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Silk, Slaves, and Stupas: Material Culture of the Silk Road / Edition 1

Silk, Slaves, and Stupas: Material Culture of the Silk Road / Edition 1

by Susan WhitfieldSusan Whitfield
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Following her bestselling Life Along the Silk Road, Susan Whitfield widens her exploration of the great cultural highway with a new captivating portrait focusing on material things. Silk, Slaves, and Stupas tells the stories of ten very different objects, considering their interaction with the peoples and cultures of the Silk Road—those who made them, carried them, received them, used them, sold them, worshipped them, and, in more recent times, bought them, conserved them, and curated them. From a delicate pair of earrings from a steppe tomb to a massive stupa deep in Central Asia, a hoard of Kushan coins stored in an Ethiopian monastery to a Hellenistic glass bowl from a southern Chinese tomb, and a fragment of Byzantine silk wrapping the bones of a French saint to a Bactrian ewer depicting episodes from the Trojan War, these objects show us something of the cultural diversity and interaction along these trading routes of Afro-Eurasia.
Exploring the labor, tools, materials, and rituals behind these various objects, Whitfield infuses her narrative with delightful details as the objects journey through time, space, and meaning. Silk, Slaves, and Stupas is a lively, visual, and tangible way to understand the Silk Road and the cultural, economic, and technical changes of the late antique and medieval worlds.   

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520281783
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/13/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 376
Sales rank: 1,149,269
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Susan Whitfield, author of Life Along the Silk Road, is a scholar, curator, writer, and traveler who has been exploring the history, art, religions, cultures, objects, exploration, and people of the Silk Road for the past three decades.

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A Pair of Steppe Earrings

THE EARRINGS SHOWN IN PLATE 1A were buried with a woman who died in the second century BC. She was a member of the elite in one of the cultures possibly belonging to the Xiongnu political alliance, which, at its greatest extent, controlled a large empire to the north of China. Made of worked gold with inlays of semiprecious stones and oval pieces of openwork carved jade, the earrings showcase the arts and aesthetics of the many cultures of the empires of both the Xiongnu and the Chinese. The relationship between the Xiongnu and the Chinese, long neighbors in East Asia, is central to understanding the early history of the eastern Silk Road but is often simply characterized as one of conflict. These earrings tell a more complex story — of diplomatic endeavors, trade, intermarriages, and technical and cultural dialogues. They come from a time when these cultures were renegotiating their interrelationships and territories. That process was one of the catalysts for the expansion of long-distance Eurasian trade, the Silk Road. The earrings also reflect the story of the encounter between the peoples — and other objects or "things" — along the ecological boundary of Inner and Outer Eurasia, stretching across the length of the Silk Road. But we must not forget

For places mentioned in this chapter see Map 2 in the color maps insert.

that the earrings were possibly also the valued possession of an individual. Seeing them through her eyes is not possible, but as historians of material culture we strive to understand something of the world in which she lived, a world that shaped her perceptions of and reactions to the objects around her.


Most of the largely nomadic pastoralists who lived in northern Eurasia had no need for a written culture. Their histories were therefore told by their largely settled neighbors to their south: outsiders to their society, who tended to interpret it by the norms of their own. There were no professional anthropologists in these early societies trying to understand other peoples from their own viewpoint. Moreover, the pastoralists often make an appearance in these histories at times that they are seen as a threat to the settled. Archaeology is thus very important for providing an alternative viewpoint to understand such cultures and their complexities. It has, for example, disproved the long-propounded idea that early pastoralists did not practice agriculture: the discovery of domesticated wheat and millet at the site of Begash in Kazakhstan, for example, has led Michael Frachetti to conclude that "pastoralists of the steppe had access to domesticated grains already by 2300 BC" and that "they were likely essential to the diffusion of wheat into China, as well as millet into SW Asia and Europe in the mid-third millennium BC." It has also uncovered cities: not all the occupants of the steppe lived in tents, nor did any spend their lives constantly on the move. In other words, this land was home to a great range of cultures and lifestyles, but ones that were necessarily shaped by their environment.

