly as it comes from the Korean Kingdom of Baekje by the Japanese in the Asuka region. At the same time as the first Buddhist temples are being built, elites are still being buried in mounds, albeit relatively small, but painted with e.g. Chinese style directional deities which indicate that these individuals were ‘plugged into’ continental belief systems.

Editor’s note: We look forward to seeing how the quest for answers to these global questions of thinking critically about the closed box of sacred spaces and opening these sites and rituals up through material culture will play out in Norwich and elsewhere in coming years. We look forward to casting our minds back to the 7th century in Nara and around the North Sea where shifts in religious beliefs were manifested in the architecture and practice of burying the dead through the objects which were left behind.

Many individuals and institutions are ongoing partners in this endeavour:

Sam Nixon (BM), Chris Scull (UCL IoA), Neil Price, Susan Whitfield and blog Silk Road Digressions, Rhee JuHyun (Seoul National University), Shinya Shoda (Nara National Institute), Andy Hutcheson (Sainsbury Institute), Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Asuka Historical Museum, National Museum of Korea, Gyeongju National Museum, Gongju National Museum, Buyeo National Museum, Baekje Research Institute, Chungnam University, Bulguksa Temple Museum, Munakata Grand Shrine, Nara Prefectural Kashihara Archaeological Institute and Museum, Ikaruga Town Archaeology Centre and Museum, Swedish History Museum, Uppsala University Museum, Southend Museum, Museum of London Archaeology

1 February 2021: Helen Persson Swain on Curating the V&A Stein Collection

As we have heard in previous seminars, during the first quarter of the 20th century, several foreigners set out to explore Central Asia and carried away with them textiles, wall murals, manuscripts which are scattered across several institutions the world over. Sir Marc Aurel Stein was a prominent figure among this group of people. Few places received such ‘intense attention and rivalry’ as the Taklamakan Desert in China. Here we can see the ‘intimate connection between archaeology and imperial pride, but also nationalism’. The ‘arid environment…provides an excellent condition for the preservation of organic materials’ so we have for example, dyed silks and wools preserved in vibrant colours even after 1200 years.

In 2003, the V&A embarked on a collaboration with the International Dunhuang Project at the British Library, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to ‘organise, conserve, catalogue and photograph the Stein collection in the care of the V&A’.

Stein had a long-time interest in the early interactions between East and West and the spread of culture and ideas, in particular, he wanted to ‘know how Buddhism, born in the Indian Himalayas had reached China’. He was ‘convinced the answers lay beneath the sands of the great Taklamakan Desert’. Stein embarked on 3 expeditions to Chinese Turkestan (as it was then known) in 1900, 1906, and 1913. Stein researchers rely on 3 publications (now available at archive.org where you can simply search for Aurel Stein): Ancient Khotan, Serindia, and Innermost Asia. While the V&A did not financially support the expeditions, they did ‘recognise the importance of his finds’ mainly due to their interest in the spread of techniques and so saw the research potential. The items in the V&A Stein collection are the results of the 2nd and 3rd expeditions and date from about 200 BCE to 1200 CE and have been on loan from the Government of India since 1923, 1932, 1933.

Stein is a controversial figure on several levels. He does not have a positive reputation in China and ‘has been called “thief, cunning imperialist bully” and tricking the corrupt local officials’ despite having had official permission from authorities in Beijing at the time. The officials in western China knew who he was and what he was doing there and for whom. By 1930, official attitudes in China had shifted and permission for his fourth expedition was rejected. There was a heightened recognition of the importance of these historic places and material objects. Justin Jacobs’ 2020 book Compensations of Plunder looks the history of the issues in detail.

However uncomfortable it makes us, we must address ‘how and why this collection is in Europe and India and what role Stein played in the so-called Great Game’. Furthermore, ‘We cannot ignore the fact that Stein was an elitist and European imperial idealist…like most of his fellow Western archaeologists and explorers at the time believed in racial classification and he even collected cranial measurements…. His excavations were to get proof of Western civilisation in the East.’ Persson Swain emphasised ‘Our histories are integrated and not parallel and we do need to work together on collections like Stein’s and I for one am really worried about the return of borders and the rise of nationalism and what that means for global collaborations, and the ability to tap into different knowledge systems.’

