“Silk, Slaves, and Stupas: Material Culture of the Silk Road” by Susan Whitfield

Silk Road

History by way of “things” has itself become a “thing”. Archaeologists, of course, always did history this way. But they would focus on, usually, assemblages of objects, rather individual pieces. While perhaps not the first—nothing is ever the first—the BBC and the British Museum’s A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor popularized the concept.

Silk, Slaves, and Stupas: Material Culture of the Silk Road, Susan Whitfield (University of California Press, March 2018)
Silk, Slaves, and Stupas: Material Culture of the Silk Road, Susan Whitfield (University of California Press, March 2018)

Susan Whitfield has with Silk, Slaves, and Stupas: Material Culture of the Silk Road extended this way of presenting history and given it a more strictly academic approach. Perhaps as a result, there are only ten “objects” in the book, including a pair of earrings, a Hellenistic glass bowl, Bactrian ewer and a hoard of gold coins, all found far from their origins, as well as other pieces, such as stupa, which had not traveled but illustrate a history of contacts and influences.

The most interesting of these, at least to the layperson, are those with some humanity to them, those than one feels had passed from hand to hand and perhaps used along the way. The openwork jade earrings were buried with a woman in the second century BC; Xigoupan, where they found, “lies at the northeast edge of the Ordos, where the Yellow River starts to turn south”. The woman was probably a member of the Xiongnu elite, steppe people who are now commonly believed to be the same as the Huns who later sacked Rome. The earrings might be of Chinese or steppe manufacture or possibly both and illustrate the contacts between the two peoples and ways of life.

The next item is a Hellenistic glass bowl found in a tomb South China; its origin is uncertain but the best guess seems to be the Levant. It traveled a long way, an example of the extent of the trade routes now called the “maritime silk road”. Although the Chinese did make glass, Whitfield notes that it had an on-again, off-again history. The reasons are unclear; some speculate that high-fired pottery filled the same functional and esthetic need as glass. The bowl would have have been


one of many such items made as an everyday drinking cup and not as a luxury item. But far away in South China, it was rarer and almost certainly considered as both exotic and a luxury.


ewerThe Bactrian gilt-silver ewer is perhaps the most interesting piece. Made in Central Asia in what is now Afghanistan around AD 500, it features scenes derived from the Iliad, itself a cultural import from long ago and far away, as well as influences from India. And then it ended up in a tomb of Li Xian, a sixth-century general, in Ningxia, in Northern China. Exactly how the ewer came into his possession, and what he made of it, remains a mystery.


Whitfield certainly seems to have identified a theme worth pursuing: the objects of the Silk Road are fascinating and a single object can encompass within it huge swathes, geographical and chronological, of human history. These three, and the other pieces, are spell-binding.

But perhaps because the book is meant to be an academic text, Whitfield includes with each piece rather long sections on the various historical and technical contexts, such as the history of and technology behind glassmaking and parchment. For the lay reader, these may pull attention away from the individual objects themselves and some include information that one might have thought (or hoped) her readership might known: in the chapter on the ewer, for example, she explains that the Trojan War “is found recounted in several surviving sources, including two epic poems ascribed to the eighth-century BC poet Homer, namely the Iliad and the Odyssey.” The chapters conclude with a discussion of the objects’ more recent history, how for example they found their way to whatever museum they now lie in—or don’t, as the case may be—which also seems tangential to their Silk Road role.

Although one would think intuitively that objects could elucidate the Silk Road—there was a rather good exhibition in Hong Kong on this subject last year—ten seem rather few. A couple of them, furthermore, appear only tenuously connected to the book’s ostensible theme. The Blue Qu’ran seems to be of Tunisian manufacture and has spent most of its life there; however extraordinary the piece may be, the link to the Silk Road is less than obvious. And one chapter isn’t about an object at all, but rather “The Unknown Slave”, which seems a departure from the intention to focus on “material culture”.

Nevertheless, the objects all have intriguing stories to tell. One wishes they could speak; Whitfield does her best at having them do so.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.