There is evidence that from the earliest times the cultures that occupied the lands of China had contacts with and were influenced by the steppe. This is seen in religion, as in the adoption of oracle bone divination, as well as in the introduction of domesticated wheat, the use of horse-drawn chariots as found in late Shang (Yin)-period (ca. 1600–ca. 1046 BC) burials, animal-head daggers with looped handles, and bronze mirrors. Jessica Rawson has noted the presence in early China of carnelian beads produced in Mesopotamia and has suggested they were transported by steppe peoples. As Gideon Shelach-Lavi concludes, "We should not underestimate the role of the steppe peoples in the transmission of cultural influences to the 'Chinese' societies," which "selectively endorsed those features that suited the elites as well as the 'Chinese' societies' sedentary way of life."

However, this situation was to change in the second half of the first millennium BC, when a dichotomy started to emerge in Chinese writings between what the histories characterized as a settled, civilized "Chinese" culture and that of their steppe neighbors. Largely on the basis of archaeological sources, Nicola Di Cosmo and others argue that, before the rise of the Xiongnu as a nomadic force of mounted warriors in the late first millennium BC, the Chinese had not encountered such a threat. Their northern neighbors up to then had largely been agriculturalists with written language who fought on foot. Others have countered this view, pointing out that the cultures of China must have encountered some semipastoralist and seminomadic peoples. But the confederation of tribes known as the Xiongnu possibly changed the perception of the elite in the various states that ruled central China at the time. Previously that elite seems to have held that all men under heaven were of a nature capable of being civilized, if subjected to civilizing forces. We see a change to a more dichotomous view, in which the Xiongnu became "the other," a people with a "heaven-endowed nature" essentially different from that of the Chinese.

Chinese histories show an escalation in this view of the "other," undoubtedly promoted by the need to demonize peoples who had become a major threat but also, as Paul Goldin points out, in response to the concept of "Chinese" formulated by the Qin Empire (221–206 BC) — the first rulers of a united China: "As there is no Self without an Other, calling oneself Chinese meant calling someone else non-Chinese; the new China had to invent an irreconcilable opponent, and the Xiongnu were in the right place at the right time." As Sergey Miniaev notes, the early histories use a variety of names for their northern neighbors, and the first mention of the Xiongnu in the Shiji, the first history of China, by Sima Qian, of an encounter in 318 BC is probably a later interpolation or was being used "as a collective designation, common in this time, for stock-breeding tribes, being devoid of a particular ethnocultural meaning." Tamara Chin notes that Sima Qian avoids "anthropological rhetoric" and does not embed the Chinese conquest "in a narrative of cultural or moral superiority." That rhetoric, she argues, came post-Qin with the expansion of China under the Han emperor Wu (r. 141–87 BC). By the time of the next history, Hanshu, composed in the first century AD, it was firmly embedded.

Other settled cultures also have to name or label the "other" to tell their story, and we inevitably learn more about the settled cultures from these histories than about the "other." The fifth-century BC historian Herodotus used the term Scythian; the Achaemenids in Iran termed their steppe neighbors the Saka. Early Chinese histories use several terms for the peoples the Chinese encountered to their north. This has given rise to numerous discussions about the origins and ethnicity of the peoples so labeled. In the case of the Xiongnu, these have especially concentrated on a possible identification with the peoples that historians and archaeologists have called the Huns. However, many scholars remain skeptical; as Goldin notes, "The semantic domain of the term 'Xiongnu' was political: there is no reason to assume that it ever denoted a specific ethnic group — and, indeed, plenty of reason not to. ... Excavations in areas that came to be dominated by the Xiongnu have uncovered a wealth of distinct cultures."

