Tim Winter

Silk Road seminar: summaries and links

Click on the lectures below to see a summary with relevant links to further reading

This page provides summaries (including links for further reading) of the Silk Road seminars and is updated as often as possible. We thank the participants for their research, teamwork and participation and for presenting us with expanded horizons and new vistas to explore.

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Geographic magazine articles by explorers who framed their travels in the footsteps of previous explorers + railroads superseded by car travel and then Sven Hedin’s book The Silk Road + translation of The Travels of Marco Polo by Yule-Cordier bring the concept into popular culture =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 just been published and is available Open Access under the title ‘Spatial risk assessment and the protection of cultural heritage in southern Tajikistan‘ , authors Marco Nebbia, Federica Cilio, Bobomullo Bobomulloev with the Journal of Cultural Heritage.

22 February 2021: Dr Veronica Walker Vadillo (University of Helsinki) Ports and Harbours of Southeast Asia: Human-environment Entanglements in Early Modern Maritime Trade Networks

Dr Walker Vadillo brought ships and their environment to life by talking about Ocean Imperatives: conceptualizing shipping logistics for the study of maritime networks in Early Modern Southeast Asia.

How can we put ships (shipwrecks) at the centre of the maritime networks? What is the maritime gaze? The maritime cultural landscape, human ecodynamics, historical ecology. This encourages long-term interdisciplinary studies combining archaeology, history, iconography, ethnography, anthropology, traditional ecological knowledge, and environmental studies. We should begin with the basic question: What do boats want? They want: ‘reliable currents, friendly shorts, expert hand at handling the riggings, careful observation of navigation cues, calm waters to rest, skilful hands. What they need is infrastructure’ – which is how we proceed. Ships are the mobile parts of a network.

Infrastructures as built environments in archaeology:

  • ‘Landscape-scale connectivities consisting of elements more extensive than one house-hold can construct, maintain, and use by itself’ (Smith 2016, 165)
  • ‘Infastructures imply a supra-household level of labor organization, not just for construction but also for its use and maintenance’ (Wilkinson 2019, 1220)
  • ‘They can exist without states, but often becomes more important as societies become more statelike.’ (Wilkinson 2019, 1221)

Wilkinson defines a tentative taxonomy ‘that is defined by material remains and individual function more than by their belonging to a network’:

  • Static infrastructure: stabilize the environment
    • Kinetic infrastructure – maintain a stable environment beset by environmental flux (such as jetties and breakwaters)
  • Circulatory infrastructure: facilitates movement
  • Bounding infrastructure: regulates movement

But this needs to be revised for a discussion of the functioning of maritime networks so we look at Brian Larkin’s (2013) ethnographic work:

  • ‘Infrastructures are built networks that facilitate the flow of goods, people, or ideas and allow for their exchange over space.’ (Larkin 2013, 328)
  • ‘They are things and also the relation between things.’ (Larkin 2013, 329)
  • ‘What distinguishes infrastructure from technologies is that they are objects that create the grounds on which other objects operate, and when they do so, they operate as a system.’ (Larkin 2013, 329)

‘Larkin’s approach allows us to grasp the immateriality of maritime networks’ and incorporate the full complexity of agency, networks, material and immaterial nodes.

If we combine the two approaches, we can find a way to better understand the underpinnings of maritime networks. First, Walker Vadillo proposes to use the environment as a circulatory infrastructure. While it is not man-made, the water-environment is a dynamic conduit used by man and we can look at the ‘seamless interaction that exists between the different bodies of water in the landscape’ and recognise the challenges in network formation.  

  • Sea waters: oceanic and coastal landscapes; high salinity; regional and local wind patterns; tides; waves; storms
    • Tidal bore impact on shipping; destruction of structures on river banks and ships: also places rich in wildlife
      • Sri Aman (Malaysia)
      • Kampar Bono (Indonesia)
      • Sittaung River (Myanmar)
      • Sadong River (Malaysia)
      • Hoogly River (India)
  • Continental waters: rivers, lakes; low salinity; downstream currents; changes in flow discharge (seasonal); shifting sandbars; doorstep
  • Wind patterns: rhythm of the monsoons and their impact on maritime networks (see Manguin 2016)
  • Warped seas (see Orbis and Safadi & Sturt 2019) and distance travel time in the past; start to think about space in terms of the time it took to travel from A to B and compare that to travel time on land; by warping the map we can get a better sense of what it was to travel in the past; what looks close on a flat map may in navigational terms be much further away

Nautical technology as infrastructure. Actions on board are conditioned, boats are the means by which man colonised the waters so they are man-made solutions to the natural world. We should think about boats and ships as ‘enablers of waterborne movement’ and study them based on their function and capabilities. ‘Different types of nautical technologies enable different types of movements and we recognise that these networks are made up of many different types of shipping lanes and therefore different types of boats and interactions.’ For example, a large ship may have accessed only a few ports while smaller ships with smaller quantities of goods had greater access to sites as well as transporting passengers with fewer possessions. Walker Vadillo referred to Himanshu Prabat Ray’s comments on ‘pearling as a platform for generation of knowledge needed for maritime endeavours, not only in terms of nautical technology but also in terms of finding solutions to the problems of land-water interface spaces’.

‘What is important to notice is that all these ships have a set of requirements and may even contribute to the morphology of specific sections of the maritime network. For example, networks in Southeast Asia are comprised of multiple layers of networks that intersect in different points with different mythologies but supporting each other and enabling movement of people and goods through the landscape.’ It is important to take into consideration that goods are being carried around by different agents, using a combination of networks without the need for the coastal town dwellers to be in direct contact with the foreigners who first brought the goods.’

Kinetic and Static Infrastructure: stability in space = ports, jetties, etc. which, in Southeast Asia, is perishable and these environments likely required people to relocate their settlements as necessary.

As discussed, maritime networks are made up of many intersecting networks. How do ports fit in? They can be discussed in a variety of ways depending on the locale and level of activity.

Signalling infrastructure: used as visual cues for landing places; landmarks for places; regulate the (in)visibility of a landing/port site; for further reading, see Himanshu Prabha Ray’s 2021 book.

It is important to acknowledge the importance of knowledge production as infrastructure:

  • Navigation: mathematics, astronomy
  • Sailing and piloting
  • Stevedoring practices (hydrodynamics)
  • Technology transfer

Network morphologies: motivations

  • merchants seek to optimise the network; diplomatic endeavours; fewer opportunities to interact outside destination ports
  • monks and nuns’ agency: passenger-focused; exploratory, tentative travels; interest in staying; cargo for exchange; micro-regional connections visible in ritual practices and traditions

Continental waters of the Mekong: tied to fishermen’s agency: follows fish migrations; entire villages migrate for months; need to fish and process the fish locally (high yield in a short time); domestic economies (exchange fish for rice and vice versa or for other goods; building goods for salt; moves goods from hinterland to main river networks).

This presentation has been part of the Ports and Harbours of Southeast Asia project, a 3-year research project funded by the University of Helsinki. It is a steppingstone to gather preliminary data, test the theoretical framework for an ERC SiG application and focuses on the Early Modern Period as the end-result of long process of network development. The project includes team members: Wesa Perttola and Phacha Phanomvan.

