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THE SILK ROAD: Silk, Slaves and Stupas Susan Whitfield Tuesday 15 October 2019

Dr Susan Whitfield, a scholar, writer, curator and traveller has explored and studied the Silk Road for over 30 years so she brought a wealth of knowledge and understanding to her talk.  She showed how the name the Silk Road is really a misnomer as the trade route it encompasses had many different branches by land and sea; but it was an immediately recognisable term, vividly bringing to life the cultural and trading highway that was so significant across north Africa, central Europe and Asia for well over a thousand years.  A large map clearly showed its many branches from Eastern China, through a variety of routes across central Asia to the Middle East, North Africa and Europe; as well as the routes taken by ships across the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean and the rivers of Eurasia. These routes could change depending on external conditions such as weather and warfare.   And just as the trade route was far more complex and extensive than just one Road, so too, objects traded were far more than just Silks, but slaves, furs, spices and luxury goods of all kinds.

Dr Whitfield stressed that though trade was the reason for the highways, the significant result was an enriching exchange of technologies, cultures, religions, languages and life styles.  She chose to develop this by focussing on individual artefacts that had been traded or established along the Silk Road.  She referred to the trade in slaves – people as a commodity - a common practice in most societies at the time; and spoke briefly about the prevalence of Buddhist Stupas – sacred memorial sites – scattered over a wide area, often in now deserted regions, revealing where busy trading posts must once have been.  Travellers took their faiths along the Silk Road as they traded.  

But Dr Whitfield’s main focus was on 3 specific artefacts that showed how technologies were shared and sometimes modified as they are represented across the route.  An image of a contemporary glass works in Lebanon, where the same skills have been practised for nearly two thousand years, was an introduction to a glass bowl made in that region in the first century AD but found buried in a grave in South Eastern China.  What Dr Whitfield called an  IKEA bowl of the time in the place it was made, was clearly seen as an exotic and costly object in China as it had been buried in the tomb of an important statesman.  Shipwrecks have been found that show that such simple bowls were packed in their thousands in the holds of ships and transported across the Indian Ocean to China, as glass would have been considered too fragile to have been carried on camels.  Made in the West for thousands of years, glass was the preferred tableware as metal containers tainted the taste of wine and food; whereas in China where non-tainting stoneware was used for hot food and drink, there was no such need.  So glass was traded from the West to the East, and with time, its technology spread eastwards along the Silk Road; though the glass was used for different purposes and fashioned in varied ways in different cultures. In Egypt for instance, it was frequently coloured to imitate precious stones, such as blue glass to supplement lapis lazuli in the Funeral Mask of Tutankhamun; and in China, when it arrived there, glass was often made to emulate Jade, which was highly valued.

We were then shown an image of a magnificent silver-gilt ewer that had been made in the 6th Century in Bactria (now Northern Afghanistan), with a design reminiscent of the Mediterranean, but buried in a tomb in North Western China.  Its decorative panels showed a version of a story much loved in Ancient Greece, that of the Judgement of Paris: a story that may have found its way to the Himalayas when Alexander of Macedon marched his army so far from home. A closer look at the ewer’s beaded foot, a Sassanian motif, shows that the Bactrian craftsman was influenced by those from further north, in modern Uzbekistan. Other images of jewellery, silver and glass heightened our recognition that styles, stories, technical skills and usage were passed through many cultures, being modified or adopted as was found desirable or beneficial.

Finally Dr Whitfield considered Silk, the most prized and luxurious commodity that was carried from the East to the West.   Many societies had taken and used cocoons from the wild silk moth but the Chinese had domesticated the moth about 5000 years ago, and by feeding it constantly on the leaves of the white mulberry tree it became vastly bigger than its wild cousin.  Its correspondingly larger cocoon produced an average of a kilometre of fine but strong silk thread.  Their knowledge enabled the Chinese to produce more silk more speedily than any rivals; and it was their precious produce that gave the trading route its name. Silk technology spread rapidly through Eastern and central Asia and later into Europe, with the Muslims of Spain in the 9th Century.  Our speaker illustrated the wonderful variety of designs with examples of precious silk fragments that have survived for over a thousand years. One had been used to protect a holy relic in France, stressing the silk’s almost other-worldly quality. The Sassanian roundel appears again in the patterned silk from China showing how the art and culture of one society influenced another.  All the examples we saw showed how the Silk Road was far more than a trading route: more significantly it was a conduit for the exchange of ideas, beliefs, skills and culture.  We also saw clearly that though Silk from China gave the route its name, many commodities were traded, and it was a two way exchange - to and from the East and West.  In the words of Dr Whitfield “every object tells us something of the wonderful complexity of this Road.”

Kate Siebert

Dr Susan Whitfield is a writer, scholar, lecturer and traveler of the Silk Roads. During 25 years curating the collections of manuscripts from Dunhuang and other Silk Road sites at the British Library, she also helped found and then developed the International Dunhuang Project (IDP), now a thriving international collaboration working on the art and artefacts of the eastern Silk Road. She has lectured and written widely on the Silk Road. . She has also curated several major exhibitions and organized field trips to archaeological sites in the Taklamakan desert.