The Chinese histories tell of settled and pastoralist peoples and mounted warriors living both northeast of and within the area enclosed by the great northward curve of the Yellow River, known now as the Ordos. Many scholars have proposed that it was the encounter with these peoples in the late fourth century that led a ruler of the Zhao (403–222 BC) — a kingdom in what is now northern China that bordered their territory — to change his army from an infantry to a cavalry force. The horse up until then had been used to pull chariots or as a pack animal. Despite breeding programs, central China never succeeded in raising sufficient stock to equip its armies. The adoption of horseback riding also necessitated a change in clothing and weaponry. Over the next millennium the horse became an essential part of life in northern China, not just for the military, and was celebrated in art and literature (see chapter 6).

The Zhao was the last kingdom of what is now known as the Warring States period (ca. 475–221 BC) to succumb to the army of the Qin, who declared a united empire of China in 221 BC. Chinese histories tell how around 209 BC, following the Qin's successful expansion into the northern and western Ordos, the various pastoralist tribes on the borders of China were united under a leader called Modu; the histories refer to these tribes as the Xiongnu. Under Modu's alliance they expanded, bringing other tribes to the north — in what is now Mongolia — into their confederation. They moved westwards toward the Tarim, pushing out the peoples whom the Chinese called the Yuezhi and asserting their rule in some of the oasis kingdoms of the Tarim. To the south they had easy victories over the forces of the newly founded Chinese Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220), expelling them from territories the Qin had previously taken. The Han responded with an envoy sent to broker a peace treaty. Like many such treaties from this time onwards between the Chinese and their neighbors, this included a marriage alliance (heqin) between a Chinese princess and the foreign ruler. Both sides accepted the equal status of their respective empires and a border in part demarcated by the walls built by the Han and their predecessors; further, the Chinese agreed to provide the alliance with regular gifts of goods, including silk and grain. The Chinese historians record the words of the Xiongnu ruler: "According to former treaties Han emperors always sent a princess, provided agreed quantities of silks, coarse silk wadding and foodstuffs, thus establishing harmony and a close relationship [i.e., heqin]. For our part, we refrained from making trouble on the border." Hyun Jin Kim characterizes this as Han China becoming a tributary state of the Xiongnu alliance.

The balance turned again with the Han emperor Wu, who embarked on a successful expansion policy northeastward into what is now Korea, westward into the Tarim basin, and southward to defeat the Nan Yue kingdom (see chapter 2). His plan to defeat the Xiongnu alliance was to find allies among the Yuezhi — themselves previously displaced from the Tarim according to the Chinese histories. The strategy was that the Yuezhi would attack from the west, while Chinese forces would attack from the southeast. However, the envoy sent to negotiate this, Zhang Qian, was singularly unsuccessful (although, having been captured by a member of the Xiongnu alliance on his way out and having been resident there with a local wife, he must have gained very useful intelligence). The Han went ahead anyway, and although they were successful the battles were costly and ultimately of limited value, as it was not possible to hold onto the steppe land. This was accepted by both sides in 54/3 BC in another peace treaty between one ruler of the now-divided Xiongnu and the Chinese, precipitated by the breakdown in the Xiongnu alliance. The positions of power were now reversed, with the southern Xiongnu ruler accepting the lower status. Yuri Pines argues that this encounter, because of the pastoralists' strength and refusal to accept the settled way of life in China, "became the single most significant event in the political, cultural and ethnic history of the Chinese."

Across Eurasia and during the Silk Road period, this encounter was by no means unique to the Xiongnu and the Chinese. Nor was there a single model of interaction. The nature of the relationships was complex, although often simplified by the historians of the settled into one of dichotomy and conflict. The Romans themselves struggled with incursions along their borders and, like the Chinese, built a network of defensive walls and forts. In Greek histories the northern equestrian nomads were the archetype of the "other." Labeled as Scythians, their image as other continued to be perpetuated from Herodotus into Byzantine histories. Further east, the Persian Achaemenids (550–330 BC) were to be defeated by a group of pastoralists moving from their northeast who established the Parthian Empire (247BC–AD 224). The Parthians successfully adopted a new settled lifestyle while retaining their military prowess, threatening even the borders of Rome.