The team is also currently organising the Ocean Imperatives Workshop in collaboration with the National Museum of the Philippines  with the aim of promoting the use of maritime perspectives, so if you are interested in taking part, please get in touch at veronica.walker@helsinki.fi.

26 February 2021: Professor Himanshu Prabha Ray (Center for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University & Senior Research Fellow at Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies) on Maritime Networks in the Indian Ocean and the Spread of Writing

In this discussion, Professor Ray looked at coastal shrines, which ‘provide anchorage to maritime networks’. Her 2021 book Coastal Shrines and Transnational Maritime Networks across India and Southeast Asia is dedicated to the archaeology of these places given their ‘wider connotation and relevance for the Indian Ocean world’. She traces inscribed pottery in the Brahmi script (used for writing Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Tamil, Sinhala) because ‘writing facilitated the storing of information and cumulative knowledge’ and is therefore relevant to the cultural expression of the communities who travelled these networks.

Traditionally, the inscriptions of Ashok (268-232 BCE) have been projected as specimens of early writing. However, by ‘Looking at the evidence of writing from pot sherds we can reassess the date when writing became widely used – a century prior to the edicts of King Ashok. Why are these edicts important and why is it important to look at them with new information? By the time these proclamations were created there were already in existence, several different linguistic cultural identities associated with writing.’

The earliest writings of Ashok can be found on rock inscriptions in the peninsula part of India (corresponding roughly to the present-day area of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh) with the pillar edicts and post-Ashokan monastic centres coming later. Ray highlights the overlap between the distribution of prehistoric Neolithic and iron-age megalithic sites in north Karnataka and the earliest Ashokan edicts and points out a gap in our knowledge, which has not taken the location of the inscriptions into account. Examples of pottery depicting earlier writing include a piece of terracotta ‘showing child writing alphabets on wooden tablets’ from the Buddhist site of Sugh, Punjab (now in the National Museum, Delhi) which dates to the 2nd-1st centuries BCE. Evidence also exists on conch/chank excavated at site 29 (temple) at Nagarjunakonda prior to the site being flooded by the damming of the River Krishna.

What was happening in the Indian Ocean at this time? On the Red Sea coast is the site of Berenike which dates to the 3rd century BCE – 550 CE (see the research conducted by the Berenike project and University of Warsaw and a recent publication by Martin Hense). In addition to evidence of Greek (the lingua franca of the area) inscribed pot-sherds reflecting 11 different languages have been excavated indicating ‘enormous diversity’ in the kinds of writing across the Indian Ocean. Among the sherds, the base of a Levantine-made pot had an inscription in Tamil-Brahmi reading kanan/catan. Other evidence comes from two ostraka inscribed in Prakrit and Tamil and amphora with Tamil inscription.

Sumhuram, modern Khor Rori (Oman) is a large settlement dating from the 3rd century BCE to 5th century CE. Here, pottery inscribed with names (probably of male sailors) in Prakrit-Brahmi and Tamil-Brahmi have been excavated.

Another significant place is Socotra, a ‘small archipelago of four islands about 250 km east of the Horn of Africa.’ Evidence of incense burning in Hoq Cave and suggestions that it was a ‘sanctuary’ as a Palmyran inscription indicates it as a sacred space. The cave also contained 200 graffiti inscriptions and offerings dated to the late 2nd–4th centuries CE. Of these, ‘192 are in Brahmi script, 1 in Kharoshthi, 1 in Bactrian, 3 in Greek, 1 in Palmyrene Aramaic, and 20 odd in Axumite or ancient Ethiopian.’ Ingo Strauch, points out that these are not random and represent a deliberate choice of location. Within the cave, sites 14-17 are identified as the inner sanctum. Site 14 is a cluster of 27 Brahmi inscriptions in Sanskrit and Prakrit; intriguingly, one of these is a graffito by a yavana/foreigner. At site 6, drawings of ships have been recorded along with 14 Brahmi inscriptions with petal decoration, trisula/trident, and South Arabian inscriptions, and incense burners.

‘So, how do we read these? What is the model we have used to understand this wide distribution of inscribed pottery and inscriptions in caves, coastal sites and so on? … Secondary writings continue to emphasise Indo-Roman trade as the initiator of travel and all this data we now find.’ This stems from Mortimer Wheeler’s studies in the late 1940s under the Archaeological Survey of India at Arikamedu (in Tamil Nadil) who identified Rouletted Ware as Indo-Roman pottery. Later, Peter Magee (see 2010 article) and Vimala Begley, as well as Heidrun Schenk (see 2006 article) at Tissamaharama, Sri Lanka all contributed to new evidence. Now, rouletted pottery is no longer dated to the 1st-2nd centuries CE but more accurately to the 4th–1st centuries BCE. Unfortunately, emphasis remains on the Roman world which shifts our focus away from the Indian Ocean.

What is Rouletted Ware? It is a ‘fine ware grey to black in colour with decorations at the base’ with an ‘enormous variety in fabric and decoration’. The shapes include ‘flat-based shallow dishes about 6cm deep and up to 32cm in diameter with an incurved bevelled rim’. Ray asks: if these are associated with trade, what are the uses of this kind of ware? The distribution of Rouletted Ware extends from Berenike on the Red Sea to Tra Kieu in Vietnam, across the Malay peninsula (Java and Bali) and raises the question: what is the context of these finds and how did it travel?

In India: the distribution pattern extends from the Bengal Delta down the east coast (including Arikamedu) and into Sri Lanka. In fact, the highest concentration of sites yielding Rouletted Ware is in Andhra, along the river Krishna and the Ware is often found at stupa sites. The site at Bhattiprolu has not yielded Rouletted Ware but is important for the extent of early writing. Stupa mounds were excavated here in the 19th century leading to the recovery of three inscribed stone relic caskets containing crystal caskets (relics of the Buddha and jewels) dating to the 3rd -1st century BCE. The inscriptions on the stone reliquaries record the names of officials involved in the enshrinement of these relics. These inscriptions indicate a complex process for the enshrinement of relics and importantly, collaboration between market towns (nigama), political elite, trading associations (goshti) is evident along with the presence of monks.

Rouletted Ware from Sembiran and Pacung has been found in late 2nd century – 1st cent BCE levels at these sites which have yielded 600 sherds of Rouletted Ware and 600 coarse Indian Wares. The finds of metal ornaments indicate a complex pattern of interactions. There is a need for further research into these connections across the Indian Ocean. Another site at Tissamaharama contains several layers and meanings as it is associated with the legend of Vijaya (who spread Buddhism to Sri Lanka) and in archaeology: from the 5th century BCE: a water tank, fortified citadel followed by evidence of iron tools, import of horses, carnelian, citadel; by 1st-2nd century BCE there is a hospital site and inscribed pottery.