Stein did collect objects which did not necessarily support his theories, he was meticulous in creating plans of the sites, layers in which the artefacts were excavated and noting every find. ‘Every find was labelled individually with a unique string of individual characters which defined its exact location in each site.’

Persson Swain then described an experience we all would like to have – the opening, in many cases for the first time since they arrived at the V&A, of small cotton bags containing the finds – often with the sand which had been scooped up at the time! At least some of the labels had been written by Stein and are themselves archival evidence. From a conservation point of view, a decision had to be made about whether to even open the bags but it was decided that the contents needed to be documented. She then notes that the majority of the contents were not silk and mainly from sites other than the Mogao Grottoes (which Stein visited in 1907 and 1914). ‘This reflects the research history and general interest not only in the V&A Stein collection which often favours prestigious textiles and rich elite burials.’ It is important to think about how a balanced picture of ancient cultures can be formed if only elite objects are studied so these small items are significant for learning about more ordinary uses of these materials.

Many technological developments occurred during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and items in the collection provide information on socio-economic changes and trade in the middle of the first millennium CE:

  1. Embroidery techniques: from chain & split stitch to satin stich: ‘growing popularity of a non-functional and less durable stitch as the satin stitch is, is also indicative of the desire for luxury products by a growing number of prosperous people’.
  2. Increased use of gold embellishments in embroidery during the 7th-8th centuries
  3. Clamp process dyeing also became more popular
  4. An example of far-reaching trade is shown by a textile used as a border for a sutra wrapper from the Mogao Grottoes, now in the British Museum and a similar piece from the V&A collection found in Verdun Cathedral (museum number 763-1893) . This piece of woven silk dates from 800-1000 and was possibly made in Iran or Central Asia.

‘Chinese silk patterns were traditionally woven in the warp while Western silks were executed in the weft which enables more freer patterning and was in turn adopted by the Chinese during the Tang.’ Patterns also spread, for example the well-known pearl roundel as well as silk tapestry ‘which suddenly appears in very small pieces (e.g. a belt) probably influenced by wool tapestry executed in Central Asia at the time’. Types of weaves or types of silk used in the weave also add to our understanding of where they made and production techniques. However, it is known that highly-skilled craftsmen were ‘commonly taken as prisoners or slaves and so they could in theory be woven by Chinese silk weavers in Bukhara or teaching them how to weave or a Sogdian or Central Asian weaver might have been taken to the mainland.’

The ‘tiny nature’ of the silks in the collection as well as their being hoarded up in the Library Cave attests to their ‘high value and ironically, their rarity’. Persson Swain states that by studying the collection they realise there probably wasn’t an abundance of silk – patching, recycling, and knotting were common and uses a canopy from Dunhuang (STEIN.491:2) as example.

In addition to silk, items in hemp and wool (sheep, goat, yak, camel) are in evidence and are now perhaps better documented. After years of research and viewing the collections in various Chinese institutions, supported by recent excavations, Persson Swain has been struck by finds which do not normally ‘end up in exhibitions or colourful publications but this seems to reveal that hemp and wool were the main materials for the wardrobe and furnishings of the Indigenous people living around the Taklamakan…. There was a whole population for which the silk trade was an addition to an already existing traditional lifestyle.’ The V&A has examples of these in remains of a skirt, a hat, shoes, remains of a coat as well as various remnants of balls or threads of wool.

Persson Swain concluded with a very intriguing item: bird’s talons tied into a ‘bundle of textile fragments’ (STEIN.170). She suggests the talons may belong to a northern goshawk ‘which is not a native raptor to this area and may reflect both a trade in captive hawks but also cultural beliefs relating to the use and preservation of animal parts – amulets or ornaments. These 2nd-3rd century talons (based on the dating of the site) may be one of the earliest evidences of captive hawks along the Silk Roads and could be significant in terms of dating the westward spread of falconry.’

