Cost: Free

The archaeology of the Silk Roads in Central Asia: beyond an Orientalist narrative

'The archaeology of the Silk Roads in Central Asia: beyond an Orientalist narrative'

Lecture by Professor Tim Williams FSA

The term Silk Road has become an evocative sobriquet for the complex network of interactions that extended between East Asia and Western Europe. But as a term, it underplays the variety of goods and the complexities of the processes of exchange. In a UNESCO Silk Roads World Heritage paper in 2008 the overland Silk Roads were described as “routes of integration, exchange and dialogue between East and West that have contributed greatly to the common prosperity and development of humankind for almost two millennia”. I would suggest that this statement reflects widely held popular views of the Silk Roads. However, the ‘East and West’ diachronic paradigm is only part of the complex impacts of exchange, travel and interactions along the Silk Roads, in which Central and South Asia played a dynamic part. The East-West meta-narrative also evokes an Orientalist romantic perspective of long-distance exploration, between the known West and the unknown (or little known and romanticised) East – the other. This talk explores the missing middle – Central Asia – exploring the pivotal role that it played in complex processes over the longue durée of the Silk Roads.

Similarly, ‘common prosperity’ subtly emphasises the economic impacts of the exchange and trade systems, playing to the common image of the Silk Roads as a proto-capitalist international trade network. But the impacts were seldom ‘common’, controlled as they were by political and social elites. Diplomatic and elite exchange were often drivers in exchange systems, which fluctuated with power and privilege, as empires waxed and waned. The Silk Roads did not bring steady ‘progress’ for humanity, but struggles over the control and exploitation of resources, which often led to isolation or violent conflict. These narratives have been accentuated by the perceived isolation of much of Central Asian archaeology within traditions of Soviet scholarship. 

UCL Institute of Archaeology (IoA) has started a major five-year project, the Central Asian Archaeological Landscape project (CAAL), made possible by the generosity of Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin. The CAAL project is a partnership between the IoA, the International Institute for Central Asian Studies (Samarkand), and Northwest University (Xi'an), along with numerous institutions from the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, the Republic of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, the Republic of Uzbekistan, and the People's Republic of China (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region). The project is dedicated to the digitisation of archaeological heritage across the vast Central Asian region – stretching from the Caspian Sea to north-western China. From megacities to religious sites, from nomadic camps to burial mounds, from mountain forts to complex water management systems, there is an astounding range of archaeological heritage across Central Asia. The aim of the project is to enable a better understanding of the archaeological heritage and landscape, fostering its research and protection from numerous challenges, including urban expansion, changing agricultural practices, rural depopulation, and the effects of climate change.