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  • Metadata

    • Document type
      Review (monograph)
      Author (review)
      • Brosseder, Ursula
      Language (review)
      Language (monograph)
      Editor (monograph)
      • Mair, Victor H.
      • Hickman, Jane
      Reconfiguring the Silk Road. New Research on East-West Exchange in Antiquity
      New Research on East-West Exchange in Antiquity
      Year of publication
      Place of publication
      University of Pennsylvania Press
      Number of pages
      XVI, 104
      Subject classification
      Social and Cultural History, Economic History
      Time classification
      until 499 AD
      Regional classification
      Subject headings
      Philadelphia, Pa. <2011>
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Victor H. Mair / Jane Hickman (eds.): Reconfiguring the Silk Road. New Research on East-West Exchange in Antiquity (reviewed by Ursula Brosseder)

sehepunkte 15 (2015), Nr. 7

Victor H. Mair / Jane Hickman (eds.): Reconfiguring the Silk Road

Few topics catch the attention of researchers and laymen alike as the "Silk Road". In recent years the body of literature dealing with its "reconfiguration" and "reconceptualization" has been growing and the volume under review aims to contribute to these new Silk Road Studies. Yet, the editors do not bring to the discussion the equally critical reconsiderations about the (over-)usage of the paradigm of the Silk Road. [ 1 ] P. Kohl, whose concluding comments to this volume are among the most critical, asks the central questions in his title (89) "[...] When Does the Silk Road Emerge and How Does it Qualitatively Change over Time?", only to conclude that "[...] there were no Bronze Age Silk Roads and, thus, the world of the Bronze Age steppes cannot be reconfigured on the basis of its later inhabitants" (94). Just as Kohl previously highlighted the abuse of the modern derived World Systems theory within archaeological investigations [ 2 ], so do we need to reassess the value and limits of the historic era Silk Road paradigm for studies of prehistoric periods.

The papers in this volume were first presented at a conference for the exhibition "Secrets of the Silk Road" co-organized by V. Mair. The 2010-2011 exhibition displayed mummies and other magnificent findings from Xinjiang, some for the first time to a Western audience. Although the exhibition and its catalogue book dealt with both prehistoric and historic periods [ 3 ], five of the seven content chapters in the volume deal only with prehistoric periods, while only two turn to the historic eras of the Great and the Late Antiquity. D. Waugh has already noted that not much collected for this volume is in fact new. [ 4 ] The prehistoric chapters by V. Mair, J. Mallory, M. Frachetti, and D. Anthony and D. Brown deal with an array of topics often associated with Bronze Age Eurasian pastoral groups, including large-scale interactions and diffusions of ideas, objects, and technologies, migrations, climate change, genetic flows and intermixture, dispersal of (Indo-European) language families, and increased mobility that accompanied the domestication of the horse. These prehistoric processes, and the growing and changing networks, surely contributed to the emergence of the Silk Road [ 5 ], yet they are not necessarily coterminous with the "Silk Road" proper. M. Frachetti makes one of the few attempts at directly linking the prehistoric and historic eras by presenting Bronze Age pastoralists' networks for the distribution of exotica and innovations as mechanisms for the transfer of innovations. He stresses that this model which emphasizes the role of steppe societies, which have commonly been seen as peripheral in processes of transfer of goods and economic transformations, holds true for later historic periods and thus greatly contributes to Silk Road studies. J. Manning makes it similarly clear that discussions of the Silk Road should not revolve merely around China and Rome but instead focus on the various people and economics of the regions in between. [ 6 ]

The chapters of both J. Manning and P. Brown stress a huge difference between contacts and connections in prehistoric periods and those of the Silk Road era, when, at the end first millennium BCE, goods from Han dynasty China began to reach the Black Sea area and the Roman realms and vice versa. This trans-Eurasian connectivity peaked again during the Chinese eras of the T'ang and Yuan (Mongol) dynasties. Before (and between) these periods of flourishing "Silk Roads", various distant regions of Eurasia were certainly inter-connected, as demonstrated by the prehistoric chapters in this volume. However, the means as well as the quantity and quality of those contacts were categorically different. Brown relates this difference to the circumstances of the "[...] inextricable connection between what we might call commerce [...] politics, and state formation throughout Eurasia in the late antique period," and further argues that the driving forces behind elements of an "archaic globalization" are "[...] constant diplomacy and warfare, and not [...] the invisible hand of the market that pulled goods along a Silk Road [...]" (20). Comparative studies on the differences between the peaks of historic era trans-Eurasian connectivity and the circumstances of its rise and decline in connection with state formation and the political economies are one significant avenue for reconceptualizing the Silk Roads. Nevertheless, the present volume spends more of its content addressing prehistoric contacts, migrations and exchanges in Eurasia, rather than attempting to reconfigure the proper historic periods of the Silk Road or explicitly argue for the application of this paradigm to prehistoric eras before the actual spread of silks and other such exotica across Eurasia.

Notes :

[ 1 ] Cf. S. Whitfield: Was there a Silk Road?, Asian Medicine 3, 2007, 201-213; K. Rezakhani: The Road That Never Was: The Silk Road and Trans-Eurasian Exchange, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 30,3, 2010, 420-433; T. Chin: The invention of the Silk Road, Critical Inquiry 40,1, 2013, 194-219.

[ 2 ] P.L. Kohl: The Use and Abuse of World Systems Theory: The Case of the Pristine West Asian State, Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory 11, 1987, 1-35.

[ 3 ] V. Mair (ed.): Secrets of the Silk Road. An Exhibition of Discoveries from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China, Santa Ana 2010.

[ 4 ] D. Waugh: Review of Reconfiguring the Silk Road. New Research on East-West Exchanges in Antiquity (Philadelphia 2014), The Silk Road 12, 2014, 164-167.

[ 5 ] H. Parzinger: The 'Silk Roads' Concept Reconsidered: About Transfers, Transportation and Transcontinental Interactions in Prehistory, The Silk Road 5,2, 2008, 14-15.

[ 6 ] U. Brosseder / B.K. Miller: Global Networks and Local Agents in the Late Iron Age Eurasian Steppes, in: N. Boivin / M. Frachetti (eds.): Globalization and the People without History (forthcoming).