She is entirely correct in saying that this ‘wonderful collection of textiles are evidence of the complexities of life along the Silk Roads and compliment the stories told with other evidence.’ We wholeheartedly agree and are grateful that the collections exist and that they have been studied with such rigour and made available for further study.

In addition to the various links provided throughout the article, you can see more at:

Artstore – The Mellon International Dunhuang Archive and read Helen’s blogs for the V&A (which focus on shoes !!)

8 February 2021: Dr Marco Nebbia, with Dr Gai Jorayev on progress made by the Central Asian Archaeological Landscapes (CAAL) project in remote sensing and the study of landscape change

Editor’s note: First, since you are currently on the CAAL project website, we hope you will return as the project progresses, the database goes live, and further project outputs are published here. You can see a list of the institutions participating including 2020 reports from 2 institutions digitising their archives, as well as read 53 individual profiles of people actively working on the project. Follow the project @uclcaal on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or subscribe to the newsletter for monthly updates or just get in touch!

Gai Jorayev introducing the CAAL project

Gai Jorayev introduced the CAAL project where he first discussed the ‘habitation, exchange, and trade of the Silk Road’ and the role of these processes across the geographic region of Central Asia where the remains of tangible and intangible exchanges over vast time periods have left an ‘unparalleled complexity of archaeological sites’. As we have heard in other seminars, interest and research in this legacy has been done over the past 150 years. Much of this data comes from the Soviet era and is held in institutions – mostly in the post-Soviet countries but also around the world. The majority of these archives are in Russian or local languages and accessing this data ‘in order to research the real tangible heritage of Central Asia’ is not an easy task.

‘The main goal of the project is digitising existing documentation of archaeological heritage across Central Asia and we do that not as a small UCL team…but we have extensive partnerships across Central Asia.’ These archives hold reports, photographs, drawings, and monument passports which are specific heritage management records developed during the Soviet period and continued after. ‘Every monument in the system has one of these documents.’ In addition to these forms, identification cards also exist not only for well-known monuments ‘but also for smaller, more ephemeral monuments.’ These are now being digitised in ‘high-quality, high-resolution TIFF files with a lot of metadata’ to which we can add aerial photography and other high-resolution datasets, including ground-level photogrammetric recording with the help of Central Asian colleagues.’

Marco Nebbia then presented the inner workings of how the remote sensing team is working and a case study as a result of this work (see below).

To close the session, Jorayev reiterated the purpose of the project in making these datasets available: current plans in place with the UCL Research Data Storage and the UCL Research Data Repository. These will make static data available while Arches will allow for dynamic use. The project is also ‘in conversation with several major institutions who have been collecting data from the late-1980s to provide links to their data with the idea of creating a single portal where researchers can have an entrance into Central Asian archaeological-related datasets.’ An additional aim is to be able to ground-truth what is turned up through remote sensing. At the moment as you know, travel is restricted, and these plans are on hold but we are looking forward to getting out in the field again.

‘We would like to hand over the tools (through the GIS system) to local institutions, especially the local heritage management institutions so they will [be able] to address their own management challenges using the datasets which were created through the CAAL project.’

The project is ‘raising awareness of the landscapes, challenges, threats the archaeology of the region is facing and hopefully creating some platforms for other areas, such as economy, tourism, infrastructure development that will use the dataset in order to plan activities. Some of this is already happening and we hope to show these case studies in the future.’

Jorayev then thanked other Arcadia-funded projects for collaborating as well as everyone who contributes to the project – in Central Asia and at UCL.

Marco Nebbia on remote sensing

Marco Nebbia began by stressing that his presentation reflected the work of many people organised in different institutions between the UK and Central Asia. These large datasets, like other Arcadia-funded projects, are being handled through Arches open-source platform which allows for storing large amounts of individual records in different languages – we now include English, Russian, Chinese but potentially this can be expanded to other local languages. ‘There are a few limitations, especially to do with its nature of being web-based and the difficulty of adopting this in countries with limited connectivity and it is slightly unstable so multi-editing cannot be handled and it has strong limitations on the analytical capability…. Therefore, we are developing QGIS-based database and using the GeoPackage format which allows for handling different data models, such as raster and various geometries of vector datasets. We are keeping similar resource models used in Arches.’