The oldest shipwreck in the Indian Ocean, dated 2nd century BCE – 1st century CE, was found off the fishing village of Godavaya near Tissamaharama. The cargo consisted of imports from India such as horses, carnelian beads, pottery, storage vessels and cooking pots; raw materials such as iron ingots, glass, finished products like saddle querns of stone; possibly groups of logs; pottery with inscriptions, including Rouletted Ware, Red Ware, in the form of water pots, cooking pots, storage jars, plates, cups and bowls. The inscriptions (primarily in Brahmi are names or say ‘donated to’ and contain names of nuns or female novices associated with a Buddhist Vihar. Archaeologically there is no evidence of a monastic institution at the site. See published article by Harry Falk.

All along the Andhra coast are Buddhist sites, up along the Krishna River all along the east coast down to Arikamedu have evidence of inscribed pottery associated with the Buddhist Sangha. Buddhism therefore can be seen as a catalyst to the spread of writing.

We often only look at trade or imported pottery but we should also be looking at intersecting networks and plot them separately to see whether overlaps exist and to investigate smaller, more local networks, so as not to lose the local connectivity and refrain from creating large, oversimplified trade arcs. Archaeological data such as copper, iron objects, beads, seals demonstrate networks of crafts groups and merchants; we should look more carefully at small-scale fishing communities involved in salt making; exchange of dried fish, pearling; as well as at ship wreck sites.

The coastal shrine and its audiences ‘provide cultural integration to communities who travelled across the seas and inland across riverine routes; they connect centres of pilgrimage by coastal routes; and provide navigation markers that aid in identifying landing places.’ It is important to investigate these smaller sites and the networks they were a part of as they provide invaluable evidence for not only early writing but the spread of religious practices and trade networks – both local and across oceans.

5 March 2021: Professor Sarah Ward (Visiting Professor of Maritime Archaeology at Dalian Maritime University’s Centre for Maritime History and Culture Research) on Asian underwater cultural heritage

Professor Ward takes us on a ‘journey of discovery’. Prior to the presentation she asked her Twitterverse to answer the following question, and then asked the audience ‘What do you think of when I say: “Asian Underwater Cultural Heritage”?’ Responses: shipwrecks (some by name), pirates, treasure (of course because this is normally (and unfortunately) the no. 1 response – now associated with ‘commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage’ and is the no. 1 threat to this resource), submerged cities (often as a result of dam creation), porcelain and pottery, names of notable figures associated with underwater heritage. From our research, ‘the earliest voyage from the Chinese took place in 111 BCE when the Wu Emperor sent envoys to Southeast Asia and onto India carrying gold and other tribute’.

Why are we talking about shipwrecks? ‘Shipwrecks are important…. Wrecks are important because they can teach us about the human past, lessons about human environmental entanglements both past and present…. Unlike elaborately contrived sites such as graves or temples or settlement sites, shipwrecks are the result of catastrophic, unplanned events and therefore provide a snapshot of life as it was at that time…. While archaeological research has taught us a lot about how ships (particularly in Asia) have influenced the course of human history, scientists are now beginning to understand how they influence ecology, particularly in deep water environments and the transfer of organisms from one body of water to another.’

Ships can be seen as ‘complex machines’ (Muckelroy 1998) and the pinnacle of human achievement. They tell us what society is capable of in terms of human and financial resources, tools and technology, natural environment (for example, the timber supplies) that were available at the time. This is particularly important when looking at Chinese Ming Dynasty ships as a ‘significant period of deforestation’ began during this period.

Shipwrecks contain a multitude of evidence (regarding the more or less cosmopolitan nature of ship board societies) and interactions between the land and sea: ports of call, origins of the crew, origins of the objects or subjects on board, forests where timbers were grown, shipyards where the timbers were constructed. ‘Shipwrecks are closed finds…with better preservation potential.’ So, we are not looking at wrecks as sources for objects (‘treasure’) but as resources for learning about the mechanics of past societies.

Song Dynasty (1277) Quanzhou ship: discovered in 1973 in Fujian Province. Thirteen well-preserved bulkheads which correspond to the writings of Marco Polo. It was a Fujian-style Ocean going trade vessel capable of carrying 200-250 tons of ceramics.

Nanhai No. 1 南海一号: Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) from the South Sea. The vessel held ‘stacks and stacks of Chinese porcelain with different makers’ marks and the going theory is that each bulkhead held a different manufacturer’s goods for export (95% of the cargo was export ware)’. There are patterns corresponding to markets in the Middle East or Southeast Asia. This site is significant because it was the first one to be excavated under official Chinese authority, led by Zheng Wei. The formation of this first underwater archaeology unit was a result of the non-archaeological excavation and sale at Christies, Amsterdam of Jingdezhen porcelain from the ship Geldermalsen (otherwise known as the Nanking Cargo) in the 1980s. The British Museum currently holds 70 pieces from this wreck. Official excavations of Nanhai No. 1 took place between 1999 and 2007 when the entire wreck was lifted onto a barge intact to be placed in a water tank inside the newly constructed Maritime Silk Road Museum of Guangdong where excavation could continue (while tourists watch). Analysis and stabilisation is ongoing. Over 160k ceramic items have been recovered with 180k artefacts in total.

Nan’ao No. 1 南澳一号: discovered by fisherman in 2007 and contained again, a large number of export porcelain. It was a merchant ship of the Late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and is interesting because it dates to the reign of the Wanli Emperor (r. 1572-1620) and is the only shipwreck discovered anywhere dated to that period. Over 20k artefacts, primarily blue & white porcelain (dragon pattern ware), iron and copper ware, and some fascinating soil and metal samples have been recovered.

Huaguang Reef No. 1 华光礁一号 which translates to Magnificent Reef No. 1: Chinese merchant ship from the Southern Song Dynasty (same period as Nanhai No. 1) and sank off the coast of the Xisha Islands (Paracel Islands) southeast of Hainan in the South China Sea. If you have been keeping your eye on the news, you will know that that area has become a significant location for China. The wreck was found in 1996 by fishermen. Excavated in 2007, the site had been heavily damaged by looting. Despite that, archaeologists recovered about 10k items from Fujian and Guangdong kilns. That area was not only a centre for porcelain production but also for shipbuilding as historical documents state. The remains are being conserved at Hainan Virtual Museum. The ships timbers have been desalinated and treated with polyethylene glycol (PEG) and dried. Plans are in place for creating a replica for display. In the eyes of China, this ship provides ‘undeniable evidence of an already established maritime trade route’. It is the oldest ship found in the open sea and the first high-seas excavation. During this work at least 10 other shipwrecks from the Song and Yuan periods were found. Additionally and significantly, submerged settlement sites were discovered.

Wanjiao No. 1 碗礁一号: Merchant ship which sank off the coast of Fujian, containing 17k pieces of porcelain. ‘All those people on Twitter who suggested porcelain were right on’. This ship dates to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), reign of the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1654-1722). One of the significant items was a small plate with plum blossom design but on the underside it has the simplified Chinese characters which were introduced as part of China’s standardization process in 1949. It needs further investigation and it is possible that this piece dropped off a later ship.