So are these earrings Xiongnu or Chinese, or does it even make sense to try to label them in this way? To answer this, we need to explore some of the complexity hidden by the labels Xiongnu and Chinese and the aspects of their relationship that are revealed by the tombs — at Xigoupan — in which the earrings were found.


Xigoupan lies at the northeastern edge of the Ordos, where the Yellow River starts to turn south. It is roughly at the same latitude as Beijing to its east. The tombs were excavated in 1979. Unfortunately, the archaeological reports are not detailed, and drawings of most of the graves and details of the inventory are missing. The tombs are dispersed, suggesting they might belong to different burial grounds and have widely varying dates. The earliest tombs excavated here date to around 300 BC or possibly earlier, but later tombs and a settlement have also been discovered that date from the second century BC, the period of the Xiongnu confederation. The archaeologists date to the second century nine of the tombs, four of which have not been robbed. Among these, tomb M4 stands out because of the richness of its grave goods. The earrings are associated with this tomb.

M4 lies in the south of the site less than a kilometer away from a site possibly identified as a settlement. Tomb drawings are missing, but it is described as a pit burial with a single supine female corpse with her head to the northeast. Gold objects were the most plentiful among the grave goods, but goods also included ornaments made of silver, bronze, jade, stone, and glass, among them necklaces of amber, agate, crystal, and lapis; dancers, tigers, and dragons fashioned from stone; bronze three-winged arrowheads; and bronze horses. The earrings themselves form part of a more elaborate head decoration placed on the head of the corpse (figure 1).

The earrings were made from two ovoid openwork carved jade plaques. The plaques are not mirror images of each other, but both show sinuous creatures, one with its head in profile and the other face on (figure 2). They are enclosed within a thin gold border decorated with granulation. A loop on the top attaches them to gold plaques, also with granulation around their borders and with inlaid stone moose. Sets of inlaid gold squares joined with fine chains hang to either side. Most of the inlays are lost, but those that have been found include mother-of-pearl, quartz, agate, amber, and glass.

The gold for the inlaid stones and the moose has been hammered into shape and decorated with beads of gold. Hammering is the simplest method of working gold and is found in both steppe and settled populations well before this time. Granulation — whereby beads of gold are joined onto a surface for decoration — is a more developed technique but is also found along the steppe and in the bordering settled cultures, such as those of the Greeks and the Chinese, well before this period. Zhixin Sun has suggested a possible route into China through maritime links with South Asia, based on gold decorative items with granulation found in the tomb of King Zhao Mo (r. 137–122 BC) of Nan Yue, a kingdom on the coast of what is now southern China and northern Vietnam. There is evidence of Nan Yue's maritime links with South Asia — and further west (see chapter 2). However, granulation was used in ancient cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia and is also found on the steppe before this period, so there are many possible routes of diffusion.

M2, like M4, contained gold and silver objects, including a belt plaque (see figure 3) and remains of a horse, a sheep, and a dog skull. The other second-century tombs at the site are not so richly endowed. Their grave goods consist of weapons, tools, and horse tack and decorations, along with animal bones. The presence of surface finds and agricultural implements might suggest a settlement and thus indicate a seminomadic society that also practiced agriculture. The richness of the grave goods in M2 and M4 indicates elite graves, while the lack of such riches in other graves suggests sharp social differentiation. As Di Cosmo notes, "The complexity of this later nomadic society is nowhere more visible than at [this] site." The form, materials, and motifs on these earrings and other tomb objects are part of this complexity.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments x

Note on Transliteration and Names xi

Introduction 1

1 A Pair of Steppe Earrings 9

2 A Hellenistic Glass Bowl 34

3 A Hoard of Kushan Coins 57

4 Amluk Data Stupa 81

5 A Bactrian Ewer 111

6 A Khotanese Plaque 137

7 The Blue Qur'an 164

8 A Byzantine Hunter Silk 190

9 A Chinese Almanac 219

10 The Unknown Slave 250

Bibliography 273

Index 313

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