Silk, Slaves, and Stupas

Patrick Vanden Berghe

The history of the Silk Road[i] is usually written in terms of transfer and exchange; this is transfer of goods, people, fashions, and ideas. While we know now that its history (or should we write ‘their’ as there were many routes that ran crisscross the vast area between China and Europe) is difficult to write, we may assume that the foundations were laid from the 6th century BCE onwards when the Persians dominated large stretches of land from the Aegean Sea until the Himalayas. From then we see a rapid growing pattern emerging in which intellectual exchange goes together with the transfer of more tangible goods.

And then there were ten

While for the vast majority of people in this region (and in others as well) horizons were local, the web of exchange wove into each other to create a world that was international, multilayered and ever-changing. Along this web things could travel fast and it is not difficult to imagine how objects and commodities had the potential to travel from east to west or the other way.

The Silk Road and its material history

It is tempting to see the Silk Road as unidirectional with things always moving from the east to the west. This may be due to the emphasis on goods such as silk that were unknown in the west. However, history has provided us with many examples of items going the other direction. Religions and ideologies such as Christianity and Buddhism are just some of them. And while changes often happened because of events hundreds (or thousands) miles away, some happened independently from each other, as does the history of early Christianity shows. So, it is not always easy to see the right relations between events, changes, and actions. For objects found in places that sometimes lay at the other end of the road this is true as well. How did it end up there, was this incidental or planned, how and when did it travel to its new place? These are questions that Susan Whitfield asks in Silk, Slaves and Stupas: Material Culture along the Silk Road.  In this book she showcases 10 objects found somewhere along the Silk Road, nine of them being tangible and materialistic, while one is human and must be seen rather as a concept, since it is referred to as ‘the unknown slave’. Blinded as we may be by the spectacular objects, their shape, colour or delicate from, we tend to forget that the Silk Road was also a slave road. Tribes from the four directions were engaged in fights in order to conquer huge number of slaves. These slaves came from the North, sub-Saharan Africa, Turkic tribes of Central-Asia, etc. Slave markets thrived across the Silk Road, slaves often being presented as gifts to rulers.

Why this choice for this approach? As the author testifies: ‘Telling history through objects … is not a new approach, but over the past two decades it has become more central in teaching and in popularizing world history’ (p. 2). Objects do tell a tale, a narrative which is different for the three sides concerned: the creator, the user, and the (contemporary) historian, collector or spectator. Their history often comprises a shift from an object (or tool) to a piece of art. But objects (unless they were too heavy to carry) were not always meant to stay in place. So, movement of objects is essential to the concept of a trade road, in particular the Silk Road. This book is about objects and not about raw materials, such as silk, paper, herbs,… By focussing on one particular object Whitfield can tell a much more intriguing tale.

Objects enter in a dialogue with the cultures they encounter. Their function and meaning can be changed by the receiving culture, but objects can also change cultures as they may lie at the basis of new ideas and new concepts. They may be the reason why one culture changes its ideas or approach towards another culture, objects may be the axis around which new trading routes are opened (or old ones closed) or they may be the instigator for engaging in a war. And so, objects do not only tell their own story, but also the story of moving materials, technologies and craftsmen, some of which have disappeared.

We must be careful at the same time as most of the objects that make it to our time were either luxurious goods that were deemed fit to be preserved -and as such were given enough care- or they were monumental items such as buildings, stones with inscriptions,… So, being the only objects that survived they tell just one part of history, usually a tale of leaders, of wealthy and influential people. Only a rare example will give us a glance of a world that is less familiar.

The quest for each object

It is with this perspective that one should read the story of the ten objects that Whitfield selected. Each object is given full attention in its own chapter, with each chapter answering more or less the same questions: what does the object look like and where was it discovered, how was it transferred to its place of discovery and its present place, how and by whom was it made, why was it made and what was its meaning during its lifetime. While of course these questions cannot always be answered for each object, Whitfield digs as deep as possible. For most of the objects she can use the findings of other researchers, but she has given herself the task of bringing a coherent story of each object.

Well written, although she lost me sometimes when being too detailed in explaining techniques, this book is at times a page-turner comparable to a good detective story. While each object is a character with its own story, the ten objects are part of a new story, in this case the history of the Silk Road. These objects (to name just a few: earrings, a glass bowl, coins, a stupa) show how the exchange along the road was huge, but that knowledge of this exchange is still poorly documented. A lack of interest and understanding still blocks our view on the Silk Road. This book is a station on the way to the final destination of comprehension!


[i] For the sake of convenience I will use the term ‘Silk Road’ (instead of ‘Roads’). It is also the term used in Susan Whitfield’s book.