Grand Canal Ships: found during dredging of the canal near Tianjin (the port city serving Beijing) so we are already seeing the relationship between seagoing trade and the inland canal routes. Two Ming Dynasty Grand Canal ships; found during dredging near Tianjin which is the main port serving Beijing as it has done for 1000 years. More than 600 artefacts have been recovered. The Ming Dynasty was the period at which China was at the ‘height of its premodern maritime power…using the same military strategies which were in place on land in the north and west. Given this, there is high potential for discovering military vessels – not one has been found to date.

Sinan Ship (1123 CE) a Chinese seagoing vessel which travelled the northern route from China to Japan via Korea – found in the Yellow Sea, now on display in the National Maritime Museum and Conservation Centre in Mokpo. It revealed nearly 30k items, high value Chinese porcelain decorated for the Japanese market, tons of sandalwood harvested for incense. Items with high intellectual value.

No discussion of Chinese maritime travel is complete without discussing Zheng He (voyages 1405-1433), a figure brought up in her straw poll. ‘Unfortunately, it is unlikely we will find the man himself’. He undertook 7 voyages from China to the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia and South Asia, Middle East, and East Africa. ‘These voyages were part of the seagoing extension of Ming military strategy touted as diplomatic or tribute voyages. None of the ships related to him have been found. However, some isolated artefacts attributed to his voyages such as a Ming grapnel anchor have been found.

Finally, the Longjiang treasure shipyard (Nanjing, which was the Ming capital), a well-preserved Ming Dynasty shipyard. We have the remains of the dock structure which was drained and excavated in 2003. Remains included an 11m long axial rudder amid the shipbuilders’ tools and other objects associated with ship building.

Currently, Sarah Ward is in Cambodia to do research (if the pandemic situation allows) on the Koh Sdach shipwreck dated to the Ming Dynasty (1428-1482) through analysis of resin and basketry. Prior to Cambodia’s ratification of UNESCO’s 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, the site was heavily looted and it is understood that a significant number of the high-value items were sold. Discards from the treasure hunting are approximately 900 broken ceramics consisting of Thai white and celadon pieces, leading us to believe that the unbroken high value Chinese pieces had all been collected and sold. ‘We have not yet done a full assessment of the hull or its origins but a preliminary assessment of the salvage discard, suggests it may be a Southeast Asian ship but with interesting Ming objects such as a hand cannon which were manufactured for the Ming army. We are hoping to get back on to his wreck and continue conservation.’

Close to this is Condor Reef which was investigated by treasure hunters some years ago. ‘Around this area are a significant amount of Ming and Qing porcelain shards. It may be that the reef was a ship trap and we could have up to 7 sites there.’ Another wreck near this location was discovered last year by fishermen who then tried to sell some of the artefacts, were caught and are nearing the end of the 6-month sentence now. ‘The Cambodian government did a really fantastic job and managed to recover at least 300 of those artefacts.’

UNESCO estimates there are 3 million shipwrecks in the seas’; what do we have from Asia: in addition to the constant threat from treasure hunters, these sites are predominantly in tropical waters so physical (ocean currents) and chemical (rust) and biological (mainly from shipworm teredo navalis) threats along with human interactions which accelerate these other processes. Human threats include offshore windfarms, dredging, with the biggest threat being illicit looting and treasure hunting.

What can we do about all these? Managing underwater sites is similar to those on land. Managing an underwater site in situ requires ‘taking active measures to preserve that site’. The aim is to ‘provide both physical protection and maintain an anoxic environment for wreck site arch materials’ and methods include: covering the site with sand, sandbags, rocks, or ballast bricks, back-fill (not ideal) or creating physical barriers to encourage deposition. One example is preservation of the Avondster, a Dutch East India vessel which sank in 1649 in the Bay of Galle (Sri Lanka). Following excavation the wreck was covered in situ, creating an anoxic environment so that the wreck reaches an equilibrium.

This discussion must include mention of the UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage and importantly, ‘Cambodia is the only country in Asia to ratify the convention.’

Editor’s note: it is great fun following Professor Ward’s research and journeys through the maritime trade routes – you too can read about the ongoing work either on her website or join her Twitterverse.

8 March 2021: Dr Robert Spengler (Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History) on Seed-Dispersal Mechanisms in Plant Domestication

Professor Spengler begins with a question: ‘Why does it matter? Why is it that we, as archaeologists, spend so much time on the origins of agriculture and the domestication of plants? Why should we care?’

He then provided the following answers: Looking back to a Childean approach, recognising that bold over-arching statements circa 1936, in the framework of post-processual critique have become almost taboo, nevertheless: ‘dense populations of sedentary humans have almost never come together in the absence of agro-pastoral economy; political hierarchy/complex social systems have almost never formed in the absence of agriculture’.

However, in recent years, archaeology has really been focused on the exceptions to this rule: ‘with modern scientific methods, many of these exceptions have started to fall apart and become the exceptions which prove the rule’. See Spengler, R. et al. 2018 ‘The Breadth of Dietary Economy in the Central Asian Bronze Age: A case study from Adji Kui in the Murghab Region of Turkmenistan.’ And Wilkin, S. et al. 2020. ‘Economic Diversification Supported the Growth of Mongolia’s Nomadic Empires’.

For Central Asia, looking at the formation of the great steppe empires: Scythian, Saka, Mongolians, Xiongnu ‘have all been portrayed as highly mobile, highly specialised pastoral economies, lacking agriculture but having traversed a highway of grass raiding neighbouring groups. But in the last few years, with more focused archaeobotanical methods and detailed bone collagen isotope studies focusing on carbon isotopes, it is not only clear that there is a diversification of agricultural systems, an intensification of agriculture. The elite individuals buried in these mounds are increasing the amount of grain in their diet, heading up to the formation of these political systems’.

What are the big questions of the origins of agriculture? The Why, how, where, when can be divided into two interlocking sets of questions: the origins of domestication and the origins of cultivation.

‘It is the how and why questions that remain elusive and heavily debated…. the why question [is particularly problematic] because of the way archaeologists have framed the question. Specifically, why did humans do this?’ Typically there are two arguments: the push and the pull. The ‘push argument being framed around either climate change or population pressure’ while the pull arguments ‘are often focused on resource availability and freedom/liberty to invent agriculture.’

Spengler then summarised 150 years of answers to the why question beginning with Alexander von Humboldt’s treatise Cosmos (1845 and 1862) to Bruce Smith’s 2012 ‘A Cultural Niche Construction Theory of Initial Domestication’.

In 1904 Raphael Pumpelly explored Merv and Turkestan and suggested that humans were forced through desertification to move into the oases which started a chain reaction of debates for why – looking for rational arguments. Importantly, Zeder and Smith, in ‘A Conversation on Agricultural Origins’ (2009) emphasize the fact that single lever drivers are never going to be sufficient to answer these questions.’

Why don’t we reframe the unanswerable question? Rethinking the domestication theory:

  • Rapid ‘revolutionary’ vs protracted models (see Langlie, BreAnna S. et al. 2014); Dr Dorian Fuller has shown that there is good data for the protracted model (‘it took thousands of years for the first traits of domestication to integrate into the broader populace’)
  • Centric phenomenon vs wider-spread process
  • Human innovation vs unconscious evolution
  • Unique to humans vs broad evolutionary process

Contrast these with Darwin’s 1868 ‘The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication’ who saw the process as ‘unconscious’ and without human intentionality (he used the term ‘slow’ 144 times in this treatise). It has taken 150 years for us to come back to these ideas. Although, a few scholars, such as David Rindos and Edgar Anderson, have been talking about mutualistic processes all along.

