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A Silk Road Before the \"Silk Road\"
#1
It's always amused me that historians continuously define the "Silk Road" as beginning in the Han Dynasty. I have always felt it's much older, and that it first extended across the steppe by what is known as the "northern route." Recently, the Houston Museum of Natural Science acquired an interesting sword found in Ukraine. Here are the photos:


[attachment=12080]ZhouswordfoundinUkraine.jpg[/attachment]

[attachment=12081]UkraineZhousword.jpg[/attachment]

This style of bronze sword was common among the elite of late Zhou China. It was short, only about 55 to 70 cm, and popular into the early Warring States period and no longer (or shorter) than the contemporaneous Scythian version. In other words, it can be dated from 600 to 300 BC. How did the sword get from China to Ukraine? I would guess it arrived along the Silk Road. :whistle:


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Alan J. Campbell

member of Legio III Cyrenaica and the Uncouth Barbarians

Author of:
The Demon's Door Bolt (2011)
Forging the Blade (2012)

"It's good to be king. Even when you're dead!"
             Old Yuezhi/Pazyrk proverb
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#2
As always, it is a matter of definition. When is a route frequented enough by traders to become called a trading route? In pharaonic-era graves Afghan lapis lazuli was found, meaning that the silk road must have been active long before its 'official' beginning.
Stefan (Literary references to the discussed topics are always appreciated.)
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#3
It was likely coined the "silk road" due to the high demand for silk that arose in the hellenistic states and of course Rome during the classical era.
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#4
You're right on, Evan. But within the timeframe mentioned in the introductory post, we find plenty of silk in Altai graves, as well as Persian goods. An ancient trade route-- by whatever name it would acquire later-- was in place half a millennium before Emperor Wu Di made official contact with the Parthians, the intermediaries with the Greeks and Romans... and also the Germans, because silks have been found in the European hinterlands.

Also, although we have no definitive proof (other than the vagueness of Pliny), I think iron ingots may have been imported from either China or Pakistan, or both. Pliny says, "from the East by camel." Anyway, a Zhou bronze sword showing up in Ukraine supports an early date for the trade route. ;-)
Alan J. Campbell

member of Legio III Cyrenaica and the Uncouth Barbarians

Author of:
The Demon's Door Bolt (2011)
Forging the Blade (2012)

"It's good to be king. Even when you're dead!"
             Old Yuezhi/Pazyrk proverb
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#5
I'm sure the trade route existed prior to the Han, but I'm fairly sure that historians tend to begin calling this trade route "the Silk Road" after Han China had consolidated control of large portions of the route with their protectorates and commanderies and so on.

I don't think historians are denying overland trade links, they're just saying that it was risky and less common until the "Silk Road" was established.
Nate Hanawalt

"Bonum commune communitatis"
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#6
That does seem about the size of it. Before and after the Han presence-protectorate along the route, shipping merchandise was a risky business, as we see in the case of Marco Polo. But the route WAS there prior to historical mention of it, risky or not, and the greater portion of it was controlled by powerful steppe tribes... going all the back to the Bronze Age when they over-saw the tin mines and sold that product to a wanting-needing customer base.
The steppe story has always been too simplified. Historians and archaeologists, especially early ones, tended to overlook the "trade picture." To them, steppe societies were bandits and opportunists, always referred to as "cattle breeding cultures." More important than cattle was horse breeding, never mentioned as an Indo-Scythic trade enterprise; or the fact that precious stones traveled a southern route from India, up through the BMC, then disseminated throughout the ancient world... including "out of the way places" like Rome. Wink
Alan J. Campbell

member of Legio III Cyrenaica and the Uncouth Barbarians

Author of:
The Demon's Door Bolt (2011)
Forging the Blade (2012)

"It's good to be king. Even when you're dead!"
             Old Yuezhi/Pazyrk proverb
Reply
#7
I think that there was always some form of limited trade with Central Asia before the Han and there must have been contact with the west during the time of the Shang dynasty as they adopted chariots from the west. There was trade, mainly for jade with the Yueh-zhi as middlemen as written by 7th century BCE philosopher and economist of the Qi Dynasty Guan Zhong, who argued that
Quote:Jade supplied by the Yueh-zhi should be the most highly valued currency of the state. Our ancestor kings attributed the highest value to jade, as it came from a long distance. Gold is the second, and copper currency is the third.

The cultivation of silk worms had been around since 3rd millennium BCE in China and silk textiles were important for steppe peoples as they were used to line fur coats and silk floss was also used to pad quilted cloths as quilted cloth was not only warm but extremely light, and used to be made into jackets, trousers and bedding. It was also used to give steppe elites status so that they looked much more elegant than their followers.

However I still think the main driver of trade, at least to the Chinese early on, was their need for quality military mounts from the “Warring states period” onwards when the Northern states faced constant invasion from the northern nomad tribes. They adapted their armies & copied nomad weaponry, tactics and dress such as trousers for their cavalry but the Chinese did not have the grasslands to breed and maintain massive horse herds so they traded for them.The Qin emperor firstly underwent a massive building programme on uniting the kingdoms, joining all the different walls that were built by the various warring kingdoms to form the Great Wall with gatehouses and markets for trade as well as cutting off invasion routes. But he also needed horses to counter the constant threat faced from the marauding Hsiung-nu. One Yueh-zhi chief whose name was Luo made a fortune selling good big horses to the Qin in exchange for silks and goods which as middleman he sold back to various tribes and oasis centres at ten times the price he paid for the horses so he did alright for himself, according to Sima Qian. I think that when the Hsiung-nu defeated the Yueh-zhi and drove them westwards that it was the need for big mounts which would be able to out-run and out-distance the smaller Hsiung-nu mounts which forced the Han to seek trade contacts from western tribes and states like the Wusun and Ferghana. Silk became the currency of trade and that is why I think it came to be known as the Silk Road and the middlemen thrived until the arrival of Genghiz Khan. It was a two way street and China imported wool, furs, carpets and various fruits and wines as well as minerals.

