The World of the Ancient Silk Road


This book is a collection of papers that focus on themes of human migration, communication, and cross-cultural exchange along the Silk Roads, from the 3rd millennium BC to the early 2nd millennium AD. The volume is organised in four parts, with the very loose themes of prehistory, pastoral nomads and agricultural societies, silk trade and caravan cities, and empires and religions. This collection of papers consists of 32 contributions in all. They are mostly very specific, with a few broader discussion papers, such as Daniel Waugh’s excellent review of ‘Virtual Silk Roads: objects, exhibitions, and learners’, which explores how visual and material evidence of the Silk Roads could contribute to teaching and interdisciplinary research.

The first section examines issues of the Bronze and Iron Ages across Eurasia, exploring human migrations associated with linguistic changes. This section includes papers on languages, including the spread of Aramaic by Liu Jian, and others on technological advances along the Silk Roads, such as the domestication and use of horses, as well as Renato Sala’s excellent paper on the natural and cultural history of the camel. The rest of the volume ranges across different issues and aspects of the Silk Roads, but most of the papers focus on specific places and time-frames. Examples include a very useful paper by Ye Jinshi on the Jingjue Kingdom in the Tarim Basin, Shoshin Kuwayama’s discussion of the Kushans, Luca Olivieri’s interesting paper on the Roads of Swat, and Berit Hildebrandt’s fascinating debate on Christian discourses about silk in antiquity.

The sections that the book is divided into do not really work, providing only a very loose structure, as the papers inevitably only pick up a few aspects of much broader and more complex themes, such as agricultural societies or cities. This is always an issue with the ‘Silk Roads’: as a term, it covers human endeavour over four millennia and across most of the Old World, so it is hardly possible to tackle such wide-ranging themes in a single volume. However, this collection contains a huge range of topics, and its strength lies in the variety of the archaeological, historical, and linguistic material used. Another advantage is that many of the papers are from scholars publishing their research in English for the first time, which is a major achievement of the volume. This is especially important as the authors have been drawn from a wide region, and include scholars from outside the traditional anglophone Silk Roads scholarship. As most of the papers have extensive references to primary and secondary sources, and importantly many in the scholars’ first languages, this will open up a key range of source material for researchers.

The book is very well produced. However, although well illustrated, the solely black-and-white reproduction, given the £205 price tag, is underwhelming. This also means that some of the illustrations lack the impact they should have had, such as in Arielle Winnik’s excellent paper on Egyptian textiles and networks. Nevertheless, this book is a very useful reference work for students and scholars of the Silk Roads, and makes a welcome addition to the canon of works on the subject.

The World of the Ancient Silk Road edited by Xinru Liu
Routledge, £205 
ISBN 978-0367199968