The earliest steps for domestication can be seen in large-seeded annual grasses (such as wild barley) and the evolution of the tough rachis to the soft rachis which indicates a shift from a mechanical to an anthropogenic dispersal system thereby allowing the domesticate to lose the ability to spread its own seeds. See Spengler (2020) ‘Anthropogenic Seed Dispersal: Rethinking the Origins of Plant Domestication’.

In recent years, Spengler has become increasingly interested in this model and testing it with other crops such as fleshy fruits. For example, the pepper which in its wild state is small and dispersed by birds but as humans begin dispersing it the fruit becomes larger. This is seen over and over again in the fossil record.

Much of the produce, such as gourds, we see in the market today were already quite large in their wild state. In 1982, Janzen & Martin proposed that these large fleshy fruits evolved to be dispersed by large animals such as mastodons. See also Kistler et al. 2015 ‘Gourds and squashes (Cucurbita spp.) adapted to megafaunal extinction and ecological anachronism through domestication’. There was a period of inbreeding and population loss which coincided with the loss of large animal dispersal mechanism at the end of the Pleistocene and the ‘domestication process occurred when humans stepped in and started moving these fruits around resulting in a hybridisation’.

‘The Age of Exploration/colonial period led to the spread of plants and a wide variety of diversity and specific regional varieties’.

Spengler then looks specifically at the apple, with its origins in a small geographic region of river valleys in what is now south-eastern Kazakhstan in part of the Tianshan (Tengri Tagh) mountain range. ‘Genetic studies have shown that there is not a continual gene flow between these three adjacent valleys and that the apples are genetically isolated from each other.’ These populations are endangered today and can be seen as ‘grasping onto survival long after its dispersal mechanisms have gone extinct.’ To understand what is happening we must look at the fossil record. Spengler has ‘argued that evolution under domestication parallels very closely evolution in the wild.’ He then shows a photograph of a fossilised ‘pile of apples that clearly failed to disperse’ from the Neanderthal site (200,000 BP) at Ehringsdorf, Germany ‘which places humans and apples in direct contact in the fossil record for the first time.’ It also shows that the apple was much too large for a bird to act as the dispersal mechanism ‘and hints to the likelihood that there was a continuous population of large fruiting apples stretching from West Asia to Europe before the glacial ice sheets advanced and segregated individual populations.’ Arguments made by geneticists suggest that ‘at least four different apple populations were inadvertently brought into contact by humans, causing hybridisation leading to the modern apple.’ Archaeobotanical finds of apple seeds dating to before the 2nd millennium BCE show a few spots in West Asia, ‘likely representing the wild ancestors of the Tianshan apple’, a few spots which may indicate the wild apple of the Caucasus, and then many data points in central Europe indicating the European wild apple. ‘By the 1st millennium BCE it spreads rapidly across the rest of Europe.’ Once humans step in, there is a hybridisation due to population movements, essentially what we have for the rest of the mega fruits.’ This happens everywhere in the world with the exception where large animals still exist such as in parts of Africa and South Asia. ‘The larger the fruits, the more likely it is to be extinct or endangered today and the smaller the fruit, the more likely it is to be dispersed by birds and the wider geographic range.’ See Spengler 2019 ‘Origins of the Apple: The Role of Megafaunal Mutualism in the Domestication of Malus and Rosaceous Trees’.

Ultimately, ‘domestication through hybridisation or domestication via the Silk Roads once humans started moving these plants along the transregional trade routes, they brought plants that had been isolated into contact, including large hybrids which were then locked into place through grafting’.  ‘These biodiverse rich swaths of arable lands in the mountain foothill zones fostered dense human populations and the steppes themselves have always maintained much smaller human populations. The ancient world was interconnected through rich river valleys and these food zones in the deep past would have been covered in short growth shrubby fruits and nuts. It’s not just the apple that comes out of these forests, but others from the Rosaceae group (almond, apricot, apple, rose, cherry, etc.)’. See Spengler et al. 2018 ‘Arboreal crops on the medieval Silk Road: Archaeobotanical studies at Tashbulak’.

Ongoing research on some of the Silk Road cities, such as Afrasiab (near Samarkand, Uzbekistan) provide evidence that the city would have been surrounded by irrigated orchards and vineyards.

Spengler circles back to the role of dispersal mechanisms in evolution of domestication. ‘The general process for domestication for a number of these large-seeded annual crops and legumes are evolving domestication traits by losing their mechanical seed dispersal mechanisms. The fleshy fruits are evolving into larger fruits. That leaves one broad group of domesticated plants: small-seeded grains such as quinoa, buckwheat, millets. Spengler has long been interested in answering the question ‘why would foragers have targeted these plants as a food source?’ In their wild state, they grow in dense stands which meant it would have ‘taken days to collect enough seeds to fill one basket of grain.’ In his dissertation research in the foothills of Kazakhstan, Spengler observed the impact grazing or herd pastoralists had on the ecology. ‘If you want to find abandoned pastoral campsites in this region you look for dense homogenous stands of wild quinoa….These are plants that have evolved to be dispersed by ruminate grazing animals’. See Spengler 2014 ‘Niche Dwelling vs. Niche Construction: Landscape Modification in the Bronze and Iron Ages of Central Asia’.

In conclusion, Spengler stated ‘a plant cannot survive in the long-term without successful seed dispersal mechanisms; the apple for example can survive for thousands of years in restricted populations, but in the long-run it needs successful dispersal of the plants to new territories (colonisation is one way this happens) resulting in ‘directed dispersal’ which has the benefit of avoiding unfavourable conditions in time and space, density-dependent offspring mortality, heavy parent and sibling competition. Humans are by far, the most successful seed dispersal mechanism that has ever existed.’ See Ellstrand 2014 ‘Is gene flow the most important evolutionary force in plants?’.

‘If you want to understand the domestication of any plant, the first thing you need to understand is the seed dispersal mechanism in its progenitor form. And evolution under cultivation usually parallels the processes of evolution in the wild….The Silk Road itself was a major mechanism of evolution in plants and led to the domestication of some of the most familiar plants in your kitchen today.’

Editor’s note: read Spengler’s 2019 book Fruit from the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Foods We Eat and you will never see your dinner plate in quite the same way again…you will have an entirely new appreciation for the social life of fruits and vegetables. Keep up to date with Rob’s ongoing research through the Central Eurasian Archaeobotany Paleoethnobotany on the Silk Road portal.

15 March 2021: Dr June Wang (City University of Hong Kong) on The Silk Roads and Geopolitics in Heritage – the case of Sowa Rigpa

The research presented here by Dr June Wang has been a collaboration with Arjun Chapagain whose knowledge of herbs and medicines has been invaluable.