Later on under the Tang dynasty sea routes gained in importance but the land routes still dominated in Han times. Most of China’s sea trade was conducted through either the South China Sea or the Indian Ocean and trade by sea was governed by the seasonal monsoons. The various land routes would not be for the faint-hearted and caravans, once leaving Chang’an would have skirted the Gobi Desert, none of them would have been easy or even passable except for the exceptional Bactrian camel, which could sniff out subterranean springs and predict deadly sandstorms in the desert areas before caravans reached the various oasis cities. There was also a southern route cutting through Burma leading to India as well as another hazardous route through Tibet, Nepal and India. There must have been an alternative northern route that flanked the Persian empire that threaded its way to the Pontic cities which seemed to be under the influence of Rome until the Goths and Huns, as Rome always seemed to be at war with Parthia, Persia and in the later Byzantines case the Arabs. Even though they were enemies I am sure the Romans managed to acquire silk from the Middle East although they would have had to pay through the nose in bullion. Silk Road trade declined severely with the advent of the Mongols in thirteenth century. Smile Information about the abilities of the Bactrian camels and the Indian Ocean trade conditions from the book "The Golden Peaches of Samarkand, a Study of Tang Exotics" by Edward H. Schafer. If you are interested in products that the Chinese were interested in around 700 to 800 AD then it is a good read.
Regards
Michael Kerr
Michael Kerr
"You can conquer an empire from the back of a horse but you can't rule it from one"
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#8
Hi, just wanted to add that it should be noted that the terms “Silk Roads” or “Silk Routes” were coined in 1877 by German traveller, geographer and scientist Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, uncle of World War 1 flying ace the “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen. Before that who knows what these routes were called but it carried many more textiles and goods than silk. Roman glass, spices, gems, metals, weapons, horses, jade, wool, hemp, jute, cotton,linen and other textiles. Eastern Roman cities like Tyre and Sidon as well as Palmyra used Chinese silk to make heavier types of brocades and tapestries. More northerly routes probably had a prosperous trade in furs and skins as well. Even the wealthier locals of Xinjiang used silks with propitious motifs and auspicious creatures among clouds but whether for everyday use and good fortune in life or for burials and death I am not sure. This Caucasian male was found in Tomb 8 at Niya and is probably dated from about the time of the Eastern Han but not precisely dated. Pic copyrighted to Zhao Feng.

   

 One of the reasons Chinese silk was superior, although not the only reason, to the wild silks found around the Mediterranean as well as India was the fact that the Chinese sericulturists killed the silk moth before it could hatch through the cocoon where it breaks the silk threads that it has spun around itself. Therefore the thread can be unravelled as a single fine thread that can, it has been said reach up to 2km and does not require spinning like the broken threads of wild silk moths as the wild moths are not prevented from hatching where they break the threads surrounding them. They then require spinning which makes them coarser. Smile
Regards
Michael Kerr
Michael Kerr
"You can conquer an empire from the back of a horse but you can't rule it from one"
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#9
Thanks, Michael, for clarifying the term "Silk Road" and the Chinese process of sericulture. Big Grin

Archaeologists are discovering that long-distance trade routes existed in the third millennium B.C. Notable examples include the Hongshan Culture of Inner Mongolia, the first people to extensively use nephrite jade. Nephrite sources were (and are) located in the western Tarim Basin and above the Sayan Mountans in Siberia, a long distance from the Hongshan.


   
If we go westward, we find nephrite, carnelian, lapis lazuli, and turquoise (a by-product of copper mining) in graves around the Ural area. The above illustration (courtesy of David W. Anthony) shows examples of nephrite and lapis in a Rostovka cemetery in the early Sima-Turbino period. (Click on the photo to view details of Rostovka Grave 2) These "hard" artifacts, mostly in the form of Bactrian beads, show up at Tevsh Uul, Mongolia in 1,300 BC.

What we are viewing is a "worldwide" trade network. Many trade items don't show in the archaeological record, such as clothing, northern furs, and silk. You are probably aware of the late Elena Kuzmina's little book, The Prehistory of the Silk Road (Penn, 2008). It's a good read, well illustrated, and quite academic.


   
Perhaps the most interesting trade item is the cowrie shell, the original form of "cash." Pictured here is an ancient example for sale on the world's largest marketing site. The seller is asking $12 for it. Cowries are perhaps the world's oldest trade item, and were copied in bone, bronze, and gold-plated bronze. They show up in Hongshan graves, as far away as the Urals, proliferate in Shang tombs, and often in Pazyryk graves. The geographical origin of cowries is the Indian Ocean, which means the trade route was world wide, either by land or sea or both.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about this trade network are the individuals who conducted it. They were the steppe tribes, the so-called "barbarians." In hindsight, it appears they were less barbarian than they were savy traders... "connectors" of ancient civilizations.
Wink
Alan J. Campbell

member of Legio III Cyrenaica and the Uncouth Barbarians

Author of:
The Demon's Door Bolt (2011)
Forging the Blade (2012)

"It's good to be king. Even when you're dead!"
             Old Yuezhi/Pazyrk proverb
Reply


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