Secrets of the Silk Road: Trade

Silk Road Object38
A rectangular piece of tapestry
identified as coming from Sampul, in
the Xingjian Uyghur Autonomous
Region of China.

When an archaeologist is asked what he or she does, a short answer might be: “we try to reconstruct past behavior using evidence coming from the material record.” In plain English, we look at a culture in the past and ask basic questions such as “How did they live? What did they eat?” Sometimes, we can go beyond asking these basic questions and investigate how people interacted. As we shall see below, there are many forms of human interaction, some violent, and some of a more commercial nature. In the following paragraphs, I will review evidence of both categories.

First this general observation: when we compare the answers against our own behavior, we end up realizing that throughout history we humans have faced similar problems, and we have come up with a multitude of answers to these challenges.

I will start with a simple observation: all humans require food, shelter, and clothing. Material evidence related to these needs goes back tens of thousands of years, sometimes even more. For example, we have evidence for hunting behavior going back half a million years. A fortuitous discovery of well-preserved wooden spears in Germany, and the identification of a spear wound in a fossilized horse shoulder blade in the UK point to humans pursuing these animals. We have evidence of shelter and clothing of great antiquity as well.

Archaeologists like to start with the observable facts and come up with an initial statement “people were hunting so many years ago in this place.” Then the bigger picture – often referred to as “context” kicks in. Context allows us to amplify our statement about people hunting, by saying something about the kinds of spears that were used, or how the spears may have been made (with a fire hardened point, or fitted with a stone tip). Every answer we come up with inevitably leads to more questions. Sometimes we are lucky and can answer those additional questions, and sometimes we are not.

Our current Secrets of the Silk Road exhibit has a good example of the latter. It involves a tapestry found in Sampul, and the inclusion of a part of it in someone’s trousers.

Can’t see the video?
Click here: Secrets of the Silk Road: Trade.

In the first section of the Silk Road exhibit visitors will see a rectangular piece of tapestry, with decorative elements displayed in two different registers. The tapestry is identified as coming from Sampul, in the Xingjian Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.

The bottom section of the tapestry displays a face of a man, looking to his left, wearing a headband of some sort. Resting on his proper right shoulder is a spear. The very tip of the spear point protrudes into the upper register. This upper portion is decorated with floral designs and a centaur playing what looks like a flute.

The two registers were recovered separately and sewn into the pants of a male individual who had been buried in a mass grave.  They were removed from the surrounding pants fabric (which must have looked very bland in comparison with these fragments) and stitched back together. This is the condition in which they are on display.  This tapestry fragment raises several questions.

Who was the individual that sowed these tapestry fragments into his pants?

We can only guess where the tapestry came from: the abode of a well-off individual. Where might this house have been located? The imagery of a centaur and the male face seem to point to a locale west of the Pamir Mountains, rather than further east.

Who was the original owner of this tapestry and where did he live?

The tapestry itself, dating to the period between the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century AD symbolizes wealth; very likely generated through trade related to the Silk Road. Settlements attract those who want part of that wealth that accumulates in shops and houses. Very likely we are looking at a decorative element that was taken from the house of a trader who made his fortune by tapping into the Silk Road trade. As to where the community was located, we can only make the most general observations and suggestions. The art forms and the physical appearance of the individual in the tapestry point to a location west of the Pamir mountain range. More we cannot say.

Who stole the tapestry? What happened to him?

Given that the individual’s body was retrieved from a mass grave, he may have died a violent death, or else have been the victim of disease. There are straightforward physical anthropology techniques that would allow us to answer these questions. However, at the time of writing, none of these tests have been applied; we do not know how he died.

The field of archaeology is full of these mysterious discoveries, where items are found in places where we would not expect them. No doubt, that is one of the reasons why people love archaeology so much.

Coins are another clear indicator of trade along the Silk Road. Several of these are on display in the exhibit. In contrast to our society, where each country has its own currency and where one needs to buy foreign currency when traveling abroad, the ancient travelers up and down the Silk Road did not have such worries. One coin tells an interesting story.

Silk Road Object21-1
This coin dates to the late 7th – early 8th
century AD. The obverse shows the bust of
a Sasanian ruler, either Kushro II or
Yazdgerd III, while the reverse side has an
image of a Zoroastrian fire altar.

This coin dates to the late 7th – early 8th century AD. The obverse shows the bust of a Sasanian ruler, either Kushro II or Yazdgerd III, while the reverse side has an image of a Zoroastrian fire altar. Around the edge of the coin one can also see an Arabic inscription, “Bismillah,” or “In the name of Allah.” The latter is a clue that the coin was struck in the years following the demise of the Sasanian Empire, when it was replaced by an Arabian empire. It appears that the new rulers kept minting the same coins, adding the Arabic writing as a finishing and identifying touch. The coin on display was found in Ulugchat (Wuqia) county in Xinjiang. The Sasanian Empire and the Arabian Empire that replaced it were located well to the west and southwest of the Tarim Basin.

Sasanian empire
Location of the Sasanian empire

Finally, the clothing and grave goods associated with the Yingpan man are another good indication of the extensive trade contacts that existed between east and west. It is said that among the grave goods encountered in the tomb, there was one piece of Late Roman Glass, likely of Syrian manufacture. Although no image of this item seems to exist, one can form a good idea of what Late Roman glass looked like by accessing the Corning Museum’s website on the subject matter.

With these three examples, fragments of a tapestry sewn into someone’s pants, coins that continued being minted long after the empire they belonged to was gone, and the presence of fragile glass in a tomb we have prime examples of how past human behavior can be quite confusing to us.

In the end, however, I would suggest that there is one common denominator to all of these examples: trade. The tapestry was a luxury in someone’s house; a luxury afforded perhaps through success in trade. Coins were the preferred medium to acquire goods with and the Roman glass was on its way east.

I cannot wait to read about the next discovery from the Tarim Basin.