Since the introduction of the cultural routes in the World Heritage Site programme, the new category has foregrounded trans-border civilisations and subsequently compelled scholars to reflect on the traditional wisdom that treats heritage as territorial properties for the construction of nationalist narratives.

In this circumstance, two issues in the literature of heritagisation merit further scholarly attention. First, while the idea of heritagisation ‘as a process of laborious agency’ (Smith 2006) has been widely confirmed, the complexity of actors involved in this process has not caught the attention it deserves. Frequently, studies tend to focus on the statist actors or the political/economic/intellectual elites but tend to treat the ordinary ones as merely passive identity-receivers. Second, a new spatial thinking, in forms of networks and nodes, is to be stressed to avoid the ‘territorial trap’ in heritage studies. The uses of heritage for national state making have been premised upon the idea of property ownership, which legitimises the national state’s right, as the owner of resources within its territories, to mobilise heritage in image construction (Ashworth, Graham, Tunbridge 2015). The new category of cultural routes and the transnational civilisation calls for a spatial form that allows explorations into the trans-border flow of things and subsequently the reconfiguration of the people-thing-place relationship.

In this study, Wang proposes to study the new spatiality of heritagisation through institutional territory, which examines how particular norm and identity is assembled by a constant (re-)configuration of people-things-place relationship (Adam A. Smith). Special attention will be paid to the agency of forming specific relations that hold the elements together: first, the complexity of actants in this process and their distributed agency and second, how these distributed agency were channelled across borders and territorialised to form an arrangement of heterogenous elements that gives a degree of consistency to the overall identity.

Sowa Rigpa as assemblage

Sowa Rigpa is the Tibetan science of healing: combination of medicinal + ritual practices.

In the 8th century, King Trisong Detsen invited physicians from India, China, Persia, east Turkestan, Mongolia, and Nepal to what we now would call a focus group meeting to diagnose the King’s disease in Samye, Tibet. The meeting notes, edited by then leading physician Yutok Yonten Gompo to assemble medical knowledge from many schools, is now known as the seminal book of Four Medical Tantras  — the very origin of the school of Sowa Rigpa. The school of Sowa Rigpa has since boomed in Tibet and spread to the neighbouring regions in the past centuries. Now the Sowa Rigpa industry in Asia produced pharmaceuticals worth $615 million, with China leading the field, according to a 2017 study conducted by Ratimed. However, the Tibet-in-Exile community in India leads the standardisation and quality control for the export market.  Wang argues that this practice should be viewed as an assemblage and then looks at the process of making it heritage.

Assembling raw materials (with a focus on flows and their directions)

Studies on the history of Tibetan Medicine have revealed that cross-border movement of merchants and medicinal ingredients was essential for Tibetan medicine for centuries (Saxer, 2013). Since then, the Tibetan Medicine practice evolved overtime as a hybrid model that drew in a wide variety of materials, people, and their knowledge on medical practices.

The assemblage of raw materials: 2000-3000 traditional medicinal elements with floral contributions coming from 191 families, 693 genera, 2085 species and faunal contributions coming from 159 animal species. Some 80 types of mineral compounds are used. Most of these did not originate in the Tibetan Plateau but ‘are made of ingredients that have travelled long distances, crossed many borders, and were compounded according to different traditions.’ These ingredients are sourced and moved across the Himalayan region resulting in border markets leading to long-distance trade and manufacture.

Assembling knowledge

The assembling of knowledge has been a constant process of coming together while falling apart.In the 12th century, the Book of Four Medical Tantras (the Gyud Shi) was published (there is an 2011 English version), as an output of two centuries of contiguous work after the initial assembly of then leading medical practitioners from Chinese, Ayurveda, Greek-Roman Arabian, and Persian medical systems. As an accumulated output, the knowledge of Sowa Rigpa is by no means confined within prescription and treatment skills, but stretches across multiple phrases of medical practices, from locating, identifying and harvesting the right part of medical plants at the right season, to the post-harvest treatment (e.g. antitoxic), medicine preparation, prescription, and healing that frequently involves ritual practices. That said, collecting and processing raw ingredients has been one inherent part of the Sowa Rigpa knowledge which has been passed on by farmers, pickers, dealers, and medical doctors.

The influence of Buddhism is always felt in the knowledge, practice, and spread of Sowa Rigpa, dating from the introduction of the religion from India into Tibet in the 8th century. In the ‘early stage, healing in Tibetan societies was closely linked to ritual but not dominated by the Buddhist notion.  The spread of Buddhist Sowa Rigpa is geopolitical. A number of Tibetan Kings promoted Tibetan Buddhism within Tibet by sending troops on pilgrimage for authentic texts, constructing Buddhist temples and monasteries, self-branding as disciples and patrons of Buddhist masters, as well as transnational marriages of royal families. The spreading of Sowa Rigpa to other areas has also largely been exacerbated by wars and conquest. Along with the introduction of Buddhism, ideas of karma and merit became an integral part of understanding health and illness’ (see Barbara Gerke 2016 Buddhist Healing and Taming in Tibet). ‘Where “science” leaves off and “religion” begins remains philosophy and cultural terrain’ (see Adams, Schrempf, Craig 2010 Medicine Between Science and Religion: Explorations on Tibetan Grounds). The Buddhist philosophy becomes the moral frame for this ‘spiritually-based health care system’. Wang then showed a tanka depicting the Medicine Buddha at the centre delivering teachings to the surrounding disciples in the form of Devas (Gods), Rishis (Sages), Buddhists and non-Buddhists (see Gerke 2014 “The Art of Tibetan Medical Practice”). This stems from the first chapter of the Four Tantras of Tibetan Medicine (the Gyud Shi) and is central to ‘let’s say a kingdom of medical practice…gravity and stress on the regime resonates with the image of the Tibetan Empire itself.’ Further to this, a new occupation of amchi (physicians) practiced by monks. The practice is motivated by compassion, and ‘an amchi devotes his body, speech, and mind to easing the suffering caused by disease. He is always on the move – searching pastures, forests, river valleys for medicinal plants…to prepare remedies in the form of powders, decoctions, pastes, and concentrates.’ Therefore, the practice is part and parcel of the movement of people and materials across borders.

Heritagisation/institutionalisation of heritage as a new assemblage

Another round of assembling Sowa Rigpa started with the heritage application attempts by China and India. Currently, two nations – China and India – are both attempting to nominate the practice of Sowa Rigpa as an Intangible Cultural Heritage to UNESCO. In 2018 the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage inscribed the Lum medicinal bathing of Sowa Rigpa, knowledge and practices concerning life, health and illness prevention and treatment among the Tibetan people in China (Inscription 13.COM 10.b.8). India’s submission in 2019 has yet to be approved.

The Chinese nomination focused on a very narrow practice of lum (ritual bathing), ‘relevant to communities in Lhokha, Lhasa, Shigatse, Nagchu, Chamdo, Ngari, Nyingtri’ rather than the entire Tibetan community. From the nomination document Lum ‘indicates the traditional knowledge and practice of bathing in natural hot springs, herbal water, or streams in order to balance the mind and body to ensure health and treat illness.’  This focuses the nomination on three specific aspects of the practice: the communities in these valleys, the geography of the valley itself, and the philosophy affiliated with the practice.

The Chinese application of lum bathing shows a deliberate effort on immobile things and the spatial arrangement with immobile things at the core. Positioning the application in the category of ‘knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe’, the application develops its articulation from the natural hot springs that are located in the Yarlung Valley to herbal water as a practice between human and nature. While lum bathing is defined as a practice evolving from the usage of hot springs, it is not surprising to see that almost all actants unfolded in the arrangement of lum bathing are very much tied to the Tibetan Plateau. The communities involved are defined by their geographic locations, such as Lhokha, Lhasa, Shigatse, Nagchu, Chamdo, Ngari, Nyingtri, instead of by language or other ethnic or cultural characteristics. Evolving through the interaction among man, nature, and the universe, lum bathing has its philosophy in a Tibetan life view based on Jungwa-nga (five elements) i.e., Sa (earth), Chu (water), Me (fire), Lung (wind) and Namkha (space), all of which have geographic qualities.  What has further territorialised the practice of lum bathing to the Tibetan Plateau is the emphasis of folklore activities: the transmission of the practices happened along the bloodlines from father to son and from clan masters to their disciples while the institutional transmission only occurred very recently; the annual Karma Dulpa Festival that takes place in the seventh month of the Tibetan calendar; among others. The immobile feature of hot springs, therefore, situate the origin of lum bathing in Tibet and thus carve it out of the long history of Sowa Rigpa. 

India’s application is ‘very much about Sowa Rigpa as a broad family of practices’, with an intention to stress the value of its medical and ritual origin and the recent professionalisation, institutionalisation and standardisation in India. The communities inhabit the Himalayan belt where many of the raw materials originate. ‘The raw materials and practices show similarity to the Ayurvedic philosophy with approximately 75% of the Sowa Rigpa texts originating in the Ashtanga Hridaya’ and therefore can be seen as one branch. This nomination is focused on the origins with the flow of knowledge originating in India 2500 years ago and introduced across the Trans-Himalayan border region around the 8th century CE. ‘Since then it has been propagated and transmitted through teacher-student lineages, including family lineages, is prevalent among secular and monastic contexts.’ India seems to emphasise formal, institutional training in Sowa Rigpa institutions in India. ‘Sowa Rigpa education, healthcare delivery and research is formally recognised and promoted by the Government of India.’

Stephan Kloos (2017 “The Politics of Preservation and Loss: Tibetan Medical Knowledge in Exile”) talks about the processes of professionalisation, formalisation, standardisation which is in line with the Tibetan elite lineages over time. Almost as soon as the exiled leadership arrived in India the Men-Tsee-Khang medical college was established (the original being in Lhasa) and has since grown throughout India and the world. When India was trying to nominate these practices, there was tension and resistance from the Tibet-in-Exile government, for example, the Men-Tsee-Khang schools use their own standards and quality controls outside the Indian Ayurvedic practices. This is linked to their desire to keep their own practices rooted in the Tibetan cultural homeland. But in 2018 the college was incorporated into the Ministry of Culture of India as part of the formal education system. These internal fractures have made it difficult for India to complete its nomination process.

By examining the two applications through assemblage, that is, how particular arrangements of people-thing-place are established, this study reveals that both applications have attempted sanitisation and territorialisation in the process. However, what elements have been chosen and put together are different. The Chinese story underlines the crucial role of immobile natural resources and local folkloric practices, both of which have their anti-elite quality while serving the purpose of territorialisation. The Chinese application is about how things settled down, in other words, how lum bathing is articulated as a territorial output of flow of raw materials and knowledge, rather than the contingent flows themselves that are always transcending borders. A new institutional territory that works together for a stable relationship has been formed through the nomination process. The Indian story underlines the development of particular knowledge and its standardisation, institutionalisation and professionalisation, with perhaps an effort of constructing India as the authority. In the Indian assemblage of Sowa Rigpa, what has been rendered much more visible are the formal institutional training in Sowa Rigpa institutions, standards with state recognition, and the formal trans-sectoral system from Sowa Rigpa education, healthcare delivery, and research that have been channelled and promoted by the Government of India. However, the contingent process of institutionalisation of Sowa Rigpa in India (Kloos, 2017) has been marginalised, given that it involves the uneasy relationship with Dalai Lama, a political force that is not necessarily Indian. This study attempts to unravel the agency of assembling particular institutional territory through a comparative study of two cases. Putting aside the politics in the process of assessing the nomination that may affect the result of application, this comparative study shows the significance of thing power in the effort of establishing relationships among people, things, and territories.

Professor MA Jian, School of Cultural Heritage, Northwest University, Xi’an, China on The evolution of prehistoric settlements in the Eastern Tianshan Mountains and the exchange between Eastern and Western civilisations.

People have been exploring the Eurasian continent since the Palaeolithic. The environment provides vast resources and pathways for exchange and travel. The official Silk Road was opened in the 3rd century BCE. The Tianshan Mountains are one of the most important corridors for travel.

Famous Chinese travellers Zhangqian (2nd century BCE) and Xuanzang (fifth century CE) both recorded the difficulty in travelling across the Qilin and Tianshan ranges. In order to examine how people are connected through migration along these routes, our team has conducted several years of survey and excavation in the eastern Tianshan Mountains. Since 2001, we have looked at more than 200 sites dating from 4000-2000 BP.

The landscape of this region consists of a mountain range and valleys with altitude to 1700m flanked by deserts with oases, some of which are at an altitude of 400m. In the mountain valleys the environment is suitable for farmland while the regions at an altitude of 1500-200m are temperate steppe zone, suitable for grazing livestock. We have taken more than 400 samples for C14 dating along with pottery and bronze typology studies which have resulted in a chronology of the area:

Phase 1: Stage 1: 1900-1500 BCE: early migration and cultural inflow

During this phase the earliest and most famous cemetery was discovered in the Hami Oasis, called Tianshanbeilu. This cemetery was excavated between 1988-1997, yielding 706 graves. These graves were small, each containing a mudbrick coffin which interred the flexed body of the deceased with their heads facing southwest. The graves were distributed in dense rows and the cemetery had been used for a very long time. Later graves are sometimes found above earlier ones. A 2017 study (Tingting Wang et al) on C14 and stable nitrogen stable isotope analysis shows that the consumption of millet played an important role in this community. Significant numbers of bronze and gold ornaments (earrings and other small pieces) along with beads made from agate and turquoise demonstrates that these societies had an appreciation for self-adornment. Importantly, many graves also contained seashells.

A comparison of painted pottery and arrowheads from Tianshanbeilu with that from Xichengyi Culture (Hexi Corridor) shows remarkable similarities. Additionally, the earliest grave from Tianshanbeilu differs from the others in its special position: the deceased was placed in an extended supine position – similar to those in the Hexi Corridor.

Other pottery examples and metal artefacts from Tianshanbeilu have similarities with the 1800-1700 BCE Siba Culture (Hexi Corridor).

Results from DNA analysis show that the earliest group of people in the Hami Oasis have come from the Hexi Corridor (Gao et al. 2015). This may be the beginning of movement from the corridor east into the mountains.

Another group of people (pastoralists) travelling from the west along the Tianshan Mountains as evidenced by the Baigetuobie tomb. C14 and DNA analysis (published in a 2020 article by Zhu et al) shows the people buried here came from the west to the northern slopes of the Tianshan around 1800 BCE. Characteristics from these burials show similarity to the Andronovo Culture.

From at least 1900 BCE, Hami Oasis was a dynamic area with people migrating from both the east (Hexi Corridor) and from the west. These two groups of people did not have any permanent cultural flow or contact during this period. Objects from the Eurasian Steppes such as dagger axes (see Lin & Xiang 2017 ‘The origins of metallurgy in China’) demonstrate a close relationship with the Seima-Turbino Phenomenon. Scholars such as Y-Xian Lin et al (2019) have discovered faience beads and suggested these must be imported from the north.


From about 1500 BCE the people in Hami Oasis began to expand west to another oasis some 50km away which formed the Yamlake. Many sites have been found along the southern slopes of the Tianshan indicate they also tried to move north. Then they crossed the mountains. The earliest they did this was about 1300 BCE. A small group of these people moved further north.

Hongshankou Settlement (1300-800 BCE) located along the northern slopes of the Eastern Tianshan is one of the largest settlements in this area. From our survey and excavation, we found that these settlements include different parts: densely populated areas in the centre with dwellings made of stone with several outposts on the outer edges and special places for rituals. The dead have been buried some 3km west of the settlement.

Like Tianshanbeilu this cemetery, these graves are small and densely distributed in rows. Excavation in 2016 revealed that these graves had stone circles at the surface with a small chamber containing pottery or ash to the east (which we took to perhaps be a place for sacrifice after burial). Adult burials were rectangular burial chambers with the deceased placed in a flexed position and their head towards the west. Interestingly, we also discovered that there had been a practice of disturbing the burial where the grave was opened, the bones disturbed and reinterred and infilled. This was a special feature of this cemetery. Infant burials were commonly attached to the adult, and like the adults buried in a stone chamber in a flexed position. The pottery from graves included kettles, cauldrons (sometimes having been fired), and handled cups. Bronze ornaments (earrings and buttons) are also common among these deceased. Beads of talc, turquoise, and agate are also common, as well as seashells. We have not found any iron objects, and only a few weapons, arrowheads.

The dwellings are of ordinary people, located on the slope near the river. We also excavated a defensive dwelling on the top of the hill; from this vantage point we observed that the dwellings were distributed in rows. Following the excavation we could see that these houses had stone fences, with fireplaces and wooden pillars inside.

The ritual site is comprised of a stone road leading from the square to large dwellings on the slopes. On the top of these buildings there was an altar made of stones. Both the road and the site were made for ceremonial or ritual purposes.

We also mapped numerous petroglyphs along the slopes near this settlement. GIS spatial analysis shows that they are distributed in densely in different areas. Chariots, humans (sometimes with bow & arrow and sometimes on shooting from horseback), animals (goat, horse, deer), and human-animal representations are present.

hAIZIYAN settlement (1300-800 BCE): newly discovered settlement near Barkol Lake

The site is 45m x 40m. We excavated this settlement between 2017 – 2019. We could see that the place was constructed of huge stone walls; outside this were walls made of mud bricks. If one wants to enter the centre of the site one must enter through both sets of walls – the interior rooms are completely hidden. Exterior is made of stone walls while the interior of a mixture of wood and mud. The stone walls were about 2.5m high. We also found collapsed wooden rooves and remains of a door. One door in particular was very well preserved. From a section from a single room, we could see that the settlement had been used in different times – this room had been used across at least 3 different phases: the earliest phase was around 1300 BCE but this layer was covered by a layer of collapsed burnt-soil and a collapsed wooden roof. Above this was the middle surface of about 1100 BCE covered by a layer of collapsed wooden roof. Above this we found 2 layers corresponding to the inside of the house. Above this was the final phase about 900 BCE. This indicates that the dwelling was constructed, burned and rebuilt twice.

Millstones (with phytolith evidence) and fireplaces (from the interior of the dwelllings), along with baked pottery (frequently 14cm high full of Naked Barley), stone hoes, storage pots all demonstrate the livelihood of cultivating barley and raising livestock. Storage pits containing baked mixtures of mud and barley chaff which made the place moisture-proof. This also shows that the cultivation of Naked Barley occurred locally rather than being introduced from elsewhere. See Duo Tian et al 2017 ‘Cultivation of Naked Barley by Early Iron Age Agro-pastoralists in Xinjiang, China’. We also found remains from animals such as sheep, goats, pigs with evidence of cut marks.

Human remains showed that these people had a curved femur, small facet which indicates they rode horses quite often during their lifetimes. Other evidence shows that they mastered bow and arrow hunting.

As Barkol Lake changed and the climate became colder (between 2000-1000 BCE it was warm and humid but shifted to cold and dry after 1000 BCE) the people form these mountain valleys disappeared. Perhaps this shows a collapse of the tradition of cultivating Naked Barley.

beginning around 500 BCE newcomers from the altai mountains moved into this region

Shirenzigou Site is comprised of a settlement in the centre flanked by cemeteries on either side. The graves are not densely distributed but spread out over a large area along the valley or slopes like chains. Here, the graves are kurgans (burial mounds) and show evidence of human sacrifice as well as horse and/or camel burial along with the deceased. Remains of animals is largely increased during this period: sheep and goat heads, cattle head, and goats placed in pottery jars. Many people are buried with bronze and iron weapons: daggers, arrowheads. Pieces from horse harnesses are also commonly found. There is some similarity with animal ornaments from Pazyryk Culture. Ornaments of gold and silver, along with stone (agate, turquoise) and glass beads also become prominent. Some of the objects use the technology of granulation. Analysis of a gold tiger showed the patterns of wood which indicates the piece was made by using a wood mould.

Dwellings and petroglyphs here mirror those of the Early Iron Age sites.

Analysis of horse remains: hyperostosis and mergence of the vertebral column along with abrasions on the teeth, impressions on the nose (indicating frequent use of bits and cheek pieces on the bridles). For more on this see Yue Li et al 2020 ‘Early evidence for mounted horseback riding in northwest China’.

Analysis of human remains shows these people had a curved femur which is common among nomadic people (due to frequent horseback riding) as opposed to more common straight femur of agricultural communities. DNA analysis reveals this group of people had a close relationship with those of southern Siberia (Afanasievo Culture). See Chao Ning et al 2019 ‘Ancient Genomes Reveal Yamnaya-Related Ancestry and a Potential Source of Indo-European Speakers in Iron Age Tianshan’.

In conclusion, over these 2000 years, different groups of people moved into this region and had close cultural interflow and therefore developed their own specialities in this area. For more, see MA Jian 2014 ‘The Rise of Nomads on the Barkol Steppe and their Cultural Interflow with the Altai Region during the 1st Millennium BCE’.

2 thoughts on “Silk Road seminar: summaries and links

  1. Informative and multidisciplinary inputs on Silk Roads. Commendable work. More importantly, thank you for sharing.

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