Currently, archival materials are being imported into the database resulting in 13,325 monuments records, 3,584 archival records from Central Asian partners being combined with 28,082 remote sensing records mapped by the UCL team.

‘In our attempt to replicate the multidimensionality of Arches we are working with different tables and layers which can be of different geometries. For example, we have the archive table with the metadata from digitised documents and monuments records containing information from the passports, actor resource model which lists the institutions working in CAAL and then the remote sensing. To link them all we have a resource relation model which allows us to link all these resources together and feed them into Arches and every archival record will be linked to relevant resources. Crucially, Mahmoud Abdelrazek developed a customised Python script which will allow for multilingual search within QGIS (which is not a native feature of the software).’

The strength of this system is based on the CAAL ID system which organises all the records with unique identifiers within the resource model: heritage, actor, activity, historical event, information, archive, remote sensing polygons, remote sensing lines, remote sensing group, city feature, city. In order to simplify the vast amount of data, smaller units, referred to as regional archaeological mapping teams working on subsets of data to test the linkages and depth of data. This is also a chance for closer collaboration between UCL team members and individual Central Asian partners. It will also allow for the building of regional narratives, that will serve as a compendium to the data collected. The narratives will give a general introduction to each region, and then will describe the landscape, the archaeology and the major threats that sites are exposed to; all supported with visual examples.

The purpose of all this is to make the data useable and sustainable – ‘the effort put into data collection = the effort put into data management and use’. Nebbia stressed that the CAAL project is not only to collect data, but to utilise it.

To these ends, the remote sensing teams have been developing models including: DEM, landcover (crops, urban areas, rivers networks), combined with CORONA imagery and Soviet maps which allow us to identify and track changes over the past 50 years. On top of these are the archaeology (monuments, archives, remote sensing, actors) from which we can test the data sets. In terms of data collection and management, the UCL remote sensing team is scanning the whole area but individuals have been assigned grids so that we can see progress and avoid overlap. We have paid special attention to including an expanded interpretation level as inspired/required/developed by the individuals doing the work who found they needed more space to talk about what they were mapping. Lines and polygons are used as basic layers within the table as well as a polygon group, all linked in a relational table. This is useful in an archaeological landscape which includes individual features such as water courses or burial mounds which exist as single units and groups within a larger landscape. Currently, the teams are using Google Earth, Bing Aerial, and ESRI all streamed into the GIS platform and are freely available. One of the major features of this table is the development of condition assessment and risk assessment for example, to assess the condition, a user can identify the date of the image and then make notes as to the condition of the feature as it can be observed. For risk assessment a series of identifiable threats have been created along with a scale and then the user can include any necessary notations. Ona Vileikis has developed extensive guidelines for the UCL team (these will be available to anyone in future who will be adding to the database). These have been used by Luca Rapisarda in a case study in the Lebap region of Turkmenistan which utilised statistical modelling in conjunction with risk assessment observable through remote sensing.

As mentioned, historical imagery is being used in to observe how the landscape has changed over the past several decades and also allows us to see sites which are no longer visible. An example of this work has been done and written up by Federica Cilio who looked at some specific sites in Khatlon, Tajikistan. Ultimately, all these GIS layers will be combined with the archival data in close collaboration with Central Asian partners to create the complete database.

Nebbia then discussed a spatial risk assessment case study in Khatlon, Tajikistan where a team at UCL have made use of the remote sensing dataset, computational methods and regional risk assessment with a case-control approach in a replicable and customizable model which can be used not only for data in Central Asia but anywhere. This study has been submitted for peer review and is currently in press with the Journal of Cultural Heritage. We will certainly let you know when this is available to read.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: